The Digital Humanities Summer Scholars internship has helped me to expand my interests and given me a whole new set of tools for exploring future research questions.
Having the whole of six weeks to focus on one topic has given me the opportunity to explore other interests I did not even know I had before. Before this internship, I felt that working with online digital tools was a skill just beyond my reach. Once I first began to work with tools like Scalar and TimelineJS, I realized that creating digital content can be a surprisingly intuitive and creative process. Now that I am hooked on digital media in a similar way that I am hooked on music creation, this internship has added many entries to my list of academic interests. I have even registered for an introductory computer science course in digital media and I am looking into the possibility of adding an art class in media art. My main interest in digital media, as my project suggests, is in exploring sound. I think I can gain multiple perspectives on this topic from different disciplines.
As an Anthropology/Sociology and Music double major, I am very familiar with using sound in a musical context, but the most fascinating and revelatory research I completed for this project was in the field of sound studies. The idea that musical and unmusical sound can be studied throughout history in its cultural and technological aspects in an academic setting is new to me. I think that there is a tremendous amount of unexplored potential for using digital tools to portray and explore sound. My work with different synthesizer technologies in the Synth Guide is only the tip of the iceberg for ideas that I have to explore sound in these ways.
The thing that most excites me about my finished project is that is easily accessible to others. Unlike most of my other academic work, the Synth Guide is published online. Beyond the fact that it is open-access, I hope that its interactive aesthetic will welcome the user and its multiple content layers will persuade them to keep exploring the site. The Synth Guide is my first real step into the online world of Digital Humanities. I hope that the site will connect me to likeminded individuals and perhaps serve as a small forum in the larger discussion surrounding the legacy of sound in electronic music synthesis.
Reflection 4- Narrowing, Narrowing, Narrowing
This week I have mainly been working on better forming my argument. I realized that the main part of my project I was interested in conveying were the trends in the commercial synthesizer market from its conception until the present day and the sociocultural criticism that accompanies them. Because of this, I want to put more effort into the timeline portion of my project and make it the main focus. I have organized all the important events I want in each timeline and I am just filling in text from my research at this point. Some timelines have a lot more information than others, however this is reflective of the varying levels of innovation and success for each type of technology. I have been able to gather approximate success levels of each type of synthesizer for each time period from my sources. However, it would be interesting if I could find economic data for the sales of each of the five types of popular synthesizers and make it into a line graph in some way. I don’t know if such raw data like this is accessible, but I will try to find it after I finish the portions of my project I have already planned. It has been very important to set deadlines for myself on which sections of the project I need to finish by a certain time. I hoped to have the timeline and digital representations done by this Thursday, however, it looks like I will be able to have only the timeline portion finished by this Thursday and the digital representations finished by next Thursday. Because of this, I have also decided to only work on sound samples that demonstrate the sonic character of each type of synthesizer by the end of the internship period and not full compositions. The compositions can be easily added later by just embedding soundcloud links. Despite not being on time to complete all the portions of the project I wanted to, I think this has helped me to narrow my focus and create more a more in-depth narrative in certain aspects.
Reflection 3- Sound Studies
From meeting with Gettysburg college’s Digital Humanities program and discussing Digital Humanities with visiting professors, I have begun to think of how my interests fit into the larger field. I have recently learned about the burgeoning field of “sound studies” from a few professors. Sound Studies is an interdisciplinary field which looks at the many different ways sound has differed throughout history through two main approaches: the cultural anthropological approach and the scientific technological studies approach. I think my project fits well into this field because it examines the progression of synthesized sounds throughout the 20th century and uses both an anthropological lens and a technological one in the presentation of its content.
One of the visiting professors mentioned a growing interest in initiatives to archive sound as cultural history, just as one would with literature or visual art. I am going to do more research into this field to see if it could be a match for me in future years. Learning about the field of Sound Studies has also stressed the importance of continuing with my project after the official deadline for the program by keeping it up to date as sound slowly but inevitable evolves over time.
Reflection 2- Narrative of Electronic Music Synthesis
After researching many different forms of electronic music synthesis, I have realized that it would be impractical to include all of my findings in a catch-all timeline as I wanted to before. One large timeline with all of the researchable types of synthesis would be a huge undertaking. With the amount of odd and/or underused forms of synthesis a timeline like this would have with scattered pieces of anecdotal information and would be lacking an easily accessible “story arch.” Instead, I have decided that it will be more feasible and effective to chose a few types of synthesis that have made significant impacts in music and music industry. I will use a scalar book to portray each different type of synthesis in an interactive semi-linear narrative with each form of synthesis as a chapter, containing a digital representation/ explanatory model explaining how this form of synthesis works, a composition demonstrating the sonic character of that form of synthesis, and an interactive timeline highlighting key historical points in music pieces and music industry.
I have had difficulty choosing some of the forms of synthesis to represent in my narrative. Because I will be constructing a narrative of synthesis that is inherently incomplete, I must be very careful in choosing which forms of synthesis to include so that they represent reality as nearly as possible. I have already identified most of the types I will use because they are clearly seminal to this narrative and easily distinguishable: Analog Subtractive synthesis, Frequency Modulation synthesis, Sample-based synthesis, and Physical Modeling synthesis. However, I have a general confusion about the distinctions between Digital Waveguide synthesis, Advanced Vector synthesis (Wavestation synthesis), and Wavetable synthesis that I need to reconcile. These forms are not only similar in name but also in the sounds they create and the basic technological principles at work. Digital Waveguide synthesis seems to be closely tied to Physical Modeling synthesis, while Wavetable synthesis is a real-time form of Additive synthesis in effect. I am still trying to find the proper terminology to represent the essence of these technologies in one simplified section.
I have discovered a general trend in the most popular forms of synthesis in my research. Each popular form of synthesis became popular largely because it could create new and more realistic sounds than its predecessor. The trend is true for the progression from Analog, to FM, to Sample-based, to Physical Modeling. While electronic musicians have been known to rush to the “next-big-thing,” in recent years there has been a huge industry shift catering to the widespread nostalgia for “that classic analog sound.” The most technologically advanced form of synthesis, Physical Modeling synthesis, is used to replicate the sound of analog synthesizers in ever-increasing detail in both hardware and software synthesizers called Virtual Analog synthesizers. With the release of the Yamaha Montage and Korg Volca FM this year, the market is also moving to cater to the growing nostalgia for the FM sound that dominated the 1980s.
Older forms of synthesis such as analog or FM do not exist compartmentalized into different periods of time. Writing about synthesizers as if they exist in one singular form in one era is similar to writing in the ethnographic present in anthropology. These older technologies are integral to the current state of the music industry. Companies and musicians alike are actively searching to replicate the classic sounds of previous eras and innovate upon these technologies. I have chosen to represent each popular form of synthesis in chapters to create an easily accessible and comprehendible narrative of the progression of synthesis but this could create the illusion of each form of synthesis compartmentalized to an era. I will use the interactive timeline in each chapter to show the different incarnations and innovations of each form of synthesis up to the present in order to dispel this illusion.
After reflecting on the feasibility of what I can achieve within six weeks with no prior coding knowledge, I have decided to limit my project, an interactive timeline of music technology, to explore elements of electronic music synthesis. I hope to create an interactive timeline with analog synthesizers, frequency modulation synthesizers, wave-table synthesizers, sample-based synthesizers, software synthesizers, and other significant types of synthesizers. Synthesizers can often be unintuitive to newcomers because, unlike acoustic instruments, their interfaces consist of high-technological components: knobs, patch cable inputs (in the case of modular synthesizers), buttons, and tiny screens with layers of menus. Many functions on synthesizers have technologically advanced labels that require prior electronics knowledge to understand the physical processes taking place to shape the sound, such as: Low-Pass Filter, Low Frequency Oscillator, and Envelope Generator. I hope to familiarize people who are unfamiliar with electronic music synthesizers by creating a timeline with interactive digital representations of different types of synthesizers, self-produced music samples that demonstrate the sonic character of each type of synthesizer, and information on the historical context of each type of synthesizer in musical works and music industry. The hardest part of this will be acquiring the coding knowledge needed to make these digital representations truly interactive. I want someone using my project to be able to use their mouse to flick a virtual switch, press a virtual button, or turn a virtual knob and witness a change in the sound created. I will need to educate myself through online materials on coding and digital media, but also ask for an expert’s advice. This element of my project will be challenging, but it is important to me because I have learned that experimentation is a crucial factor in learning to intuitively use synthesizers to make music. Creating music samples will be a much easier task because of my experience doing so, but I will have to become more familiar with some forms of synthesis that I have neglected in the past. Finally, I will need to address the cultural impact of different forms of synthesis. I will do this through adding text that describes the historical context of each different form of synthesis and adding links to outside media. By taking this three-pronged approach to my project, I hope to make this project truly interdisciplinary by developing and employing technical skills, music composition skills, and writing skills.