Magazine article Science News

Striking Up a Synthetic Sound

Magazine article Science News

Striking Up a Synthetic Sound

Article excerpt

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. …

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