In the early 1950s, pioneers of electronic music, Stockhausen, Ligeti, Berio and others, used tape-slicing technique to create the earliest “sampled” music then in the 1958 Brussels World Fair; Edgard Varése expanded the dimensions of sound using 400 speakers. From the surround sound system in the cinemas to the latest Dubstep music, these avant-garde music and techniques continued to have significant amount of influence in today’s media.
Today, many young avant-garde composers continue to explore and invent new techniques to create and define electronic sounds at IRCAM using new softwares like MaxMSP, Supercolider, CSound, Arduino and Spectral analyzer while the commercial music industry churned out tons of new synthesizers, digital audio workstations (DAW), virtual software instruments (VST) and huge libraries of samples. But why didn’t any avant-garde composer try using the latest commercial synthesizer to create new sounds for their “art”?
In order to create their sounds, both the commercial and avant-garde composers have to understand the science of sound synthesis. Joseph Fourier, a French scientist, discovered that “no matter how complex any sound is it could be broken down into its frequency, components and, using a given set of harmonics, it was possible to reproduce it.” From the harmonics series, one could create different waveforms by combing different partials.
The basic waveforms are the sine, square, saw-tooth, triangle and noise wave. The sine wave consists only the fundamental tone. The square wave consists of the fundamental tone and all the other odd-numbered partials while the saw-tooth wave consists of all the even-numbered partials. In order to create more complex waveforms and timbres, both composers have to combine these basic waveforms using additive, subtractive, FM, sample or granular synthesis.
The most commonly used method will be the subtractive synthesis. It combines 2 or more waveforms, passes them through a filter then amplified them using an amplification envelope. Reason, one of the most commonly used DAWs by electronic producers, comes with a few synthesizers, Subtractor, Malström and Thor, which work in a similar manner with some variations.
To demonstrate the basis of sound synthesis, I have generated a series of sound samples under the label of SINE 1 to 6 using the DAW, Logic Pro 9. SINE 1 is a pure sine with no other alternation. SINE 2 has an increased in its attack and release time and hence cutting away the accent. SINE 3 passes through two effect filters to create the chorus effect. With the same sine wave, SINE 4 to SINE 6 demonstrates how a Dubstep composer creates a sub-bass sound using EQs, distortion and phasing effects.
To create beats and patterns in dance music, these DAWs companies also created digital versions of step-sequencers, which were commonly used by early DJs. Reason comes with 2 different types of step-sequencers: the RPG-8 Arpgeggiator and the Matrix Pattern Sequencer. Using another variation of the sine wave, I have created the “arpeggios” demo track. By playing only the root note on the keyboard, the RPG-8 Arpgeggiator will do an arpeggio run of the chosen chord for as long as I held this single note.
By recording down the notes that I was performing on my keyboard onto Reason’s sequencer, I changed the sound source to the thunder’s sound and generated another variation of the original “arpeggios” track: the “arpeggiothunder” track. Unlike the RPG-8 Arpgeggiator, the Matrix Pattern Sequencer will not automatically generate these chord notes. However, I can generate chords, scales or even melodies by manually inputting the notes and rhythms that I want it to playback. In the “Refined pattern” track, I generate an F Major melodic pattern by using the Matrix Pattern Sequencer with Subtractor as the sound generator.