See Sound

After wrestling with Csound for a couple of days on my PC, last night I found a way to do what I want to do. Or at least I think I did. It may be weeks before I know for sure.

Csound started life, many years ago, as a command-line program. In those days, command-line programs were state of the art: computers with mice and windows were still a laboratory curiosity. In recent years several people have built “front ends” for Csound with the idea of making it user-friendly. But of course the authors of the front-end software are unpaid volunteers. Sometimes things break. Sometimes things are released without being rigorously tested on a variety of systems. Depending on the details of your computer system, using a front end, or attempting to, may actually make your life worse rather than better.

I had sort of forgotten about blue. Blue is a very nice front end for Csound … in Windows, at least. Though it’s theoretically cross-platform, having been written for the Java Runtime Environment, in the MacOS blue is a little cranky. This is because developer Steven Yi doesn’t have a Mac to test it on. Blue is his personal composition system — he makes it publicly available as a gift to the Csound community.

So now I can get Csound to respond, in real time, to MIDI inputs from a hardware keyboard and play notes out to my Firewire interface with acceptably low latency.

The next step is to figure out what sort of music I want to make with it. This is not a simple question. Every music software system has certain biases built into it. It will encourage you to consider things that it does well, and discourage you from considering things that it does badly. The trick is to understand those strengths and weaknesses well enough to work with them, while simultaneously keeping your hand and eye firmly on matters of musical expression. If you let the software dictate the music to you, the results will almost certainly be dismal.

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2 Responses to See Sound

  1. Jason Scott says:

    Ah yes. Csound was created by Barry Vercoe of MIT in 1985. A distant period, when computers with mice and windows were still a laboratory curiosity. Computers like the Apple Macintosh (released January 1984, a year previously, and advertised during the Super Bowl). Or the Apple Lisa, released in January 1983 and revised as the Apple Lisa 2 in 1984. Or maybe GEM, which was released for the Atari ST in 1985. Xerox Star, released 1981… or the X Windows system itself, released at MIT in 1985 onward.

    • prophet-5 says:

      I sense a certain understated sarcasm in your comment, Jason. You’ve obviously been paying closer attention to the chronology than I have. I should note, however, that Csound was based on Vercoe’s earlier programs, MUSIC 360 and MUSIC 11, which were in turn descended from work done by Max Mathews on the original MUSIC program, which he initiated in the late 1950s.

      That’s why Csound started out as a command-line program, not a GUI-based program: It was a direct descendant of programs that did indeed predate the mouse by a number of years.

      Even when you’re using a GUI-based front end, such as blue, you’ll still want to be conversant with the whole concept of command-line arguments. Csound has dozens of them, and they can be specified in at least five different places! Today’s Win/Mac user has little or no experience dealing with that kind of tangle.

      Today, Csound includes a system called FLTK Widgets, with which you can build your own mouse-operated front panels for your real-time instruments. FLTK panels look a little cheesy compared to the glitz that we take for granted on a commercial synth, and of course you have to assign the output of a slider to a synth parameter by typing code, but that’s not difficult, and the panel widgets do indeed work with a mouse.

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