Vol. 37 Issue 4 Reviews

Dan Hosken: Music Technology and the Project Studio: Synthesis and Sampling

Hardcover, 2012, ISBN 978-0-415-99723-2, 272 pages, illustrated, index; available from Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 270 Madison Avenue, New York, New York, USA; telephone (212) 216-7800; fax: (212) 563-2269; Web  www.routledge.com/.

Reviewed by Douglas Geers
New York, USA

Hosken BookIn the Winter 2011 issue of the Computer Music Journal, I wrote a review of Dan Hosken’s book An Introduction to Music Technology. Among other things, I praised the book’s clear, concise writing and its focus on a range of audio topics that I think are valuable for today’s musicians to understand. However I did note that Hosken’s chapters on software synthesizers and samplers seemed a bit more in-depth than I felt necessary in such a book, and that perhaps they could have been edited down a bit, since, to me, they were topics beyond the introductory stages.

As it turns out, those chapters in An Introduction to Music Technology were an overview in comparison to the thorough treatment Hosken gives them in his more recent text, Music Technology and the Project Studio. Whereas An Introduction to Music Technology was oriented toward a general audience of musicians wanting to grasp music technology from microphones and cables to software, the new book focuses mostly on the use of software synthesizers and samplers for sound design, composition, and arranging. Both books seem aimed at undergraduate music technology students, and from the similarities between them I could imagine that they were initially supposed to be a single, larger text but were separated due to issues of length, focus, price, and target audience.

I must admit that I felt some reservations upon first reading Music Technology and the Project Studio, since much of it deals with the use of digital audio workstation (DAW) software and control of software samplers and synthesizers via MIDI. Some of these reservations stemmed from my disappointment that, three decades after its introduction, MIDI is still the standard control protocol for commercial synthesizers.  I feel a tinge of regret that any students today must spend time learning about MIDI note-on and note-off messages, memorizing that MIDI continuous controller number seven handles channel volume, and figuring out how to express nearly all musical parameters as integers within the range of 0–127.

This bias aside, I realize that MIDI is still the standard in commercial music software and hardware (yes, some hardware still exists) and that, despite my complaints, clever musicians can accomplish much using these products. I do include MIDI basics in my own teaching and I use a MIDI controller when I perform. While we await the rumored MIDI Manufacturers Association’s HD specification, we are stuck with this thirty-year-old, serial, eight-bit protocol.

As mentioned above, Hosken’s intended audience for Music Technology and the Project Studio is those who want to use commercial DAW programs and plug-ins to create electronic music, broadly defined. My first reaction upon reading about the focus on DAWs in the book’s introduction was “What? DAWs for synthesis and sound design? Not Max, Csound, or Supercollider?” However, upon further reflection I realized that Hosken’s choice makes sense for this book, since (1) many in the target audience would likely not be curious and committed enough to learn one of the applications mentioned above at such an early stage in their education, and (2) DAWs today are rich environments that allow users to focus on outcomes rather than building their own instruments, which is what Music N-derived applications encourage. Most DAWs include some kind of analog-synthesis-emulating instrument, and when these and other sound-producing plug-ins are used cleverly, the DAW environment can be quite powerful.

It is worth noting that Hosken does not choose a particular DAW but rather speaks about commonalities and shows screen shots from a variety of them. In general, his focus is on theory and implementation, not the click-by-click instruction given by texts like Learn Pro Tools 11. I think this is a good choice and will increase the longevity of the text.

Thus, rather than being disappointed that Hosken wasn’t pushing students into powerful software platforms that I enjoy, I came to appreciate his enterprise, which is to coax relative beginners away from using timbral presets into understanding how sounds may be created, shaped, and deployed even within the warm conformity of the DAW applications. In short, this text intends to teach the use of instruments, not the programming of them. It seems that he is hoping to inform students about the world of musical sound design and synthesis in hopes that readers will pursue these avenues of creativity in their own work. He is meeting them on their own turf and trying to entice them to think in electroacoustic terms and to pay much more care to the sounds themselves in their music. This strategy of educating by anchoring new ideas to familiar ones has gained much currency in educational theory in recent years (James E. Zull’s The Art of Changing the Brain is an excellent overview of these ideas).

Another consideration regarding Hosken’s approach, harkening back to my “Why not Csound?” reaction above, is to what degree it might be that I, a composer of electroacoustic music, feel threatened by the ease with which one may now create sounds and compositions. I equate a portion of my compositional skill with my ability to create interesting sonic objects, and it can be disconcerting to ponder the multitude of hours I’ve spent with Cmix, Csound, and Max, building systems that may not sound as sonically rich as output from contemporary DAW plug-ins. Somehow I feel that programming my own sounds makes me a ‘serious’ composer rather than a ‘knob twiddler,’ and using DAW plug-ins seems too easy. However, even as long ago as 1990 Paul Lansky proposed a new category of computer music creators in his article “A View from the Bus: When Machines Make Music” (Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 28/2, Summer 1990). This category consists of instrument builders, those who design and create sound-making systems that are then used by composers and performers. For decades in computer music most composers were their own instrument builders, mostly using applications derived from the Music-N paradigm; and despite my rational understanding my intuitive side is having difficulty accepting that one may still be ‘serious’ when employing sounds created with such widely-used commercial audio production applications.  Interestingly, it is the use of DAW sounds that disturb me the most, not the act of mixing itself.

Turning back to Hosken’s text, Music Technology and the Project Studio reminds me of books that I read and valued when I began learning electronic music years ago, such as Craig Anderton’s MIDI for Musicians and Scott Wilkinson’s Anatomy of a Home Studio, both of which are of course ridiculously outdated now. For me, the Anderton and Wilkinson books were straightforward sources of practical information to help beginners become oriented and informed enough to begin producing music. In fact Hosken’s first book, An Introduction to Music Technology, is probably more closely congruent with the Anderton and Wilkinson texts and his Music Technology and the Project Studio is, appropriately, the sequel, connecting the realm of the introductory to aspirations toward more sophisticated resources such as Curtis Roads’ The Computer Music Tutorial, which, although ancient by today’s standards with its 1996 copyright, is still my most beloved computer music text, one that I still dream might someday be regenerated in a second edition; or Charles Dodge and Thomas Jerse’s Computer Music, which is less exhaustive than the Roads text but wonderfully oriented toward composers, written in a more consistent, conversational voice, and contains many examples of specific works that employ techniques discussed.

As with An Introduction to Music Technology, Hosken’s prose style in Music Technology and the Project Studio is clear and concise, reminding me of the Dodge and Jerse text mentioned above. Put simply, Hosken is a good textbook writer, packing in a lot of information without things becoming dense or arcane. His explanations are generally well done, and the figures are similarly uncluttered and easy to read.

The book is organized into nine chapters, of which the first three chapters are condensed reviews of sound, digital audio, and MIDI. Hosken assumes some familiarity with these topics, perhaps from reading his first book, but nevertheless presents enough information on each topic that this text could be used by itself as the sole textbook for a course. This works well, except that readers who purchased An Introduction to Music Technology may be a bit annoyed that nearly one third of the new text reviews topics already discussed in the first one. And those with no previous experience might find the pace of the opening chapters a bit too quick.

In these introductory chapters Hosken makes some difficult choices regarding how much detail to provide, as in the first chapter’s discussion of decibels. There he defines dB SPL and dB SIL and shows the formulas for them, but does not dissect the formulas in detail, give examples, nor attempt to explain logarithms. In these chapters and throughout the text some more advanced concepts (although not logarithms) are included as sidebar pages labeled “Technically Speaking.” This sidebar technique provides interested readers with a bit more detail and keeps much of the math out of the main text.

In chapter four Hosken dives into his main enterprise, laying out the essentials of sound synthesis and sampling for beginners. Here I imagine him addressing the thousands of young people who have begun their compositional journey with Garageband, Reason, or Ableton Live and then become intrigued enough to enroll in a music technology course. Hosken assumes that the reader knows nothing about the underlying theory, even defining the terms synthesis and sampling on the chapter’s first page. He proceeds to explain modular synthesis using a simple hypothetical synthesizer consisting of an oscillator, lowpass filter, and an ADSR amplifier, and then tells how MIDI messages may be used to control this system. He follows this with a similarly-styled explanation of sampling and MIDI control of samplers.
Chapter five, “Modulation and Dynamic Sound,” reveals Hosken’s serious electroacoustic agenda. In it he introduces and connects multiple methods for animating digital sounds, including the use of envelopes, LFOs, modulation routing, and chaining modulation sources. Here the conceptual reference is again analog modular synthesis. In fact, while reading this chapter I guessed that Hosken was lucky enough to have had significant experience with analog synthesis hardware early in his own education, and I reaffirmed my goal to acquire an analog synthesizer at my university for teaching purposes.

The next three chapters continue to widen and deepen the purview, with discussions of oscillator combinations, noise sources, modulation synthesis, and additional filter types (chapter six), additional synthesis techniques (chapter seven), and other timbral effects, including dynamics, spectrum, and delay-based alterations (chapter eight). Of these, chapter six stands out as especially thorough and successful, and essentially completes Hosken’s description of classical analog synthesis techniques.

Chapter seven discusses multiple wavetable, additive, FM, physical modeling, and granular synthesis techniques. Because of the potential complexity of each of these, their individual discussions feel like the tips of various icebergs. The explanations are fine for beginners, but in a text that has ‘synthesis’ in its title one would hope for more depth here, especially for the multiple wavetable and additive techniques, each given less than three pages of attention. For those and the other synthesis methods, more generous use of examples with figures and illustrations would help. Moreover, it would have been useful to include a list of other synthesis methods beyond those in the text that readers might investigate.

In addition to the synthesis methods themselves, in chapter seven Hosken introduces the idea of “synthesis programming applications,” his term for programs such as Reaktor, Max, Csound, etc. that allow one to program synthesizer components in a Music-N manner. Near the end of the chapter he first presents a general explanation and justification as to why one might wish to use these platforms and then devotes nearly eight pages to a case study in which he compares how Csound and Max could be used to program a simple FM instrument, including step-by-step walk-throughs of the Csound texts and Max patcher. To me, this window into more sophisticated approaches is worthwhile, although I imagine that many beginners will scratch their heads while reading these pages.

Hosken ends the book with “MIDI in Detail,” and one may correctly assume from my anti-MIDI rant above that I was not enthused with another large section of the book devoted to MIDI arcana. Nevertheless, it does provide good explanations of topics such as status bytes versus data bytes, system exclusive messages, and so forth for those who wish to take the plunge.

Overall, this is a well-done text, and I would consider it for use in my own teaching. After the reviews in chapters one to three and laying the synthesis groundwork in chapter four, chapters five and six are high points of the book, revealing the power of modular synthesis in detail. While FM is treated quite thoroughly, I wish there were more details regarding the other synthesis techniques presented in chapter seven.

An interesting addition to a text such as this would be some discussion of how to integrate synthesis into the compositional workflow in a DAW. Several questions come to mind: Should all synthesis be programmed using automation? Might some sounds be created in sub-mixes and flown into a master mix? How might one construct a mix that would not bury all these delicious timbral subtleties?
Moreover although the book’s subtitle “Synthesis and Sampling,” is technically correct, not much of the text focuses on sampling. After essentials are covered in chapter four, sampling reappears mostly in a kind of “me too” manner, as Hosken notes that techniques for coloring sounds may be applied to any sound source, whether synthetic or sampled. To me this is just fine, but I note it here because some readers may be interested to learn how to use samplers to simulate instrumental ensembles, as is widely done in cinema scoring. That topic does not appear in this text.

The book’s website contains audio and some audio-video demonstrations of techniques described in the first two chapters of the book, which is useful, but there are none for the remainder of the text. I wish not only for similar examples for the remaining chapters but also for references to specific pieces of music that employ the techniques discussed, as Dodge and Jerse include in their book. The works referenced could be drawn from a variety of styles, from pop to Stockhausen, to illustrate the breadth of possible applications of ideas and techniques discussed.  Perhaps that is beyond the scope of this text, but it certainly would be beneficial.