Sound Code

Now and then I decide to fritter away a few days poking away at Csound. I don’t know that I’ll ever complete a piece of music using it, but I get in certain moods where working with it is fun. I sit for hours in my easy chair with my laptop on my lap and a pair of headphones clamped on my head, writing code and then listening to what it sounds like.

The new front end, QuteCsound, is indeed cute. It has an integrated code editor with syntax coloring and a multi-tab interface, built-in interactive mouse widgets (sliders, X/Y surfaces, and so on), and other nice features. Even with QuteCsound, Csound is never going to be user-friendly, but it offers musical possibilities that you just can’t find anywhere else.

Plus, it’s 100% free.

Some people use Csound as a real-time instrument, complete with MIDI input. I tend to go for “classic mode,” which involves creating a score by typing lines of code, one line per note. As laborious as this is, it offers at least one enormous advantage over a conventional sequencer: You can give each note whatever parameters you need. If you want to control attack, decay, cutoff, LFO rate, LFO depth, and panning individually for each note (to say nothing of more exotic parameters), just create your instrument with those control inputs, and then enter the values in the score.

I’m interested in just intonation, so I create instruments in which each note can be tuned to any pure ratio I like. This is possible using MIDI-based software synthesizers that can load Scala tuning tables … but if you do it that way, you’re still looking at a keyboard with 12 notes per octave. You can create a tuning with 19 notes in each octave and then play it on a MIDI keyboard, but the fingering of chords will turn into a brain-twister, trust me on this.

With Csound, the tuning “space” is multi-dimensional and completely open-ended. Want to hear what an 8/7 ratio sounds like as part of that chord? (If C is 1/1, 8/7 is a slightly sharp D.) No need to launch Scala, create a new tuning table, store it on the hard drive, load it into your synthesizer, and then edit your MIDI track to match the note assignments in the new tuning table. Just type “8 7” and you’re good to go.

The other thing that’s cool about Csound is that composition files are far less likely to suffer from digital rot. If you think you might want to go back 20 years from now to a piece you’ve just written and edit it in some way, Csound is arguably a better choice than Pro Tools, Live, or any other DAW software, because it’s open-source.

Sure, we live in a fast-food, throw-away culture. Nobody is thinking long-term. But if you use a closed-source music program, you’re at the mercy of the manufacturer to maintain or upgrade it when a new computer OS comes out. The upgrade, if it exists at all, may not be free, and it may not load legacy files! On the other hand, the probability that someone will be compiling Csound for whatever computer OS is current 20 years from now is rather high. It could even be you. All you need is a compiler, a copy of the source code, and some patience. The music doesn’t have to die.

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