Sunday, August 15, 2010

On Happy Accidents

Rather than posting a whole slew of tweets on Twitter, I thought it best to blog. I have been thinking lately about happy accidents in the history of music synthesis. What I mean by this is that often, what works musically is often more the result of imperfections than perfections. Perhaps, this might even apply to governing nations, but I digress.

To explain what I mean by this, consider the Moog Ladder Filter. In order to get the cutoff desired, a lattice of filters was necessary to design the Moog Ladder Filter. This results in distortion. Moog did not mind this but realized that the distortion, while from a purist point was undesirable, but from a musical perspective, it was desirable. So much so that this filter became a kind of musical legend.

Another example is that of oscillators for analog synths. The reason for all three waveforms that are usually used (square, sawtooth, triangular) is because these waveform are easy to approximate using the discharge of a capacitor. The corollary to this happy accident is that these waveforms have particular harmonic properties that make them useful.. For example, the square and triangular waveforms have no odd harmonics which make them effective for mimicking woodwind instruments, especially the square, because of the harmonic and physical characteristics of those instruments. Sawtooths provide a very broad spectrum waveform that can then be filtered to create very musical effects combined with envelopes.

Another example spurred on a whole musical industry from blues to rock, to hard rock to heavy metal. Back in the early days, amplifiers used tubes (and some still do) because there were no transistors. When tubes got hot, they distorted (well, even before that but the heat enhanced the effect). But they did so in such a way to enhance harmonics in a musical way. Amps today use several stages of amplification which creates another type of sound. The why however is not so important as the fact that it is musical. There is also what is called sag in amps which has to do with the power supply but it creates a drop in power that is part of the signature sound of some amps.

Pickups on guitars are another example. The more windings one has on a guitar makes the signal not only a lot stronger but also more distorted combined with an amp. Again, for some types of music this is desirable.

Natural instrument are perhaps the best example. Instruments are expressive (much more so than electronics without a lot of help) because when a note is first played, the physical system which creates the oscillations is not in equilibrium. This creates noise which, in a brief time, changes to a stable waveform. What we actually find expressive and interesting about an instrument is not the static waveform (which is actually kind of boring) but the first part of the note we call the transient. This is what we identify often with musical virtuosity.

From a purists perspective, the stable physical system which creates a stable sustained waveform is what is attractive perhaps on an intellectual basis but its the imperfection of the transient that creates the magic.

So there you have it. That is my walk though the happy accidents of music.

The flip side of course is that those things that might seem theoretically relevant, may not be musical. My example of that is additive synthesis. I will not go into it here but I am in rebellion against what I would call the Fourier illusion. My basis for this is actually because I have a mathematical background and believe that he whole concept of harmonics is defunct to some extent. It can be a useful tool but in some sense, its only a model of reality, not the true reality. Granular synthesis is coming closer to the true reality but much like the physics of a particle being a wave and a particle, the same applies to these models of sound.

Not to inject a lot of politics into my musical blog, I try to keep this separate, but consider a society. People come in all shapes and sizes with all sorts of problems. If we embrace that which is imperfect, then things work. Yes, we know there is greed but if its directed towards making a good product that can help people than that is a good thing. Yes we know that some people are not healthy but perhaps helping those people actually makes us better people. I know there are those in our government, some at the very highest level, who believe that government can create an earthly utopia without injustice, hunger and suffering so they try to force people into a mold of what they believe Perhaps, in some odd way, its those things that we struggle with, those imperfections, that may just be the happy accidents that help to bind us together.

Just a musical musing for a somewhat tranquil Sunday morning for me.

Hope all enjoyed.

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