Vol. 27 Issue 4 Reviews
Mark Ballora: The Essentials of Music Technology

Prentice Hall, 2003, ISBN 0-13-093747-9, softcover, 248 pages, illustrated, US$ 39.33; available from Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey 07458, USA; World Wide Web www.prenhall.com/

Reviewed by John Phillips
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

In his Preface to The Essentials of Music Technology, Mark Ballora, of Penn State University, explains that his book is meant to serve as a general reference for music technology courses. The author defines music technology as the use of the computer and its integration into all aspects of music education and production. He describes the content of the book as “an attempt to find a balance between simple and straightforward presentations and descriptions that are thorough enough to explain the material without ‘dumbing it down’” (p. vii). The book’s only assumption, Mr. Ballora says, is that students be familiar with a computer operating system. He states that while certain concepts are best presented with mathematical equations, no advanced mathematical training is necessary to understand the main points of the book.
A reference book should be viewed from a practical point of view: does it contain useful and well-organized information? And, for whom is it a reference: student, teacher, or a musician outside of academia? In summarizing the contents of the chapters I hope to give the readers a sense of whether the book functions adequately as a reference text for their own particular situation.

Titled “Basic Acoustics,” Chapter 1 covers wave propagation, harmonics, phase, speed, and velocity. There are good examples using the traditional rope and tube analogies plus well-drawn diagrams to illustrate the concepts presented. Chapter 2, “Music and Acoustics,” shows the author’s predilection for quantitative description. He spends little time on the subjective aspect of acoustics and uses much of the 20-page chapter to elucidate the mathematics of frequency, loudness and power, harmonics, Fourier analysis, and consonance and dissonance. Mr. Ballora does a good job introducing logarithms as a perceptual concept behind these building blocks of sound. Chapter 3, “Acoustic Factors in Combination: Perceptual Issues,” takes a quick look at amplitude envelopes, simulated localization in audio systems, and the mismatch between measurement and perception in the areas of phase, timbre, and loudness. Dr. Ballora doesn’t dwell for long outside the realm of objective measurement, so the issues he raises in this chapter seem unnecessarily diminished by the brevity of their treatment.

Chapter 4, “Introduction to Computers,” is a four-page overview of what is meant by the term multimedia, what the Internet and streaming media are, and the World Wide Web’s usefulness as a music research tool. The simplistic nature of the information presented in this chapter is, I believe, a serious oversight, especially for readers who want to learn, for example, the technical differences between audio codecs and streaming media formats used in the rapidly developing network-based music distribution system. Chapter 5, “Representing Numbers,” is a five-page summary based on the author’s stated desire that we see beyond the graphic use of the computer and recognize its calculator roots. Included are paragraphs on base numbers, the binary system, some terminology (such as byte, LSB, nibble), hexadecimal numbers, and integers.

Chapter 6, “Introduction to MIDI,” begins with a cursory two-page history of electronic music from World War II to MIDI’s introduction in 1983. There are several pages describing the basic types of music software followed by diagrams of various cabling possibilities for computer/MIDI-device setups. Some of this information seems, again, almost too basic. Do we need, for example, a photo of the three MIDI jacks on the back of a synthesizer? A much more comprehensive and technical view of the MIDI specification follows in Chapter 7, “The MIDI Language.” Here, Dr. Ballora explains all MIDI messages at the byte level with both hex and binary examples. Included is a short section on MIDI synchronization, including how to set up Frequency Shift Keying on an analog tape recorder, and a half-page on MIDI Time Code. I think more information about syncing MIDI devices would be of use to the many musicians working with moving image. Next is Chapter 8, “MIDI and More,” which continues the discussion of MIDI and looks at the limitations of the protocol’s speed and the problems manufacturers have had with MIDI string and wind instruments. Also included is a chart of Standard MIDI file formats and General MIDI patch assignments.

Chapter 9, “Digital Audio,” starts with a wealth of information about sampling rates and quantization. The author then begins a section on filtering with clearly presented, mathematically-based, and well-illustrated information. Ending the chapter is a description of the analog-to-digital recording process that nicely ties in with the previous section on filtering. Chapter 10, “Working with Digital Audio,” begins with a definition of Alternating and Direct Current, then rapidly proceeds to a complete and technical explanation of the many uses of convolution. The topics of oversampling and noiseshaping seem of particular interest to the author, so there is excellent depth to the information, again with clear illustrations to support the material. Perceptual coding is covered before the author begins a description of all the major digital storage media with an emphasis on the engineering aspects. The chapter ends with a short section on digital transfer and audio formats, which, for me, lacks the necessary breadth of information required of a reference text.

“Acquiring Audio,” Chapter 11, is geared toward readers interested in the recording process, with topics such as reverberation, absorption, and the acoustic qualities of small performance spaces. This is followed by one of the longer sections in the book, on microphones. Here Dr. Ballora covers, again objectively, all aspects of transducer design and specification, from mechanical engineering to numerous illustrations of polar plots. The chapter ends with a glimpse at what is currently being used as 5.1 surround-sound microphone configurations. I was disappointed that there was no discussion of microphone placement or recording directly into the computer and the attendant technical considerations.

Chapter 12, "Treating and Mixing Audio,” starts with a well-organized explanation of audio effects and finishes with a less engaging section on the basic modules of an analog mixing board. “Digital Instruments,” Chapter 13, is oddly lacking in the kind of technical expertise that Dr. Ballora brings to the other topics in his book. For example, after a short description of samplers and “groove boxes,” there is only one paragraph on additive synthesis. Subtractive, phase modulation, and vector synthesis techniques get a few more sentences and a diagram or two, but I think readers looking for the “essentials” of synthesis and computer-based performance software might feel short-changed by this chapter.

The first Appendix contains 14 brief descriptions of beginner-level “suggested class projects,” and Appendix 2 offers an example of basic HTML code used for placing a MIDI file on a Web page.

It is evident that Mr. Ballora is a highly trained and knowledgeable professor of music technology. He writes in a delightfully clear and precise manner. The majority of the illustrations are, if sometimes unnecessarily large, some of the best I’ve encountered. So back to the earlier questions: is it a useful reference, and for whom? The author makes it clear that the book is meant for a variety of people engaged with music in different ways: those who perform, teach, compose, and record. Mainly, though, it seems designed for students pursuing a music education. For a reference guide to cover so many topics for such a broad range of musical interests seems difficult in a rather short book with many full-page illustrations. When the author is enthused he writes concisely and informatively; however, these sections are offset by reduced coverage of several important areas, as mentioned above.

As a teacher, I found the book to be a useful reference for several essential subjects, but the book neglects many important areas required for my university-level media technology classes. For example, the book doesn’t cover the use of the ubiquitous plug-ins found in digital audio workstation programs. Thus, for me, it falls a little short of its stated goal as a reference guide. However, many university music technology classes already assign the book, with satisfied users no doubt, so please examine the book for yourself and see if it fits your needs.