Friday, December 14, 2012

The Problem With Distortion

I just realized why I dislike distortion boxes. I have always claimed that they remove not only the personality of individual guitars but the playing style of the guitarist as well. Here is why. Distortion boxes work by clipping the signal or basically cutting off the top. I am excluding tubes that do something very different. When this happens, the complex changing waveform of the attack transient is turned into a square wave. In effect, the expressiveness of the musician is removed.

Moog Guitar and EBow

It has always amazed me how many draw conclusions before even knowing all the details about something. This is certainly true of Moog Guitar. On the surface, Moog Guitar appears to be a guitar with a built in EBow. I can't express with more vigor how wrong this is.

First, the EBow is indiscriminate. It just imparts energy like a vibrating magnet. It does not sense individual strings any more than a pick does. With some effort one can learn to use it effectively but Moog Guitar is very different. In Moog Guitar the source of the vibrations are the pickups. The reason this is important is that Moog Guitar senses the vibration of individual strings. When a string vibrates, the pickups impart energy to that string to keep it vibrating.

Second, Moog Guitar also can damp strings. This is critical. Not only does it provide a setting to make strings sound more banjo like by damping energy but in a middle setting, it damps strings not being played. This allows the musician to play individual leads on one or more strings without other strings vibrating. The reason is the vibration is a two fold feedback loop and electronics which mute the other strings not played avoiding any accidental notes.

Third, one aspect of Moog Guitar that most impresses me is the harmonic balance, This shifts the energy from one pickup to the other. What this sounds like is sheer magic. It's not filtering and it's no gimmick. You can actually feel it in the vibration of the guitar. What it sounds like has to be heard but it's a kind of harmonic dance that no other instrument on earth can produce.

Forth, the E-Bow has no power control. It's just a matter of how close it is to the strings. On the Moog Guitar the amount of power can be controlled by a knob (Vo Power). Vo Power becomes part of the playing technique as does harmonic balance. In an ordinary guitar, most of playing technique is in the attack but Moog Guitar is more like a synth allowing shaping of the sound during the sustain including touching strings to create harmonics.

Fifth, the Moog Guitar has a built in filter. While some might think this is an auto wah it's much more subtle and can provide yet another way to shape the sound of the instrument.

So yes, Moog Guitar is a very unique instrument with huge potential. What it most certainly is not is a guitar with a built in E-Bow.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Additive Synthesis - Is It the Holy Grail of Synthesis?

For years additive synthesis has been more of a theoretical animal than a practical form of synthesis. The reason? The amount of CPU power to make it happen. This has all changed and there are several additive synthesizers on the market now.

This blog post is the first of what I hope will be a series. I realized that the many posts I had made to a bulletin board are most likely going to disappear and I not only wanted to reproduce much of it but to update it and organize it for systematically. It's a huge topic because it really strikes at the heart of what sound is. I am also in a unique position to talk about it because I have a degree in mathematics and I have studied the topic for years. I am also an electronic musician and composer.

So, this blog is only an introduction. Let me begin by answering the question is it the holy grail of synthesis. The answer is a resounding no. Can it be useful? Yes, absolutely. Two good examples of this are Camel Audio's Alchemy and the Reaktor synth Razor.

Why would it be considered the Holy Grail of synthesis? In theory it can build any sound from it's parts that are called partials. Not only in a static sense but sound as it changes over time. Now I said in theory at least according to some. The theory is wrong because many who talk about additive synthesis do not understand what is called the Fourier Transform and many were mislead by an influential work "On the Perception of Sound" by Hermann Von Helmholtz. No one reads this any more (although I do have an unread copy on my bookshelf) but it has had a very influential effect on the perception of sound and I believe even additive synthesis.

Ok, now I warn you. We are about to go down a rabbit hole and it does involve a matrix. This one is called a Gabor Matrix. But don't ask Alice but a composer by the name of Xenakis. Confused?

Read this and be afraid. Be very afraid. Is sound a series of waves called partials or is it a series of grains?

More to come in future posts but I hope this peaks some interest. By the way, check out Poseidon. It's VirSyn's walk on the granular side wearing Helmholtz glasses.