Vol. 35 Issue 4 Reviews

Dan Hosken: An Introduction to Music Technology

Hardcover, 2011, ISBN 978-0-415-87827-2, 400 pages, illustrated, index, US$ 126.00; available from Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 270 Madison Avenue, New York, New York, USA; telephone (+1) 212-216-7800; fax: (+1) 212-563-2269; Web www.routledge.com/textbooks/9780415997294/.

Reviewed by Douglas Geers
New York, New York, USA

Hosken BookDan Hosken’s An Introduction to Music Technology is a well-written book that would be an excellent choice of textbook for university courses on music technology. Hosken covers topics including acoustics and psychoacoustics, digital audio, audio equipment, software for composing, notation, mixing, pedagogical applications, sampling, synthesis, and how computers function. He explains these subjects in a clear, accessible style and includes numerous figures and photos. The text is aimed at a wide range of college-level students with no background in music technology, and seems appropriate for conservatory performers, composers, and beginning audio production students.

The text is divided into five main sections: Sound, Audio, MIDI, Synthesis and Sampling, and Computer Notation and Computer-A ssisted Instruction . Each of these sections contains two to four chapters that focus on aspects of the main topic. Following the main sections there is an appendix entitled The Music Computer, containing two additional chapters that explain fundamentals of computer hardware and software. Each chapter ends with a list of important terms introduced in it; each section ends with suggested readings and activities to further explore the ideas discussed. A Web site related to the book contains links to additional materials and some audiovisual examples made specifically for the text. In his preface to instructors, Hosken suggests that the text may be used for a one- or two-semester course, perhaps with some chapters omitted in the former case.

The first major section of the book, Sound, encompasses C hapters 1--3 . Here Hosken presents the essentials of acoustics, human sound perception, and sound measurement, accompanied by illustrations that help clarify these concepts. There are explanations of the relationships between frequency and pitch and between amplitude and decibels (SPL), as well as a discussion of timbre, with a focus on the overtone series. One example of the text’s targeting of beginners is that through these chapters (and the entire book), the mathematics rarely moves beyond arithmetic.
The second major section, Audio, includes chapters entitled “Audio Hardware,” “Digital Audio Data,” “Digital Audio Software: The DAW,” and “Audio—What Do I Need?” Among these, the first is especially useful for conservatory-type musicians attempting to work with music technology, as it explains the types and uses of microphones and preamps; microphone-, line-, and instrument levels; the types of audio connectors; the anatomy of mixers; digital audio interfaces; amplifiers; and loud speakers. Obviously, the materials covered in this one chapter could warrant at least an entire book for more advanced students, but this chapter, generously illustrated, serves as a clear and simple starting point for students and could be expanded upon by further explanation and demonstration during class. For example, the explanations of cables and connectors, with photos of each, will likely be valuable to, and bookmarked by, newcomers.
The Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) chapter is a mostly successful attempt to explain DAW functions without referring to a specific application. Fortunately, software has evolved to the degree that most major commercial DAWs share many functions and even methods for enacting them through the graphical <<per http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/gui>> interface. Hosken includes illustrations from Pro Tools, Logic, Digital Performer, Cubase, and Reason.
Chapter 7, “Audio–What Do I Need?,” is another nice addition for those just entering the music technology field. In it, Hosken proposes four audio systems to help students know what hardware and software they might want to acquire to meet their artistic goals. Interestingly, the first, “Audio System 0,” is merely one’s existing computer along with additional information about freeware. Later in the text, Hosken follows up on this discussion with “MIDI–What Do I Need?” (Chapter 11 ).

The third section of the book, MIDI, includes C hapters 8 through 11: “MIDI Hardware,” “MIDI Messages,” “MIDI Sequencing,” and the aforementioned “MIDI-What Do I Need?” Interestingly, in the preface to the text Hosken admits that it was difficult for him to decide where in his text to place a discussion of MIDI and how much detail to include, since in recent years many previously important MIDI details now are handled “behind the scenes” by DAW and notation software. His choice was to give a general history and overview (C hapter 8), a relatively detailed explanation of how MIDI functions (C hapter 9), and a chapter on using sequencers (Chapter 10) that is essentially a parallel of his earlier chapter on digital audio in DAWs . The convenience of this organization is that instructors may choose to skip C hapter 9 if time does not allow for coverage of such details. Also noteworthy is that two pages near the end of C hapter 10 mention alternative approaches to MIDI composition and performance using Max/MSP, PD, Ableton Live, and MainStage. Though this discussion is quite brief, it is worthwhile that the text points beyond the dominant commercial paradigm.

Section 4 of the text is Synthesis and Sampling, including the chapters “Electronic Sound Production,” “Synthesis Methods,” and “Sampling Methods.” Like the chapter on MIDI messages, these chapters explore topics a bit more deeply than the title Introduction to Music Technology might imply. However, for composers and performers who wish to understand synthesis and sampling, the materials covered are wholly appropriate. As with the MIDI discussion, the first chapter lays out the truly introductory information, in this case the basics of synthesis: oscillators, filters, amplifiers, modulation, and the relationship between hardware and software synthesizers. The following two chapters delve into the details, with the synthesis chapter giving thumbnail explanations of a wide variety of synthesis techniques, and the sampling chapter providing a general overview of how samplers function.

The final section of the main text is Computer Notation and Computer-Assisted Instruction, explored with one chapter for each of these topics. As with the earlier discussion of DAWs, Hosken attempts to explain common features of several popular notation programs (Finale, Sibelius, NoteAbility Pro, Overture, and NOTION3) with reasonable success. In contrast, the chapter on computer-assisted instruction (CAI) serves more as an overview of what kinds of programs are available, with screenshots and examples from many of them, rather than an attempt to explain how one uses them.  The topics include the areas of theory/ear- training, musical analysis, history and terminology, performance skills, and creative skills. For instructors who want to spend much of the semester on CAI, this chapter will certainly not suffice. However, since most music technology instructors are more oriented towards music production and composition, the overview here will likely serve adequately for most.
Finally, Hosken ends his text with two appendices that explain the function and configuration of computer hardware and software. In his preface he states that many of today’s students already have significant understanding of computers when they enter the music technology classroom, and thus these chapters were not considered appropriate as part of the main text. As with his chapter on audio hardware, the computer hardware chapter introduces fundamental equipment as well as connectors and similar nuts-and-bolts issues, such as types of storage, storage capacities, and I nternet connection speeds. The software chapter defines operating systems, application software, and malware; licenses and copy protection; and the relationships of networked computers. Once again, materials are presented briefly and with clarity.
My assessment of this text included use of it as the primary text for a one-semester course entitled, not coincidentally, “Introduction to Music Technology,” offered in the fall of 2010 at the City University of New York, Brooklyn College. With that in mind, I will end with some more personal reactions to the book based on this experience.

I first encountered An Introduction to Music Technology while seeking a new text for my course.  I had used another text previously (Experiencing Music Technology, by David Brian Williams and Peter Richard Webster). Although I originally chose the Williams and Webster text because of the breadth of its content, in practice I found it extremely dissatisfying in its organization, writing style, dated sensibility, and expensive price. I reviewed several other texts seeking a replacement, and when I read Dan Hosken’s book, its choice of topics and writing style made it my clear choice, with its lower price as an added benefit. Moreover, its 2011 copyright e nsured that it was among the most up-to-date texts available.

My course is aimed primarily at non-composers: performers, music education students, and musicologists. Thus, I spent much more time on some chapters of this book (such as C hapters 1--5) than others (such as C hapters 9 and 12--14). I also began my course with the appendices, explaining computer hardware and software. In my experience, students have a wide range of understanding of how these actually function. A surprising number of students seem ignorant of fundamentals such as directory hierarchies, the distinction between operating system and applications, etc.

As an author of this sort of book must, Hosken makes choices through his text regarding how much detail and complexity to impart to his readers. Thus, every instructor will find some parts of the text disappointing. For instance, he briefly introduces resonance when explaining audio in C hapter 1 but only quickly mentions formants later in the text when describing physical models of the human voice. In another case, the chapters on acoustics and psychoacoustics are followed by one on audio hardware, whereas I probably would have immediately moved on to how digital audio functions.

Another challenge for texts such as this is how to e nsure that they don’t quickly become obsolete as technologies evolve. As described above, Hosken minimizes the possibility of obsolescence by focusing on general organization and operation of software rather than use of specific applications. To me, this choice is wiser than choosing to provide detailed explanations of specific versions of a small number of programs.

Finally, although this is a minor aspect in comparison to what has been discussed already, I find the cover of this book engaging. Unlike other books on music technology, which often promote an aura of magic by combining vaguely electronic-looking swirls of color with photography of beautiful performers and brightly-colored software, the cover of An Introduction to Music Technology features a seemingly ramshackle arrangement of road cases and a stack of rack gear with what appear to be LPs, pushed into the corner of a nondescript room. Cables hang at random, crumpled paper is scattered on the floor, and paint is peeling on the walls.  Although there is a whiff of an art director’s simplification in the photo, this is much more likely to be how students will experience music technology outside of the classroom, rather than in some pristine environment. That appeals to me.

I do not imagine using this text to teach an upper-level or graduate computer music course, unless richly supplemented. However, when judged by its own stated goals, An Introduction to Music Technology is a solid success. When I reflect on the music technology knowledge I believe every musician should know, my list closely matches the contents of this text.