Monday, November 21, 2005


Music geekery follows...

As I mentioned a long while back, I'm looking into music composition. My equipment is severely limited, but my studies are not.

One thing I've found in my studies is that I have picked up an unnatural ability to hear synthetic instruments. I suppose this probably came from my sonogram studies. They've started to really grate on my ear.

I don't mean "bweep baweep bweep" instruments. I don't even mean midi- or tracking-fed instrumentation. I mean I can hear filters, compressions, limiters, and the very best synthetic orchestras. I've recently deleted songs I've always had on my playlist, just because they've started grating on my ear.

Synthetic orchestration - especially simplistic versions like midi or tracking, are the most grating. I've turned myself into an elitist!

This is really bad news, since the only capabilities I have are midi. I don't own any physical instruments other than a (primitive) midi keyboard and similar computer software (it should be noted that I canot actually connect the keyboard to the computer...). I'm writing primitive songs, now, but I know that I will never be happy with anything I write, because it'll be in midi. This is especially bad because I'll eventually need music for Machine City and consecutive games.

On the other hand, I know what the problem is with these fake instruments. It's their attacks and sustains. They're unnaturally sharp and flat - not the notes, the envelopes. The computer program doesn't distinguish between a G placed in the middle of a rising sequence or at the beginning of a triumphant reveal. It hits both with the exact same authority.

The author can try to deal with this. It's possible, with great effort, to deal with some of it. You can put in volume changes, accents, and so forth. But it takes time, and there are no fine controls. If there were, it would take even more time!

That got me thinking. Why not make a program with "musicians" in it. You can assign a musician to an instrument, and teach them how you want them to play. You can carry these musicians from composition to composition, even sharing them over the internet. You can train them to play the horn with a certain level of attack and vibrato depending on what kind of sequence is being played at that moment.

Your controls would be largely limited to marking the music with emotional notation that guides the musicians. There's already denotation for sheet music, but this is not enough: we need more explicit terminology, such as "fiery".

If your pattern recognition was good enough, you could leave off with the labels and just instruct the musicians directly. They would work out what kinds of situations called for which kinds of performance, backed and instructed by you.

Or - here's an awesome idea - use the Nintendo Revolution controller to play as a conductor. Ha! That would make my YEAR.

I think there's already a program with this kind of capabilities out there. I've heard a couple of orchestral pieces which must be synthesized, but they're really good, instrumentally. They must simulate the actual instrument, which would probably do the trick nicely. They're still flawed, but they may actually be just badly mastered, mediocre-played real instruments. However, their sustains are still unnatural, so I doubt it...

Anyhow, just musing on the matter.


Patrick said...

I'm applying for a grant from MTVU and Cisco to do an Etron storyworld, and I've got a friend of mine on board to do composition for it, I want to get a blend of urban electronica and maybe remixed guitar instrumentals for the soundtrack, and mix it according to the game's flow; the idea is to try and take a stab at an interactive soundtrack. I suggested the idea to my dude and he said he'd need a midi keyboard, which I can certainly include in the budget as around $400. I'm thinking that the quality I want won't happen with midi, and I can potentially provide thousands of dollars in the budget request for music, what sort of devices should I request funding for? Are there any particular brands of synthesizers you'd recommend?

Craig Perko said...

Well, a really great midi keyboard is fine. One with touch sensitivity and really nice instrument samples. They generally run $200-$400.

The nice thing about midi keyboards is that if you get the right type, you can hook them into your computer directly. Instead of having to program your notes in note-by-note, you can simply record the you playing the midi keyboard. This has the further advantage that, unlike simply recording a real instrument, you can tweak the song. To the extent that you can even change the instrument!

A good midi keyboard can usually play a pretty solid range of instruments with fair player control. The problem comes when you export to a midi file on your computer... and it proceeds to play that file using generic attacks and default instrument samples!

So you'll want to look into what SOFTWARE you're using to express your music. If all you're doing is recording samples in wav and combining them into an mp3, a solid midi keyboard is all you'll really need. But if you want to do orchestras, tweaking, and all that fun stuff, you'll need an expensive piece of software or two. But, in that case, a midi keyboard is all you'll EVER need, except maybe a guitar.

But I'm hardly an expert. I've just researched a lot.

Patrick Dugan said...

Word, I think my amigo has a nice bit of software, so thats square. Fun trivia, he's both black and jewish, what are the odds of that?

Craig Perko said...

Unless he does Yiddish rapping, I don't think it's so odd. :)