Thursday, February 03, 2000

Ear Training For The Electronic Musician

While a teenager working as an assistant to the choir master and organist at our church, Dr. Kitchen who played a Flentrop, I started programming on a microcomputer instrument that came out of collaboration between the music and mathematics departments at Dartmouth, and was distributed under the commercial brand name Synclavier, and which has since become a legend if also obsolete (although, that may be arguably not the case). With a small degree of understanding of Fourier synthesis, I discovered that the digital instrument could allow me to seemingly re-create any sound or combination of sounds: Inspired by an article I read about eighties electronic diva, Suzanne Ciani, I spent a week analyzing the sound of a soda can being popped open, in order to recreate it on the computer:

First I discovered that there is the sound of one’s fingertips on the top of the can, followed by the tab bending forward and backward; beneath and in between is the snap of the tab, the crack of the seal, followed by the carbonated volume exploding up along a skewed x/y axis, rising from below perceptible hearing range to a fast climax and fade. It moves across a three dimensional aural landscape from below one’s ears, to square with one’s ears, and then above one’s head and out to one’s sides, before finally subsiding to a quiet but audible fizz.

With practice, I became increasingly quite good at this sort of thing, and this was a few years before the common use of samples. In order to accomplish the synthesis of a complex sound, such as a soda can pop, I had to create small component sounds and then patch them together in a sequencer. After some practice I was soon able to recreate any sound I heard relatively quickly, sometimes in minutes. This is what I mean by ‘Aural Intelligence’. A singer with perfect pitch can hear a sound and identify its pitch. My practice was identifying the composite elements of any given sound so that I might reproduce it with whatever electronic tools were available. I often visualized an oscilloscope in my head; as I worked I would compare the waveform of sound I was working with to the waveform depicted on my inner oscilloscope. I don’t know what good this practice would do, when, in retrospect, one could simply record a soda can and be done with it, but regardless, it was incredible ear training of a sort.

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