Here’s the hard truth about analog modular synthesizers. As much as I’m attracted to them, they’re sorely limited in all sorts of ways. Also expensive.
For the last few days, while working with the Buchla Skylab, I’ve been contemplating what we might call process music — music in which tone production is sort of ongoing. Perhaps influenced by the composer/performer while it plays, or perhaps entirely automated, but that’s a less significant criterion.
This notion inspired me to put together a little piece called “Jungle Nights” in my computer using Csound:
I won’t claim this is a terrific piece of music. I’m not even sure it’s finished — I have some more thoughts about how to improve it. But it illustrates fairly well the idea of music as process.
The thing is, you couldn’t do this piece using the Skylab, not even if you cheated and added an outboard reverb and delay. The main tone and the drumming you couldn’t even come close to. The hissing noises and the little tone bursts could be approximated. And you certainly couldn’t do all four types of tones at once, let alone save your entire piece to the hard drive, load it up again next month or next year for further editing, and have it sound exactly the same as it does today. (The Skylab can store panel settings, but it has, quite obviously, no facility for memorizing how your patch cords are connected.)
The cost of a Skylab: close to $15,000. The cost of Csound: It’s free. Okay, I did have to buy the computer, but the cost of a swell computer, a MIDI keyboard with sliders, and an iPad so you can run a multi-touch sensing input would be around $3,000, and you could use the computer and iPad for a few other little things now and then. Also, the learning curve may be a little longer and steeper for Csound than for a Buchla system, but it’s not beyond human comprehension … and you can always buy a copy of my book (Csound Power) to get you started.
Learning curve aside, the advantages of a Csound-based system, as compared to the Skylab, are huge. They’re monumental. Unlimited numbers of oscillators and filters. Reverb and delay. Multi-segment envelopes. Audio recording and playback (multi-channel, if you like). Compatibility with OSC. Numerous types of synthesis. Ultra-precise control of pitch and timing. Complex mathematical processing of control signals. As many step sequencers as you’d like, with as many steps as you’d like. A broad choice of filter types. The list goes on.
Yeah, I love hardware with knobs and blinky lights. But maybe I can cure myself of that.