Monday, May 5, 2014

Maxed Out

Things have been changing around here quite a bit since my last post.  Along with goings on in my personal and professional lives, I've taken a bit of a left turn musically.  As a result of increasing frustration with the bugginess and other limitations of the Moog MMV, I looked into alternative softsynths that would give me greater power and flexibility.  While I was engaged in that search, I serendipitously ran across a reference made by Laurie Spiegel to Cycling74's Max/MSP as one of the only programs that allows for real musical invention, not limiting composers to established tonalities, rhythm structures, or even synthesis models.  Looking into it, I was at first intimidated by the learning curve (and second by the cost), but after playing around with it* during the 30 day free trial, I decided to take the leap.

I've been pleased with the results so far.  The learning curve is steep, but the program rewards jumping in and thrashing about.  Forum discussions are likely to contain basic questions answered by experienced programmers and there are some very excellent tutorials on YouTube and elsewhere for folks like me who learn best by observing.

I have made exactly zero music with it so far.  Part of this is that I have yet to figure out how to implement an idea I have that is especially well suited to Max; another part is that that project has fallen by the wayside as I have become entranced by another, more construction-oriented, project:  the additive synth.  Max's potential for additive synthesis is one of the big reasons why I decided to go with it:  the size and complexity of what one can build is limited only by the processing power of one's computer.  Plus, technically, additive synthesis is relatively simple, so it seemed like a good first project.  Below is a screenshot of the latest iteration (#8).

This version is based on adding sines in the overtone series.  The instrument allows full control over amplitude and phase of each overtone, along with exponential stretching the overtone series (partials are raised to an exponent ranging from 1 to 1.125) allowing the 8th partial to be stretched relative to the fundamental more than an octave.  The fundamental follows a MIDI tempered scale.  What I am enjoying about this project is the appreciation it is giving me of Fourier analysis:  how different aspects of how a sound is constructed change its timbre.  Although this has so far been primarily a learning project, I am now at the point where I can begin to make a more practical instrument out of it.

So what this means for my compositional productivity is that I'm probably not going to be producing much in the near future.  However, as I gain skill with this new program, I expect it will be easier (and faster) to make music with it, so in the long run, I expect it to facilitate my output.  In the medium-term, I have this idea and my work on the additive synth has helped me understand better how to implement it, so maybe soon.

In the meantime, please lend your attention to some very interesting work by a musician I ran across last fall.  All of his other work (that I've heard, anyway) is much closer to straight-ahead jazz, rock, even a little punkish, but this album is mostly about timbre -- and you know I'm all about that.

*PS:  For those who might be interested, there is an open source program that does essentially the same thing as Max:  it's called Pure Data.  I spent a fair amount of time considering it Pd, too, since, being open source, it's free.  I went with Max because it has better support for non-programmers like me, but for those who are unintimidated by geekspeak and open source forums, Pd is a great program.