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Striking up a synthetic sound.

A keyboard isn't the only way to coax a musical sound out of a computer-controlled synthesizer. Max V. Mathews and his collaborators at AT&T Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, N.J., have invented a sensor that responds to the beat of a soft drumstick. The sensor tells the computer where, when and how hard the sensor is hit. The synthesizer responds with the appropriate musical note.

The sensor, a very light, rigid sandwich of wood and Styrofoam, has the shape of an equilateral triangle. Each time the sensor is struck, it sends four pieces of information to the computer -- a "trigger" pulse, the two coordinates of the strike point and the force of the blow. The computer uses this information to shape synthesizer notes. The blow force usually controls the loudness, while the two coordinates may set the pitch and the sound's decay time.

One novel way of playing the sensor is in the form of a "conductor program." The sequence of pitches to be played is stored in the computer's memory. Each stroke causes the next pitch in the sequence to be played. In this mode, the two coordinates control the type of sound and its decay time. As a result, the player no longer has to worry about getting the notes right, and can concentrate instead on dynamics and tempo.

"In this particular style of music and lots of other music," says Mathews, "the performer has very little choice in what pitch he plays. If he changes the pitch from what the composer wrote down, that's considered to be a mistake." On the other hand, the performer has much more freedom to choose an appropriate rhythm, loudness, speed and timbre.

"Most of the music is not in the raw notes but in the interpretation of the notes," says Mathews. "If the musician doesn't really have a choice, don't make him make the choice. There is plenty left for the performer to do in bringing the music out of the raw score." A suitable sensor allows a musician to modify in interesting ways what's coming from the memory of the computer. A drumlike sensor can be played faster than a keyboard, and, says Mathews, "people like hitting things."

Mathews demonstrated his percussive sensor last week at an Acoustical Society of America meeting in Nashville, Tenn. "This is a simple, rugged, inexpensive sensor that's easy to manufacture," says Mathews.

The Mathews sensor works best with a synthesizer like the Synclavier II manufactured by New England Digital Corp. This electronic instrument responds almost instantly to signals sent in by a computer.

Mathews and W.A. Burnette have developed a special computer language, a form of RTSKED, for the Synclavier. It allows precise control of the timing of computer-controlled events to generate complex musical sounds, which can then be triggered by signals from a keyboard or some other sensor. "Yet [the language]," says Burnette, "is still easy for musicians and composers to use."
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Title Annotation:computer-controlled synthesizer that responds to beat of a drumstick
Author:Peterson, Ivars
Publication:Science News
Date:Nov 16, 1985
Words:492
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