The vocoder and Auto-Tune

This post documents a presentation I’m giving in my History of Science and Technology class with Myles Jackson. See also a more formal history of the vocoder.

The vocoder is one of those mysterious technologies that’s far more widely used than understood. Here I explain what it is, how it works, and why you should care. A casual music listener knows the vocoder best as a way to make that robot voice effect that Daft Punk uses all the time.

Here’s Huston Singletary demonstrating the vocoder in Ableton Live.

This is a nifty effect, but why should you care? For one thing, you use this technology every time you talk on your cell phone. For another, this effect gave rise to Auto-Tune, which, love it or hate it, is the defining sound of contemporary popular music. Let’s dive in!

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My music technology syllabus

I use variations on this project list for all of my courses. In Advanced Digital Audio Production at Montclair State University, students do all of these assignments. Students in Music Technology 101 do all of them except the ones marked Advanced. My syllabus for the NYU Music Education Technology Practicum has an additional recording studio project in place of the final project. Here’s the project list in Google Spreadsheet format.

Music Ed Tech Practicum image

I talk very little about microphone technology or technique in my classes. This is because I find this information to only be useful in the context of actual recording studio work, and my classes do not have regular access to a studio. I do spend one class period on home recording with the SM58 and SM57, and talk a bit about mic technique for singers. I encourage students who want to go deeper into audio recording to take a class specifically on that subject, or to read something like the Moylan book.

My project-based approach is informed strongly by Matt Mclean and Alex Ruthmann. Read more about their methods here.

I do not require any text. However, for education majors, I strongly recommend Teaching Music Through Composition by Barbara Freedman and Music Technology and Education: Amplifying Musicality by Andrew Brown.

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The aQWERTYon pitch wheels and the future of music theory visualization

The MusEDLab will soon be launching a revamped version of the aQWERTYon with some enhancements to its visual design, including a new scale picker. Beyond our desire to make our stuff look cooler, the scale picker represents a challenge that we’ve struggled with since the earliest days of aQW development. On the one hand, we want to offer users a wide variety of intriguing and exotic scales to play with. On the other hand, our audience of beginner and intermediate musicians is likely to be horrified by a list of terms like “Lydian dominant mode.” I recently had the idea to represent all the scales as colorful icons, like so:

Read more about the rationale and process behind this change here. In this post, I’ll explain what the icons mean, and how they can someday become the basis for a set of new interactive music theory visualizations.

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Noteflight as a DAW

The good people at Noteflight have started doing weekly challenges. I love constraint-based music prompts, like the ones in the Disquiet Junto, so I thought I would try this one: compose a piece of music using only four notes.

Noteflight weekly challenge

The music side of this wasn’t hard. My material tends not to use that many pitches anyway. If you really want to challenge me, tell me I can’t use any rhythmic subdivisions finer than a quarter note. Before you listen to my piece, though, let’s talk about this word, “compose.” When you write using notation, the presumption is that you’re creating a set of instructions for a human performer. However, actually getting your composition performed is a challenge, unless you have a band or ensemble at your disposal. I work in two music schools, and I would have a hard time making it happen. (When I have had my music performed, the musicians either used a prose score, learned by ear from a recording, or just improvised.) Noteflight’s target audience of kids in school are vanishingly unlikely to ever hear their work performed, or at least, performed well. Matt Mclean formed the Young Composers and Improvisers Workshop to address this problem, and he’s doing amazing work, but most Noteflight compositions will only ever exist within the computer.

Given this fact, I wanted to create a piece of music that would actually sound good when played back within Noteflight. This constraint turned out to be a significantly greater challenge than using four notes. I started with the Recycled Percussion instrument, and chose the notes B, E, F, and G, because they produce the coolest sounds. Then I layered in other sounds, chosen because they sound reasonably good. Here’s what I came up with: Continue reading

Designing a more welcoming aQWERTYon experience

This post documents my final project for User Experience Design with June Ahn

The best aQWERTYon screencap

Overview of the problem

The aQWERTYon is a web-based music performance and theory learning interface designed by the NYU Music Experience Design Lab. The name is a play on “QWERTY accordion.” The aQWERTYon invites novices to improvise and compose using a variety of scales and chords normally available only to advanced musicians. Notes map onto the computer keyboard such that the rows play scales and the columns play chords. The user can not play any wrong notes, which encourages free and playful exploration. The aQWERTYon has a variety of instrument sounds to choose from, and it can also act as a standard MIDI controller for digital audio workstations (DAWs) like GarageBand, Logic, and Ableton Live. As of this writing, there have been aQWERTYon 32,000 sessions.

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The Groove Pizza now exports MIDI

Since its launch, you’ve been able to export your Groove Pizza beats as WAV files, or continue working on them in Soundtrap. But now, thanks to MusEDLab developer Jordana Bombi, you can also save your beats as MIDI files as well.

Groove Pizza MIDI export

You can bring these MIDI files into your music production software tool of choice: Ableton Live, Logic, Pro Tools, whatever. How cool is that?

There are a few limitations at the moment: your beats will be rendered in 4/4 time, regardless of how many slices your pizza has. You can always set the right time signature after you bring the MIDI into your production software. Also, your grooves will export with no swing–you’ll need to reinstate that in your software as well.

We have some more enhancements in the pipeline, aside from fixing the limitations just mentioned. We’re working on a “continue in Noteflight” feature, real-time MIDI input and output, and live performance using the QWERTY keyboard. I’ll keep you posted.

Affordances and Constraints

Note-taking for User Experience Design with June Ahn

Don Norman discusses affordances and constraints in The Design of Everyday Things, Chapter Four: Knowing What To Do.

Don Norman - The Design of Everyday Things

User experience design is easy in situations where there’s only one thing that the user can possibly do. But as the possibilities multiply, so do the challenges. We can deal with new things using information from our prior experiences, or by being instructed. The best-designed things include the instructions for their own use, like video games whose first level act as tutorials, or doors with handles that communicate how you should operate them by their shape and placement.

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