Electronic music originated largely during the 1950s in the BBC Radiophonics Workshop, where reclusive “boffins” soldered resistors and vacuum tubes to create synthetic compositions. They recorded the output onto pieces of open-reel ¼” tape, which they spliced together using razor blades on editing blocks.
About 10 years later, John Lennon used tape loops to create the eerie repetitive patterns in the Beatles song “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Ironically, now that we can synthesize sound without resorting to such drudgery, electronic music has sunk into relative obscurity (I’m talking about serious compositions rather than the simple riffs of techno). Still, an international community of sound synthesists exists online, and all you need to participate is the computer that you already own.
Below are 3 applications that can help you make electronic music. Audio is processor-intensive, so you’ll be able to do more if you have powerful hardware — but if you just want to demo the software below, even the cheapest eMachine will do.
1. The Soundry
To learn the basics about sound and how we perceive it, see this excellent audio section in the Oracle ThinkQuest educational site at library.thinkquest.org/19537. Click the Wave Applet and you can draw your own sound wave in this beautifully implemented piece of Java (Figure A). After drawing a wave, listen to it while you refine it by adding attributes such as sine (for the melodious qualities of a sine wave) or sawtooth (for a fuzz effect). This is a great introduction to sound-wave fundamentals.
When something really scary was going to happen in a 1950s horror movie, most likely you heard a theremin on the soundtrack. This primitive electronic instrument, named after its Russian inventor, consisted of a box sprouting 2 antennas, one controlling pitch, the other controlling volume. To play it, the operator would make hand passes like a magician. Internal electronics detected the varying capacitance of the human body and emitted an eerie, quavering note through a loudspeaker.
For a modern, more full-featured, virtualized version of the theremin, go to rollosonic.com and click Download Now. Double-click the program icon, choose No for the installation option, and the software will run without needing to be installed. Click the Start button, click Get New Module, and select the Ding-Dong Module to create some noise. You’ll see a floating menu with pull-down options, each allowing you to control a different aspect of the sound.
While the theremin responded to hand movements, RolloSonic responds to mouse movements. The position, direction, and even the acceleration of the mouse can be used. For a quick demo, set Horizontal Mouse Position as the Note-Input Source, leave Note-Velocity Control with a low Manual setting, and use Vertical Mouse Position for Note-Length Control (Figure B). Now slide your mouse around its pad and listen.
There’s no way you’re going to make beautiful music with RolloSonic. The screeching, buzzing, whistling, and burbling will be unpredictable, confusing, and often quite horrible. Still, it’s unique, and you can use the program to develop, distort, or (with very little effort) destroy sound inputs from other sources such as a microphone. Not entirely practical, but fun, and free!
Enough foolishness. Time now for a serious and very powerful sound-synthesis application: AudioMulch, created by Ross Bencina, an Australian performer of electronic music. You can use it free for a 90-day evaluation period, or buy it for $89 — not unreasonable, considering that this is in many ways an audio equivalent of Photoshop.
For your free trial, download and install the software from audiomulch.com, launch it and decline the invitation to read help, then pull down the File menu and open a sample from the Examples folder. Click the green arrow in the task bar to play the audio, and I think you’ll be impressed. You’ll also see, on the screen, exactly how it was created. Sound origination and modification modules are chained in the Patchboard pane, and the properties of each module are shown adjacently (Figure C).
You can drag modules around, break and remake the links between them, twiddle knobs, and hear the results. To go beyond trial and error, open the excellent Help file and try the Beginners’ Tutorial, which takes you through half-a-dozen simple steps to develop your own techno riff in a matter of minutes. Within a couple of hours I created my own composition (Figure D).
AudioMulch accepts VST plugins but is sufficient on its own to function as a serious musical instrument. You can save your sounds as a .wav file, or play them in real time. The results can be as melodic or as synthetic as you wish.