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A Novel Perspective of the History and Future of Digital Synthesis

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A Novel Perspective of the History and Future of Digital Synthesis
Found a really interesting article today (https://ccrma.stanford.edu/~jos/kna/kna.pdf) on a perspective of the history of digital synthesis that I thought I'd share. Rather than document every development in terms of hardware and software digital synthesis, it provides an overview of how the development of synthesis has evolved and somewhat been hindered by the introduction of MIDI, of all things.

The essay was written in 2005 and so a minority of the points made are somewhat dated, one example being the author's criticism of a lack of software development which is somewhat less valid today .Perhaps the key premise of the essay, which remains a valid observation in 2012, is that the introduction of MIDI largely shifted the focus of digital music from being based on the creation, by composers, of 'unit-generators' (which I take to mean as the creation of something that makes a sound), and instead shifting the focus on the use of unit-generators (or synthesisers) supplied by the industry, and then paired with MIDI instruction. The author himself puts it much more succinctly than I can;

"The MIDI specification simplifies the performance-instrument interface down to that of a piano-roll plus some continuous controllers. In other words, MIDI was designed to mechanize performance on a keyboard-controlled synthesizer. It was not designed to serve as an interchange format for computer music. MIDI instrument control is limited to selecting a patch, triggering it with one of 128 key numbers, and optionally wiggling one or more controllers to which the patch may or may not respond in a useful way. Rarely is it possible to know precisely what the patch is actually doing or what effect the controllers will have on the sound, if any. The advantage of MIDI is easy control of preset synthesis techniques. The disadvantage is greatly reduced generality of control, and greatly limited synthesis specification."
Note: Spelling errors are due to copy / pasting from a PDF which I gather predicts the letters

At first glance it might seem as if the synthesizers available had very limited capabilities, but I think what is being said is that synthesizers implicitly limit you to using the paramaters supplied, e.g. Massive's restrictive envelopes. The point is probably better demonstrated in the way the author suggests that;

"The ease of using MIDI synthesizers has sapped momentum from synthesis algorithm research by composers. Many composers who once tried out their own ideas by writing their own unit generators and instruments are now settling for a MIDI note list instead. In times such as these, John Chowning would not likely have discovered FM synthesis: a novel timbral effect obtained when an oscillator's vibrato is increased to audio frequencies."

An example of composers creating instruments / unit generators is those who use sound programming languages like Csound, MAX, cmusic etc. etc. As digital music composers, those who do so to any notable extent are probably in the vast minority. The upside of this new method of sound creation is simplicity; you can create a huge range of sounds with relatively simple tools. The downside is perhaps best demonstrated by example; try synthesizing a realistic piano with the majority of modern synthesisers - typically we rely on sampled pianos because they are far too complex and synthesisizers are too restrictive to attempt it (e.g. restriction on # of available oscillators). Another great example given by the essay is the lack of control on transition between notes in a synthesised sound; typically the only way of creating non-stagnant transitions is by using crudely limited key-mapping modules which themselves sound ubiquitous between note changes.

Anyway, I realise I've written far too much about an essay which is pretty lengthy itself. I just thought the idea of MIDI being a negative introduction to sound design was a very novel perspective, which makes you wonder if the creation of sound design techniques has been stagnated as a result, and if so, by how much.
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I've read that article before. It has some interesting points, but its a bit... of a misguided generalisation in my opinion. It sounds like the usual forest through the trees kinda shit that most modernists dish out in bucket loads.

For example, why does synthesis need to be more than it currently is? What exactly are we missing out on? Is it adversely effecting the way we are creating music? Why do we need a single powerful algorithm to cover all aspects of synthesized sound creation? Why do we need a human interface more complex than midi?

Simple sounds are just as valid as anything complex.
Simple music is just as valid as any complex piece of music.

This sentence basically takes the cake:

Abstract-algorithm synthesis seems destined to diminish in importance due to the lack of analysis
support.


I think it should actually read like this:

Abstract-algorithm synthesis seems destined to diminish in importance due to its lack of necessity in the creation of music.

I am all for innovation, but that essay outlines "problems" that aren't really problems at all. Most of us use the chromatic scale for creating music. If you consider that there are perhaps 10 octaves over the range of human hearing, we only really utilise 120 fundamental frequencies out of a possible 20,000... by the same notion, western music has a problem as well.

It kinda creates an academic blackhole where music will collapse in on itself. More isn't always better.
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While I didn't read the whole essay:

"The MIDI specification simplifies the performance-instrument interface down to that of a piano-roll plus some continuous controllers. In other words, MIDI was designed to mechanize performance on a keyboard-controlled synthesizer. It was not designed to serve as an interchange format for computer music. MIDI instrument control is limited to selecting a patch, triggering it with one of 128 key numbers, and optionally wiggling one or more controllers to which the patch may or may not respond in a useful way. Rarely is it possible to know precisely what the patch is actually doing or what effect the controllers will have on the sound, if any. The advantage of MIDI is easy control of preset synthesis techniques. The disadvantage is greatly reduced generality of control, and greatly limited synthesis specification."

That is written from the perspective of not having a clue about the synth you are using, or trying to manipulate a complex patch you didn't create. If you know the synth and created the patch you have a good idea of what midi control will and won't do.

"The ease of using MIDI synthesizers has sapped momentum from synthesis algorithm research by composers. Many composers who once tried out their own ideas by writing their own unit generators and instruments are now settling for a MIDI note list instead. In times such as these, John Chowning would not likely have discovered FM synthesis: a novel timbral effect obtained when an oscillator's vibrato is increased to audio frequencies."

If any synthesis method is wildly unpredictable with many useless patch configurations it is FM synthesis. This is why the DX7 has different operator modes and controls that severely limit possible patch complexity in different ways, so mere humans can control the beast and make sense of the audio output. In fact, it is the patch memory, Midi and SysEx that made the DX7 usable in the first place. It would be completely impractical to re-program DX7 patches at each power up.

Invention usually follows a need or is a a byproduct of trying to invent something else. I would say the availability of sound manipulation and generation tools has reduced the need to invent new synthesis algorithms, and that the availability of multisampled instruments has basically wiped out the requirement to emulate instruments perfectly by an algorithm.

Musicians can choose to use whatever tools as they wish, they don't need to adhere to sample and preset midi keyborads. I agree the Midi standard is limiting, but without the existence of Midi, progress in music (for better or worse) would have been much slower over the last 30 or so years.
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Yeah, I had the same thoughts initially but reminded myself that it's obviously written from an academic perspective; therefore they're looking to further the boundary of sound design rather than push for music to be hugely accessible. I hadn't begun production by 2005 so I don't know how limited synths were at that stage, but I think the author means to say that there are huge restraints on synthesizers produced by industry because they typically cover 1 method of synthesis and with limited parameters, severely limiting innovation - and I think this is still true of the majority of synthesizers. Arguably many people who have tried Massive for the first time come away wondering how the hell you get the thing to sound nice, and then once they master it, realise how limited it is - having 3 oscillators in the big picture of things is a huge limitation.

I don't think I'd prefer for MIDI not to have been implemented as it may have resulted in none of us producing music due to complexity, but I think that's a separate issue to whether or not sound design algorithms have stagnated. I honestly think we have a lot of pushing to do in terms of synthesis though, purely because simple sounds get boring. The practical uses for advancing synthesis are obvious; more realistic speech synthesis is probably at the forefront of the argument for simple to use but complex and evolving sound synthesizers. Simple sounds are just as legitimate as complex ones, but what happens when everyone is using simple sounds?
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Quote:

Originally Posted by brown820 View Post

At first glance it might seem as if the synthesizers available had very limited capabilities, but I think what is being said is that synthesizers implicitly limit you to using the paramaters supplied, e.g. Massive's restrictive envelopes. The point is probably better demonstrated in the way the author suggests that;

"The ease of using MIDI synthesizers has sapped momentum from synthesis algorithm research by composers. Many composers who once tried out their own ideas by writing their own unit generators and instruments are now settling for a MIDI note list instead. In times such as these, John Chowning would not likely have discovered FM synthesis: a novel timbral effect obtained when an oscillator's vibrato is increased to audio frequencies."

That's not what's being said IMO. The statement is to the effect that development of new synthesis techniques/methods has stopped due to the ease of getting sounds. Understanding the difference between synthesis techniques and what a deviation/breakthrough FM was compared to subtractive/additive synthesis clarifies this. Why do i need to invent a new synthesis technique if the one's already available provide the sound and ability to replicate sounds that i seek?

Is it the 'ease of use' that form limitations, or is it the limited timbral effects available through certain methods that have limited their application? I mean, why isn't FM synthesis a roaring hit today where the subtractive method seems common place? I'd dispute it's through not having 'necessity to create' and has more to with with the variety of sounds and the ability for

That said, the flexibility of modern synthesis tends not to lead people to need to create new methods of synthesizing sounds. To me that doesn't imply some limitation in technology but in the human need for such a technology. How many new 'traditional' instruments have been created in the last 20 years? If existing synthesis techniques can, with some level of acceptability, reproduce those sounds then why would someone seek to create new forms of synthesis. Technically, they're not synthesizing at all - they're building a new instrument, IMO.

It would also be easy to argue that in 2005 this person had limited, if any, exposure to VSTi and virtual instruments. While many of these present with recognizable interfaces and sounds, the techniques used to generate them can vary significantly and, IMO, this is the progression of synthesis techniques. Yes, some of the techniques are soft versions of existing electronic designs and techniques... but some (particularly in the effects realm) are not. I would suggest that things like Autotune are a form of synthesis and do not apply the 'traditional' synthesis techniques to achieve the end result. These technologies did exist in 2005 - so the author was perhaps a little narrow minded in the report... particularly if thinking in the traditional keyboard sense.
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Quote:

Originally Posted by jester_fu View Post

That's not what's being said IMO. The statement is to the effect that development of new synthesis techniques/methods has stopped due to the ease of getting sounds. Understanding the difference between synthesis techniques and what a deviation/breakthrough FM was compared to subtractive/additive synthesis clarifies this. Why do i need to invent a new synthesis technique if the one's already available provide the sound and ability to replicate sounds that i seek?

Is it the 'ease of use' that form limitations, or is it the limited timbral effects available through certain methods that have limited their application? I mean, why isn't FM synthesis a roaring hit today where the subtractive method seems common place? I'd dispute it's through not having 'necessity to create' and has more to with with the variety of sounds and the ability for

That said, the flexibility of modern synthesis tends not to lead people to need to create new methods of synthesizing sounds. To me that doesn't imply some limitation in technology but in the human need for such a technology. How many new 'traditional' instruments have been created in the last 20 years? If existing synthesis techniques can, with some level of acceptability, reproduce those sounds then why would someone seek to create new forms of synthesis. Technically, they're not synthesizing at all - they're building a new instrument, IMO.

It would also be easy to argue that in 2005 this person had limited, if any, exposure to VSTi and virtual instruments. While many of these present with recognizable interfaces and sounds, the techniques used to generate them can vary significantly and, IMO, this is the progression of synthesis techniques. Yes, some of the techniques are soft versions of existing electronic designs and techniques... but some (particularly in the effects realm) are not. I would suggest that things like Autotune are a form of synthesis and do not apply the 'traditional' synthesis techniques to achieve the end result. These technologies did exist in 2005 - so the author was perhaps a little narrow minded in the report... particularly if thinking in the traditional keyboard sense.

I think there's a difference between subtractive synthesis being versatile so as not to need to create a new method of synthesis, and composers not wanting to venture outside of it for fear of complexity (first FM synthesizers ring a bell). It's a tough call if you're just looking at the majority of electronic music makers because there's no hard data on why people are using what they are using - ease? versatility? lack of knowledge regarding other methods? I know I'd be very keen to try exploring Csound and the like if it weren't for time constraints and complexity, but I still find subtractive to be quite limiting and hence prefer additive / FM.

Arguably the essay read in its entirety doesn't argue for subtractive synthesis' huge versatility as much as pointing out how stagnant sound design has become with it. I can't say I've ever heard convincing instrument patches out of a subtractive synthesizer that was indistinguishable from a real instrument, and I'd call that a huge limitation pushing the majority of producers to using sampled instruments, especially strings and piano. This seems more a matter of perspective though, depending on whether you're looking at all producer or successful producers or the use of subtractive synthesis in more practical tasks.

Also, I didn't suggest the author had limited exposure to VSTis etc, more so that in 2005 the development of sound producing software was limited. Given the author listed 30+ synthesis methods in his essay, explaining a great many of them, I think it would be very presumptive to suggest that person hasn't interfaced with synthesizers (hardware and software) extensively.
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Quote:

Originally Posted by brown820

more so that in 2005 the development of sound producing software was limited.

The only 'limited' thing was that n00bs didn't have Albertronz. Steinberg released the VST API in 1996... some of us were using and experimenting with VSTi's back well before 2005 but still finding latency and memory limitations on PC's an issue for any serious work so supplementing with hardware... or rather supplementing hardware with VST and VSTi based gear.

So, no, the option weren't limited but domestic low cost hardware was. Hence my conclusion that some people have a limited perspective on what's available. I mean, first commercial use of Auto-Tune was 1998. Nothing like that had been done before (or the outfit Cher wore for the film clip ) and the way it's implemented uses all of the same principles applied to synthesis from an engineering and mathematical perspective. IMO, it constitutes a new form of synthesis - they synthesized pitch from a vocal seed/source.

The reality is that, even in 2005, sequencing hardware was often a difficult tool to use and required some investment of time to get your head around it and develop a workflow that allowed music to be made. Perhaps the author saw a stagnation in 'development of synthesis' from his perspective as he, and many of his colleagues, were focusing on either building or mastering sequencing tools on more accessible PC based platforms. The cost of older hardware based midi sequencers and multi track records were prohibitive when i started out. Hell, my first 'music PC' was a top specced Pentium 5 at 120MHz of pure power and some amazing amount of RAM like 128Mb. That was still cheaper, with a 'top range' SoundBlaster card and a home made midi breakout for it than buying a 6 track midi sequencer with a multi track audio recorded. My PC could handle 4 whole audio tracks before starting to clap out + about 8 midi channels (i didn't have that many synths).

Perhaps the authors forgetful nature is due in part to the revolution of his and my time not being synthesis but the 'home studio' and most companies poured money into developing API's and interfaces for PC/home computer based systems. That doesn't mean option were limited or that people stopped experimenting and developing. Yes, the revolution has ended but there's plenty of instance even now that show the evolution has not.

I also think the stupificatoin of the end user has played a key role - where people make comments like "i found FM synthesis hard" or "it's complicated". You're right - it requires some insight and some understanding of the underlying principles to develop and use effectively... not the mass mob mentality that seems abundant these days. Olden days synths were operated by musicians or technicians or engineers. These days it's anybody with a copy of BitTorrent and the ability to search for "cracked VSTi".
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