Saturday, October 2, 2010

Electronic Music Technology - Deep Dive 3

EMT has advanced further in the 21st century and most of the significant advances have been in the world of software. Today, all MIDI hardware and sequencing software together is called a digital audio workstation and no composer can afford not to own one. Sequencing software such as Finale , Sibelius , Pro Tools , Logic Pro  or Cubase  are popular software packages. 

Let’s learn some quick terminology of the EMT world.

A music sequencer (or just sequencer) is an application or a device designed to play back musical notation. The original kind of sequencer is now known as a step sequencer to distinguish it from the modern kind, which records a musician playing notes.

Step sequencers

The first sequencers were primitive devices that played rigid patterns of notes using a grid of (usually) 16 buttons, or steps, each step being 1/16th of a measure. These patterns of notes are then chained together to form longer compositions. Step sequencers are monophonic by nature, although some are multi-timbral, meaning they can control several different instruments but only play one note on each of those instruments. Step sequencers are mostly used in drum machines and grooveboxes.

Modern sequencers

With the advent of MIDI and in particular the Atari ST, programmers were able to write software which could record and play back the notes played by a musician. These sequencers didn't play mechanical sounding notes of exactly equal length, but rather recorded and played back expressive performances by real musicians. These were typically used to control external synthesizers, especially rackmounted sound modules as it was no longer necessary for each synthesizer to have its own keyboard. Even in live performances, if you observe closely, the musician selects the sequence by way of pushing a few buttons and moves on to his keyboard to play his part – the sequencer plays the pre-sequenced music that makes the unassuming listener/observer think that he/she is listening to live music amidst all those colorful crazy laser beams!

Tracker is the generic term for a class of music sequencer software which, in its purest form, allow the user to arrange sound samples stepwise on a timeline across several monophonic channels. A tracker's interface is primarily numeric; notes are entered via the alphanumeric keys of the computer keyboard, while parameters, effects and so forth are entered in hexadecimal. A complete song consists of several small multi-channel patterns chained together via a master list.

An effect is a special function applied to a particular note. These effects are then applied during playback through either hardware or software. Common tracker effects include volume, portamento, vibrato, retrigger, and arpeggio.

A track (or channel) is a space where one sample is played back at a time. Whereas the original Amiga trackers only provided four tracks, the hardware limit, modern trackers can mix a virtually unlimited number of channels into one sound stream through software mixing. Tracks have a fixed number of "rows" on which notes and effects can be placed (most trackers lay out tracks in a vertical fashion). Tracks typically contain 64 rows and 16 beats, although the beats and tempo can be increased or decreased to the composer's taste.
A basic drum set could thus be arranged by putting a bass drum at rows 0, 4, 8, 12 etc. of one track and putting some hihat at rows 2, 6, 10, 14 etc. of a second track. Of course, bass and hats could be interleaved on the same track, if the samples are short enough. If not, the previous sample is usually stopped when the next one begins. Some modern trackers simulate polyphony in a single track by setting the "new note action" of each instrument to cut, continue,fade out, or release, opening new mixing channels as necessary.

Tracker music is typically stored in module files where the song data and samples are encapsulated in a single file. Several module file formats are supported by popular music player programs such as Winamp or XMMS. Well-known formats include MOD, MED, S3M, XM and IT

Programming is a form of music production and performance using electronic devices, often sequencers or computer programs, to generate music. Programming is used in nearly all forms of electronic music and in most hip hop music since the 1990s. It is also frequently used in modern pop and rock music from various regions of the world, and sometimes in contemporary jazz and contemporary classical music, recently, programming has been incorporated into various styles of hardcore and metalcore music. Now you know what musicians mean when they say – “I am into programming and work in this studio” and none of these guys know Visual Basic!

Courtesy Wikipedia for some technical definitions

Electronic Music Technology - Deep Dive 4

The latest and greatest in the world of EMT (circa 2010) is the technology of Virtual Studio Technology (VST). Steinberg played a big role in introducing this technology that created a virtual studio by way of software on a computer. Originally designed to integrate MIDI inputs and add sequencing touches, it has now become the mainstay of music composition throughout the world. Cubase, the software from Steinberg was the first one to showcase this technology and today, there are many such packages that arrive with fresher function feature set every year with a number of effects, loops, samples thrown in as a teaser. 

Steinberg's Virtual Studio Technology (VST) is an interface for integrating software audio synthesizer and effect plugins with audio editors and hard-disk recording systems. VST and similar technologies use Digital Signal Processing to simulate traditional recording studio hardware with software. Thousands of plugins exist, both commercial and freeware, and VST is supported by a large number of audio applications. The technology can be licensed from its creator,Steinberg.

VST plugins are generally run within a Digital Audio Workstation, providing the host application with additional functionality. Most VST plugins can be classified as either instruments (VSTi) or effects, although other categories exist. VST plugins generally provide a custom GUI, displaying controls similar to the physical switches and knobs on audio hardware. Some (often older) plugins rely on the host application for their UI.

VST instruments include software simulation/emulations of well-known hardware synthesizer devices and samplers, emulating the look of the original equipment and its sonic characteristics. This enables VSTi users to use virtual versions of devices that may be otherwise difficult to obtain.

VST instruments require notes to be sent via MIDI in order to output audio, while effect plugins process audio data (some effect plugins do require a MIDI input too though, for example they might use MIDI sync to modulate the effect in sync with the tempo). MIDI messages can often also be used to control parameters of both instrument and effect plugins. Most host applications allow the audio output from one VST to be routed to the audio input of another VST (known as chaining). For example, output of a VST synthesizer can be sent to a VST reverb effect for further processing.

VST instruments generate audio. They are generally either virtual synthesizers or samplers. One of the first VST instruments was the Neon VSTi which was included in Steinberg's Cubase. Some, such as Native Instruments' Pro-53, specifically recreate the look and sound of famous synthesizers from years past (in this case, the Prophet-5).

VST effects, such as reverb and phaser effects, process audio input. Other monitoring effects provide visual feedback of the input signal without processing the audio. Most hosts allow multiple effects to be chained.

VST MIDI effects process MIDI messages prior to routing the MIDI data to other VST instruments or hardware devices; for example, to transpose or create arpeggios.

A VST host is a software application or hardware device that allows VST plugins to be loaded and controlled. The host application is responsible for handling the routing of digital audio and MIDI to and from the VST plug-ins.

There are a wide range of VST-compatible hosts available; some of the more popular include Ableton Live, Ardour, Audacity, AV Music Morpher Gold, Cubase, FL Studio, Mixcraft, REAPER, Sonar, and Sony Acid Pro/ Music Studio. Other VST hosts include AudioMulch, Bidule, Max MSP, and Renoise.

There are also stand-alone "dedicated hosts" whose sole purpose is to serve as a host for the VST plug-ins rather than as an extension of their sequencing or audio capabilities. These are usually optimized for live performance use, with features like fast song configuration switching. Examples of popular dedicated VST host software include Cantabile, Brainspawn Forte, Tobybear MiniHost, Deckadance, Chainer, VSTHost, and SAVIHost.

VST plugins can be hosted in incompatible environments using a translation layer, or shim. For example, FL Studio fundamentally supports only its own internal plugin architecture, but a native "wrapper" plugin exists that can, in turn, load VST plugins, among others. As another example, FXpansion offers a VST to RTAS (Real Time AudioSuite) wrapper (allowing VST plugins to be hosted in the popular Pro Tools digital audio workstation), and a VST to Audio Units wrapper (allowing VST plugins to be hosted in Apple Logic Pro Digital Audio Workstation).

The VST plugin standard is the audio plugin standard created by Steinberg to allow any third party developers to create VST plugins for use within VST host applications. VST requires separate installations for Windows/Mac/Linux. The majority of VST plugins are available for Windows due to both Apple's proprietary Audio Unit software for OS X and the lack of information and patent encumbrances that make development difficult for Linux platforms.

SoundFont is a brand name that collectively refers to a file format and associated technology designed to bridge the gap between recorded and synthesized audio, especially for the purposes of computer music composition. SoundFont is also a registered trademark of E-mu Systems, Inc., and the exclusive license for re-formatting and managing historical SoundFont content has been acquired by Digital Sound Factory.

SoundFont technology is akin to software sampling. A SoundFont file, or SoundFont 'bank', contains one or more sampled audio waveforms (or 'samples'), which can be re-synthesized at different pitches and dynamic levels. Each sampled waveform may be associated with one or more ranges of pitches and dynamics. Generally speaking, the quality of a SoundFont bank is a function of the quality of the digital samples and the intelligent association of samples with their appropriate pitch ranges. Quality is also dependent on the number of samples taken for a given range of pitches.

SoundFont banks are tightly integrated with MIDI devices and can be seamlessly used in place of General MIDI (GM) patches in many computer music sequencers. The sound quality of SoundFont banks is generally regarded as superior to standard GM banks, and many SoundFont banks have been created specifically to replace GM banks with samples of each corresponding musical instrument.

That’s one hellua list of technology that musicians have access today. No wonder, you have a number of composers who come and go, experiment and fail with a number of these tools. Suddenly, music programmers are in great demand. The studio folks are spending a lot of time playing with software, digging through manuals and browsing discussion boards on the internet for new samples, loops, ideas!

Next, we will take a deeper look at some of the specific Techno world terminology and techniques.

Courtesy Wikipedia for some technical definitions.