Computers and SocietyDavid D. Thornburg, Associate Editor
While the debate continues to rage over the destiny of the home computer, specialized programmable computers are showing up in people's homes in record numbers. These computers are the inexpensive music synthesizers manufactured by Casio, Yamaha, Seiko, Kawai, and several others.
In an earlier column I mentioned that the acceptance of the MIDI interface standard has resulted in a powerful merging of synthesizer technology with personal computers. I expect that within a few years every new personal computer will have a built-in MIDI interface.
Music For Everyone
Our love affair with music is extraordinary. At any time of the day or night you can turn on your radio and find that the vast majority of stations are playing music. Given the popularity of recorded music and concerts, you might conclude that we are more interested in hearing music than making it. While this is probably true to some extent, it's not as pervasive as it seems. Musical instruments sell briskly.
Millions of people want to enjoy music by playing it themselves. Historically there have been two barriers to this creative urge. The first is the difficulty of learning to play a conventional musical instrument, and the second is the difficulty of learning to read and write music using traditional notational schemes. Faced with the need to practice for years, many would-be musicians give up in frustration.
From the moment it is brought home, the modern digital synthesizer allows music to be created. Unlike a real trumpet, whose first sounds seem better suited for burglar alarms than for music, a synthesized trumpet sounds sweet from the very beginning.
In addition to providing high-quality sounds, the inexpensive modern synthesizer provides additional help to musicians in the form of sophisticated rhythm sections, automatic arpeggios and chords, and even the ability to sequence several tracks of music into a completely orchestrated piece. All these features can be found at the local discount store for under $200.
If I felt for a moment that synthesized instruments were going to replace traditional instruments, I would be concerned. Instead, we are seeing the synthesizer emerge as a class of instrument in its own right, taking its place next to traditional instruments.
The most exciting aspect of synthesizers is that they can produce sounds unavailable in traditional instruments. If you think about it, musical sounds are made in one of four ways: by hitting something (drums or pianos), plucking something (harpsichords, guitars), blowing air into or across something (organs, horns), or scratching two things together (violins). The synthesizer can emulate many of these sounds, but more importantly, it can be used to create sounds that can't be made by traditional methods. This allows the design and creation of new musical instruments by a new breed of craftsperson—one who works with programs rather than with chisels and glue.
If there is a major limitation to modern synthesizers, it is that new sounds can be hard to implement. For instance, the Yamaha DX-7, one of the standard instruments in the field, is difficult to program without the use of a separate computer.
A recent entry into the low-cost synthesizer market has made this task a lot easier. This instrument is Casio's SK-1 sampling keyboard, which retails for well under $200. The computer in the instrument allows sounds to be captured from external sources through a built-in microphone. Suppose you would like to make an instrument that sounds like a hammer hitting a pipe. To capture this sound, you need only place the SK-1 near a pipe (an external mike can be used), press the Sample key on the synthesizer, and hit the pipe with a hammer. The internal computer samples the sound for 1.4 seconds, encodes the sound digitally, and stores it in about 14K bytes of RAM. The sound you record is assigned to the A key. Once the sound is entered, you can play it at any pitch by pressing the appropriate key on the keyboard. You can also modify the sound's envelope after it is recorded.
The most exciting aspect of this instrument, and others like it, is that it stimulates creative experimentation. If it took hours to create new sounds, you might be reluctant to try offbeat ideas, simply because they might turn out to be a waste of time. With the SK-1, a new sound can be captured in a few seconds. As a result, new owners of the instrument typically spend the first day or so capturing everything from motorcycle engines to recited poetry and using these sounds to create new music.
This playful aspect of the synthesizer is its greatest strength. The computer in this synthesizer is completely transparent to the user. There is no barrier between your goal—music making—and a satisfying result. Technology has receded into the background to facilitate the creation of music, and another computer has quietly entered the home.