Thursday, January 26, 2012

On Organ Stops and Additive Synthesis

I have been thinking about pipe organs these days and they have given me some food for thought for a few observations.

One only need a brief perusal of the world of organ stops to realize that trying to mimic sounds by mimicking their partials has been with us since the 1st additive synthesizer, the pipe organ.
Pipe organ stops attempt to mimic anything from violins to the human voice by simply trying to physically recreate partials. Truth be sold that attempts to get a pipe organ to sound like a human voice or a violin have been rather feeble.

This brings me to a diamond in the rough, the Kawai K5000. This is a great synth because those who designed it realized what pipe organs would have told them centuries ago. No natural waveform is fixed.

If you want to get something to sound like a certain musical instrument sample it. And yes, I am aware that sampling is passé and old school. Who cares? Certainly not me. The exception to this is physical modeling but that is for another blog.

Its also important to realize that the attack and decay of a sound should be looked at differently that the sustain and release. This is what the K5000 did and it's easy to do with any DAW today by layering (or dare I say modern day orchestration w/o the orchestra).

I also don't really understand spectral morphing. My personal opinion is that trying to morph one instrument into another with additive synthesis is trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. What additive synthesis can do is a lot of spectral Alchemy in the sustained part of the note. It's why I like Alchemy more for pads and soundcapes than instrument sounds. But the partials in the attack transient are non linear, noisy and chaotic not to mention very brief. Trying to morph them just creates artifacts that IMHO are far from musical.

What synths like Alchemy do well is create morphs in the sustained part of the note. This is worth doing. It creates a dynamic spectrum rather the fixed spectrum of a natural instrument during it's sustain which is what synthesis does well.

I think the focus in additive synthesis is in the wrong place. Rather than trying to create modern day organ stops it's far more productive to look to the richly creative world of pads, drones and soundcapes and leave the transient to samplers and physical modelers.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

On the Development of Instruments

In my early posts you can find many posts criticizing the whole notion of additive synthesis for the very simple reason that it is not really possible. I will not get into the reasons here to avoid mathematics which most don't have a background in.

As a clarification, I do own Alchemy because I find it's application of additive synthesis useful. However, I find the whole notion of describing sound in terms of partials to be of only limited use. I also find waveforms while essential for analogue synthesis to again have limited value for describing natural sounds.

For the most part, when we hear a sound, it is the attack transient that our brains use to determine what instrument is being played. Lets do a thought experiment. Take a number of orchestral instruments and have a group of musicians begin to play them together but separated by a few measures and then stop playing in the same manner. Experiments have show that it is relatively easy to distinguish when each instrument started but difficult to distinguish when each finishes.

The truth is simply this. It is the attack transient that we use to distinguish an instrument and not the much more stable waveform during the sustain or decay part of a note.

So if waveforms don't help and partials don't help much in understanding sound what does? My theory is that by studying the dynamics of transients and their underlying physical properties one can develop a means of classifying sounds that is far more natural and corresponds to how we hear sounds rather than how they can be expressed with mathematics. So in studying instruments historically I can find a basis to begin to describe how sound changes and how that can be used musically.

This is where I find myself drawn to musically and many times my music also is truly experimental in that I am learning as well as creating.

This is not my only interest musically. I am also very interested in how music creates an emotional response. I also have an interest in orchestration but these will have to be for future blogs.

Comments are always most welcome.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Shake, Rattle and Role

Sometimes I find as an electronic musical artist that I can get so wrapped up in the technical aspects of my music that I forget the simple joys of sounds. As many of you might now, I have a great deal of appreciation for what music therapists do. One aspect of their work is their delight in simple musical instrument. For example, I have really enjoyed "Building a Rhythm Band on a Budget" from Natalie Mullis, a certified music therapist and also Kat Fulton's blogs about Boomwhackers and drum circles.

Their influence has been so great that I now have built my own rhythm band complete with egg shakers, boomwhackers and even a giant boomwhacker. Of course, no electronic artist can resist the mangling of samples into something new but working with the raw sounds has taught be a lot.

Lets take egg shakers for example. They have been around for a very long time. Well, not really egg shakers in modern plastic motif but rattles that seem to dominate every culture going back to the time man first learned to bang two rocks together. Many have used hollowed out goards with some material inside to make an effective rattle.

In her video Natalie observes that the egg shaker is non distinct, that it has no sharp rhythm so it's good for children as they learn to develop their sense of rhythm. In a sense, egg shakers are a form of granular synthesizer. The beads inside the egg act literally like the grains of granular synthesis. The same principle is true of rain sticks, ocean drums and and Maracas.

What is interesting is how prevalent the broader term "rattle" appears in many cultures throughout musical history. On my vacation in a few weeks I plan on visiting the Metropolitan Museum of art which has a very large collection of instruments including, yes, several rattles. The books I also have on musical instruments show how prevalent the rattle has been in musical history.

Another musical instrument I have found to be a favorite of music therapists is the Boomwhacker. While in some sense this is a children's toy, it has many ties to other instruments. For example, I have been using an effect called corpus and a synthesizer called Prism which act like waveguides in a sense much as these two synths and effects do.

Prism uses an impulse, comb filtering and a feedback look. The impulse is very much like striking the Boomwhacker with a hand. Corpus has a tube option which also behaves like sound played through a Boomwhacker.

It's clear that observations of simple instrument provide a useful framework for talking about the development of instruments new and old.