September 11, 2003

CMask as a Tool for Generating Sonic Detail

As I posted two articles ago, I've been looking into how to make electronic music more compelling. One of my suspicions, about problems in this regard, has been that the general simplicity of textures typically employed in the realization of an electronic piece and the artificial nature of the performance contributes heavily to a dullness in the sonic appeal of electronic music.

To this end, I've been looking back into CMask a general purpose Csound event generator. Because the CMask syntax is a simple notelist, I've been thinking it should be trivial to generate MIDI files or instructions for other languages with CMask output. nGen and Score11 (available from the Eastman Computer Music Center) are two other systems I'm looking at.

My idea is to take traditionally composed melodies and render them with mass groupings of notes, say 10 or 20 MIDI instruments playing the same melody but using micro-permutations to generate sonic detail.

Posted by jeff at September 11, 2003 02:01 PM

Your suspicions, probably, are correct. Most electronic sounds are indeed flat, sterile and static.

However, popular electronic music has already come a long way in solving this problem. You'll find it's done so in one of two ways:

First of all, there's the IDM method of using an incredible number of notes played by various instruments at break-neck speed to mask the fact that the individual notes are static and uninteresting.

The other method is to simply put more effort in the process of creating synth patches to begin with. Artists working in one of the "experimental" sub genres of Ambient spend hours creating all sorts of non-cyclical control signals and feeding them into their patches at various points to make their synthesized sounds lively and interesting. Of course, once they're done doing that, they simply trigger one or two notes using their new patch, record it and release the recording as a "track".

Of these two methods, I believe the first (IDM) to be a dead end. Though it can yield vibrant and lively music, in the hands of most artists it quickly degenerates into a flashy show of unmusical sequencer prowess. Like the symphonic rock of the 70s, IDM will probably disappear into an exceptionally self-absorbed and marginal underground and become the laughing stock of everyone else.

The second method will probably befall the same fate. Complex, lively synthesizer patches aren't interesting to anyone but electronic musicians themselves. However, unlike convoluted IDM sequences, they could, theoretically, serve a purpose. Studying them could teach a "regular" electronic musician much needed skills to make his own patches more interesting.

Unfortunately, very few people have both the skill to compose interesting music and to program interesting patches. My suggestion, therefore, would be for composers and programmers to work together the same way instrument builders and classical composers used to work together, where the instrument builder would hand a new instrument to the composer and the composer would write a piece for the new instrument.

As for the suggestion to mass group MIDI notes - I'd venture that's not ultimately going to yield the desired results. If the instrument that plays the notes is static and boring, having 10 or 20 instances of that instrument is hardly going to make a difference. From my limited experience programming patches I've learned that duplicating parts of the signal chain with subtle variations rarely helps to make things interesting. Better programming is much, much more effective.

Posted by: "koolym" at September 30, 2003 04:49 AM

Mass groupings of the same audio events does have its funny effects, but I do not think that this will really help you Jeff, I did some new posts in our "Stylistic Conventions Which Thwart Cross-Pollination" thread over at

It is not always about the sterile sounds ( but of course - more engaging patches can often help ) but rather about how the events are percieved by the listener. I imagine you will find auditory stream formation theory intersting - but then I reckon you already knows this in detail.. anyway.. some lessons learned from this research can easily be applied in music.

Posted by: Elektro80 at November 13, 2003 11:47 AM

I don't think it's primarily about quantity of notes, nor is it really about the appeal of textures; it's about expression. In a symphony orchestra, one hundred human beings are pouring their souls into the expression of every note and phrase of the music. Each of them has spent a lifetime developing musical technique focused on the ability to play expressively, and each was chosen in competition against many others for precisely their excellence in that respect. That's a tough act to match in an electronic score... but I think it's worth a try!

Posted by: fzirp at November 19, 2003 02:45 AM

Great Comments! Hi from Cialis - NYC.

Posted by: Cialis at December 3, 2003 02:37 PM