Professor Experiments with Music Software to Improve Interactivity

Kim Cyprian/Guardian

The combination of two of society’s dominating forces — music and computer technology — has created the ever-evolving field of computer music. Software that bridges technology and instrumental music, known as real-time audio, is currently undergoing drastic improvements, making processing compositions more efficient.

Recently appointed as Composer in Residence at UCSD’s division of Calit2, music professor Rand Steiger is developing the music-writing software programs MAX and Pure Data to make them easier to use, and eventually automatic.

Although real-time software has been available for about 10 years, Steiger said that the existing software poses a problem for most musicians when they’re attempting to process their scores. Currently, MAX and Pure Data — both invented by music department director Miller Puckette — produce a visual programming language that allows composers to produce interactive computer music. But, composers are limited in that a professional usually needs to be present in order to play and edit the pieces.­­

For the program to work, the artist plays his or her instrument, which is plugged into the computer, while a composer reads the data for each musical note.

The music is then altered at the computer. In addition, the input and output signals are constantly contoured to blend the natural sounds of the instruments in combination with the processed sound projected from the speakers.

“The computer analyzes the data and compares it to the score and actually keeps it in sync with what the performer is playing, so the performer can play with complete freedom of tempo and the computer automatically follows what the performer is playing and makes all the changes automatically,” Steiger said.

Since 2001, Steiger’s research has focused on improving the software to make it more responsive and automatic to the music that is input into the computer.

“This has been a very unreliable technology that’s been evolving over the last ten years, but now it is becoming a lot more stabilized,” he said.

Steiger also currently experiments with convolution, a combination of two unusual noises — such as an oboe and running water — with the processed computer sounds to create a blend of sounds that has not been heard before.

With graduate student Chris Warren, Steiger is developing fine control to blend very different sounds together by altering Puckette’s existing software. His goal is to eventually make the software wireless so that it runs automatically while music is played, without the help of a professional.

Steiger will test the improvements in the software in January with the International Contemporary Ensemble, a group he performed with alongside Puckett. The New York-based group is made up of 30 classical musicians, and will come to San Diego to play and test scores developed by Steiger.

Steiger hopes that constructive criticism from the ensemble and their experience with the software will provide information on how to improve his real-time software. Over the next two years, he hopes to write a dozen scores for the ensemble to perform.

The main obstacle Steiger has no control over is the structure of classical instruments. Unlike guitars, which contain built-in electronic censors and the ability to be plugged into a computer, most classical instruments have to be played into a microphone to generate data.

By eliminating the microphone and creating an instrument that can generate electric output, reading notes will be more concise, Steiger said.

After he completes all his scores, the professor hopes to create a website containing both his music and advanced real-time software. Visitors to the site can download his pieces and then edit them with his software.

“By distributing over the web and by having this self-calibrating software, it’s going to be a lot easier to play my music,” Steiger said. “Ten to 15 years ago, this would be unthinkable, and it’s really exciting to me that I can work this way.”

Readers can contact Kirsten Mauro at [email protected].

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