John Selleck writes in his article An insider's guide to computer music recordings (in Creative Computing Mar/Apr 1977):

"In the late 60's the essential characteristics of sound synthesis programs were established and most subsequent improvements to this early work have been in the nature of user (composer) oriented modifications."

    An insider's guide to computer music recordings
    - John Selleck (Creative Computing Mar/Apr 1977).

The first few projects that I've shown, use these basic building blocks for synthesis - they use synthesis algorithms implemented on 8-bit computers.

John Selleck in the same article also writes:

"Computer music is not oriented toward performer usage. It is a composer's medium and even if the processes can work in real-time, the forte of the computer is its data-processing capability as applied to all kinds of information, not just its ability to simulate a musical instrument."

    An insider's guide to computer music recordings
    - John Selleck (Creative Computing Mar/Apr 1977).

It seems that the artists of the projects I showed further on in my talk see the forte of the computer as a machine that can execute algorithms, and that these algorithms can be made audible. Using microchips, these digital algorithms become objects - actual physical objects. The artistic research goes into finding connections between the algorithms and the musical qualities they exhibit. The challenge (especially in the demo-scene) is to find algorithms which exhibit a beauty in their compactness. So in this context code and algorithms are the means of making music - not so much a tool that is hidden behind a user interface, but rather the code and the algorithm is the user interface; the most visible example of this is the livecoding movement, where code is written on stage during the performance.

Out of the box

  • DSP algorithms as musical objects
  • In some cases physical objects
  • Musical quality of algorithms
  • Beauty of the algorithm
  • Code and algorithms as a means to make music (livecoding)

Availability of microcomputers and the very low cost, in combination with exchange about these algorithms through the internet, may give us approaches to digitial audio that are out of the box.

Back to the past? A countermovement?

For the demoscene, there is definately a sense of a countermovement, where coders challenge themselves to write smaller and smaller programs that exhibit interesting visual or audible results.

Arduino has become a very widely used physical computing platform, even though the microcontroller is not particularly advanced - but the easy access through the accessible IDE and strong community, has made it one of the most used platforms to create embedded, interactive projects. So the access to the small device, got artists interested in (ab)using it to do audio synthesis or processing.

It is interesting to see artists revisit old methods for sound synthesis, and re-examine the problems of 8-bit integer math for digital audio processing. Given the easier access to play around with the limitations, the amount of minds looking at this is much larger than they were when 8-bit computers came around the first time. On the other side, the interest is often in having small devices (hand-held or even smaller) and the possibility of having many - so the interest is in physical swarms of sound producing objects.


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Digital Audio Out of the Box by Marije Baalman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.