Before you can understand how digital audio works, you need to know a few things about the physics of sound. This animation shows a sound wave emanating through the air from a circular source — imagine that it’s a drum or cymbal.
As you can see, sound is a wave, like a ripple in a pond. Imagine that your ear is at the bottom center of this image. The air pressure against your inner ear is rhythmically increasing and decreasing. Your brain senses how wide those swings in air pressure are and how often they’re happening, and you experience the result as a sound.
I’m working on a long paper right now with my colleague at Montclair State University, Adam Bell. The premise is this: In the past, metaphors came from hardware, which software emulated. In the future, metaphors will come from software, which hardware will emulate.
The first generation of digital audio workstations have taken their metaphors from multitrack tape, the mixing desk, keyboards, analog synths, printed scores, and so on. Even the purely digital audio waveforms and MIDI clips behave like segments of tape. Sometimes the metaphors are graphically abstracted, as they are in Pro Tools. Sometimes the graphics are more literal, as in Logic. Propellerhead Reason is the most skeuomorphic software of them all. This image from the Propellerhead web site makes the intent of the designers crystal clear; the original analog synths dominate the image.
In Ableton Live, by contrast, hardware follows software. The metaphor behind Ableton’s Session View is a spreadsheet. Many of the instruments and effects have no hardware predecessor.
I participate in Marc Weidenbaum’s Disquiet Junto whenever I have the time and the brain space. Once a week, he sends out an assignment, and you have a few days to produce a new piece of music to fit. Marc asks that you discuss your process in the track descriptions on SoundCloud, and I’m always happy to oblige. But my descriptions are usually terse. This week I thought I’d dive deep and document the whole process from soup to nuts, with screencaps and everything.
Here’s this week’s assignment, which is simpler than usual:
Please answer the following question by making an original recording: “What is the room tone of the Internet?” The length of your recording should be two minutes.
This post was originally written for the Play With Your Music blog. Also be sure to check out our interview with engineer Kevin Killen and drummer Jerry Marotta.
Peter Gabriel’s songwriting and recording process in the early 1980s was unusual for its technological sophistication, playfulness and reliance on improvisation. While Peter was considered avant-garde back then, now that music technology is a lot cheaper and more accessible, his practices have become the baseline standard for pop, dance and hip-hop.
The South Bank Show’s long 1983 documentary on the making of Peter Gabriel’s fourth solo album Security follows the production of the album from its earliest conception to its release and critical reception. It’s an invaluable record both of Peter’s creative process and the technology behind it.
Discussing “Silver Apples Of The Moon” puts me in a quandary. I like Morton Subotnick personally, and very much enjoyed studying with him. I appreciate his desire to liberate the world from the shackles of keyboard-centric thinking. There’s no question that his music is personal, original and forward-thinking. But I find myself unable to emotionally connect.
Allmusic’s artist profiles include user-submitted “moods.” The Allmusic artist moods for Subotnick are: Cerebral, Clinical, Detached, Reserved, and Hypnotic. I couldn’t have described “Silver Apples” any better. Subotnick certainly isn’t reserved in person; his willingness to sing and dance spontaneously in class is his most charming quality. But like most of his high modernist cohort, Subotnick’s music is austere.
Apple has long made a practice of giving away cool software with their computers. One of the coolest such freebies is Garageband. It’s a stripped down version of Logic aimed at beginners, and it’s a surprisingly robust tool. The software instruments and loops sound terrific, the interface is approachable, and it’s generally a great scratchpad. However, Garageband isn’t a good way to learn about music. It gives you a lot of nice sounds, but offers no indication whatsoever as to what you’re supposed to do with them. To get a decent-sounding track, you need to come pre-equipped with a fair bit of musical knowledge.
A young guitar student of mine is a good example. After only his third lesson, he jumped on Garageband and tried writing a song, mostly by throwing loops together. I admire his initiative, but the result was jagged and disjointed, lacking any kind of structural logic. It’s natural that a first effort would be a mess, but I felt a missed opportunity. At no point did the program ever suggest that the kid’s loops would sound best in groups of two, four, eight or sixteen. It didn’t suggest he organize his track into sections with symmetrical lengths. And it didn’t suggest any connection between one chord and another. Seeing enough other beginners struggle with Garageband makes me think that it isn’t really for novices after all. It seems to be pitched more toward dads in cover bands, who have some half-remembered knowledge of chord progressions and song forms and who just need a minimum of prodding to start putting together tracks on the computer.
The iPad version of Garageband is a much better experiential learning tool. Its new touch-specific interfaces encourage the playful exploration at the heart of music-making. The program isn’t trying to be particularly pedagogical, but its presets and defaults nevertheless implicitly give valuable guidance to the budding producer or songwrter. And while it’s quite a bit more limited than the desktop version, those limitations are strengths for beginner purposes.
For my grad school thesis, I’m designing an intro-level music education app. I’m operating within the techno/hip-hop paradigm, with an Afrocentric rhythm-oriented approach. Electronic dance music production software had brought me much joy over the years, joy that I’m eager to spread to more people. I firmly believe that everyone is a potential musician, and that the right interface can draw beginners in and motivate them. So as I ponder this project, I’m naturally giving a lot of thought to electronic music interfaces, both software and hardware. And because all interfaces on a screen necessarily involve some music visualization, I’ve been exploring that too. For example, here’s a particularly attractive music interface/visualization, the pitch correction program Melodyne:
Earlier this summer I took Advanced Computer Music Composition, which included a lot of history of the twentieth century avant-gardists. While these people have had a lot of not-so-wonderful ideas about music, they have done a lot of interesting experiments with novel interfaces.
I’ve toyed around with several iPhone and iPad music apps. Many are intriguing and fun, but few have inspired me into making “real” music. In preparation for the next Disquiet Junto project, I downloaded Nodebeat and tried some improvisation. I like the result:
[iframe_loader width="100%" height="166" scrolling="no" frameborder="no" src="http://w.soundcloud.com/player/?url=http%3A%2F%2Fapi.soundcloud.com%2Ftracks%2F46825761&show_artwork=true"]
The app combines randomness and control in an intriguing way. I also like the fine microtonal control it gives you. You can also use it as a MIDI controller for other software, though I haven’t given that a try yet. If you want to try it for yourself and you don’t have an iOS or Android device, you can snag the desktop version, for free no less.
Update: one of the photos below currently appears on Mort’s Wikipedia page. Pretty cool.
The seminar I’ve been taking with Morton Subotnick is sadly drawing to a close. As part of the end of the semester, we were invited to Professor Subotnick’s home studio, a few blocks from NYU, to get a demonstration of the setup he uses in performances.
Guberman, Daniel. Post-Fidelity: A New Age of Music Consumption and Technological Innovation. Journal of Popular Music Studies, Volume 23, Issue 4, pp 431–454
Guberman divides the history of recorded music into two distinct sections: the fidelity era, stretching from Thomas Edison through the invention of the compact disk, and the post-fidelity era, beginning with the iPod. He argues that, since about 2001, the listening public has come to value convenience, variety, personalization and curation over sound quality.
An emblematic image of the late fidelity era: the Maxell advertisement showing a wealthy young man in his home, sitting deep in an easy chair with a martini, getting physically blown away by giant, powerful speakers.
The emblematic image of the post-fidelity era: silhoutted people of both genders and diverse backgrounds, dancing with iPods.