Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Changing Face of Musical Controllers

I once suggested in a post of a board that current controllers for musical expression on synthesizers and other electronic instruments have been woefully lacking. I also suggested that musical controllers had been held back by the pitch bend and mod wheels. To my suprise, on shortsighted response was that these have been good enough for a long time and product developers should just stay he course. I recently posted the important and sometimes negative effects of paradigms. There are many in music and I have posted on some of these before. But the pitch bend and mod wheels seemed to have dominate all keyboards.

A recent innovation that I really like is the Hakem Continuum. It was a good product before but expensive which is why I passed over it despite my interest in it. But two recent changes in the product line and the software itself have got me interested again. The change in the product line is the offering of a half keyboard size controller. Probably about the size of a Voyager keyboard. The price is now around $2,000 US which brings it more in range for me. The other innovation, which makes me want to have one even more, is the upgrade to the firmware which includes several physical models and apparently uses part of the KYMA engine technology.

Another aspect of the product that I really like is the ability to interface the product with control voltages polyphonically. Combine this with a modular synthesizer or moogerfoogers and you have a very powerful combination. Some of the samples of this product using the Moog Voyager are fantastic. Hearing the Voyager sounding like a violin with realistic vibrato is a delight.

What impresses me with the Continuum is that it seems to have the feel of a real instrument. All instrumental expression involves a kind of feedback loop with the brain. Let me give you a practical example. I play keyboard in part, because I want to have access to the universe of hardware and software synths. However, I played guitar long before keyboards except for a brief two year period as a child. Two of the tricks I learned on guitar are tapping notes with the right hand to create arpeggios and using my thumb to slightly mute a note and create a harmonic. I learned how to do both from practicing over and over again and soon, I began to effectively use them without having to think about technique.

One day I was playing the piano and I stared to play an arpeggio which I did really rapidly. I never could do that before and then I realized that my fingers learned to do that on a guitar and did not know the difference between a guitar and a keyboard.

In both cases, I learned techniques by feeling and listening and the feedback loop, repeated enough times, created a type of image in the brain, what I believe neurologists call mirror neurons. Which is why I have an interest in neurology and music therapy as well as psychology. All come into play in music.

I also learned to use vibrato on the guitar and use it with most of my sustained notes. At some point I must have consciously thought about it but now, its just part of a an expressive feel that is now programmed into my brain.

Now on a keyboard, vibrato has been chained to use of the mod wheel (again, old paradigms). Now ok, this can sound decent and I have to admit that the Articulative Phrase Synthsesis or the Roland V-Synth is a step forward, but still, that neurological feedback loop is not there because pushing a mod wheel just does not feel all that musical (or at least for a guitar player).

Now, with a Continuum, you can create vibrato very naturally and with the use of physical models as well, the effect is fantastic and makes the Continuum something more like a real physical instrument but the with the huge difference of having a universe of sounds available.

So it would certainly seem that the dry paradigm of the pitch bend and mod wheel is slowly being transformed by innovative products. I only hope that the trend continues.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Prosody and Music

Some may wonder who follow me on Twitter why I re-tweet posts from music therapists like Kimberly Moore and others who study the brain. The simple truth is that I am convinced that to speak about music is to talk about how our brain interprets the music it hears. In a sense, if a tree falls in the forest it really doesn't make a sound. It will vibrate air molecules but in order for sound to be heard, it must be perceived by our minds and this is especially true of music. Music also has a great deal to do with the language processing of our brains. Not exclusively (studies have shown this) but in part.

Prosody is a study of the rhythm, stress and intonation of speech. If you have ever read Trevor Wishearts work:

You will see that much of what he does is using concepts of linguistics (i.e. of language). In language, meaning is conveyed not only by the basic building blocks called "phonemes" but also the intonation, inflection of speach which when you think about it in terms of synthesis, is really just the pitch bend wheel when applying these principles to music.

Certainly genres like the blues have made extensive but specific use of note bending to create a certain feel to blues. One example that convinced me of the important of inflection was when I wanted to create music with a Celtic sound. I actually used a Middle Eastern instrument but bend the notes upward which is a technique often used in Celtic music. Surprisingly, one comment on that song was that it sounded Celtic. Yes, it was intended to but what is surprising is that it had nothing to do with the notes but the way I bent the pitch.

Getting back to the brain, this has a lot to do with how mirror neurons. The brain mirrors what it thinks of as Celtic by hearing pitch. Perhaps, this is because the brain is also hard wired for this in terms of language.

This characteristic of how notes are perceived in terms of there intonation can be heard especially well in the AP-Synthesis of the Roland V-Synth which can take sounds that are not all that close in timbre sound like another instrument by basically borrowing that instruments pitch phrasing, a simply but powerful idea. If I am leaving something about about AP Synthesis, I leave those who know more to comment here.

So that all on this for now but I just wanted to blog about this while the idea of fresh in my mind.