Cardiff University Electronic Music Studio
If you are serious about electronic music, then you'll appreciate this study report.
If you take a walk through Cardiff's very attractive civic centre, past the City Hall and the Museum with cascading fountains and neolithic standing stones to your right, you will shortly come across a rather impressive building. It is within the scholarly corridors of this building that the electronic music studio of Cardiff University is situated. Whilst the premises were built in 1897, the studio has been in existence a more modest twelve years but during that time a lot of highly innovative work has taken place.
The studio is actually part of the physics department and forms part of an acoustics research complex where work on psychological acoustics, musical instrument acoustics and electronic sound is done. The studio, therefore, forms part of a research triangle in which there is a constant interchange of ideas, equipment and personnel. Most of the hours spent in the studio are taken up with teaching and the course run there is in two parts. The biggest is the Diploma in Electronic Sound which is for the science or arts non-music graduate and is run in parallel with an M.A. in Contemporary and Electronic Music which is run jointly with the studio and the music department. This latter course is for the music graduate specifically but basically anyone with a degree and an inclination towards electronic sound is eligible to apply for the Diploma course. The courses are both one year full-time but the Diploma can be done part-time over two years. They can take six to eight students, the reason for this relatively small number being that many hours are needed for practical work so unfortunately a 'bottleneck' appears when it comes to the students using the studio for their projects. Because the studio is in the physics department the work is more technical than musical and all the staff are scientifically trained but it is recognised that most students are studying the technical side for artistic or musical reasons and musical guidance is available.
The course starts with the students being set fairly well defined projects of a very basic nature which become more difficult as the course progresses. The first thing a student will learn is basic studio techniques like tape manipulation and use of the studio equipment so one of the first exercises will involve using only tape reversal, tape echo and loops, etc. Once these techniques have been mastered the students will then start to use the synthesisers. They will be given exercises which initially utilise the oscillators, gradually moving on to using the filters, etc., as the course progresses. This way, by the end of the year, the students will have a thorough knowledge of every item in the studio, from the splicing block to the computer, both singly and in combination with each other and so realise the full potential of each device. The assessment is made mainly on the technical aspects of the studio, i.e. whether or not the student is seen to be using the equipment properly; if the end result is artistically pleasing then all well and good but it is the technical side which is the most important.
The studio is in fact divided into two parts and both are generously equipped with various multitrack tape recorders which include, in the main studio, a Scully 1" 8-track (which, incidentally, they are not too happy with owing to its tendency to discard knobs and switches quite frequently!). Studio 1 also has a 12-4 mixer that was built at the university which has an ingenious patching system allowing access to any point in the signal chain for processing or monitoring or whatever. Studio 2, the smaller of the two studios, has ¼" Teac and 1" Studer 4-track machines and an Alice 8-2 mixer. Needless to say, there is a goodly supply of trusty Revoxes in both studios. On the synth side they have, in the main studio, the enormous EMS SYNTHI 100. This is the second one ever to have been built and rumour has it that the window had to be completely removed in order to get it into the studio. For those of you not familiar with this instrument it comprises 12 VCOs, 8 VCFs (4 hi-pass, 4 lo-pass), 8 VCAs, 3 VC envelope shapers, 3 Ring modulators, 2 noise generators, 2 VC random voltage generators, 2 VC reverbs, an eight octave filterbank, a pitch to voltage converter, VC slew limiters, 2 five octave dynamic keyboards as well as a polyphonic sequencer, oscilloscope and frequency meter. Access to every parameter (as you can see, everything is voltage controllable) is via two 60 x 60 patch panels, one for control voltages, the other for signal routing, where every module can be connected by the insertion of one or more mini-jack type pins. Whilst I feel it is fair to say that the SYNTHI 100 has seen better days and maybe doesn't compare so favourably with more recent modular type synths, it is the ideal tool for teaching because of its undoubted patching versatility - all aspects of additive and subtractive synthesis can be demonstrated as well as sophisticated control functions.
The studio is also equipped with a rather amazing polyphonic computer controller. It is a Texas Instruments 990 (based on a TMS 9900 microprocessor chip) which can control up to four voices on the SYNTHI via digital-to-analogue and analogue-to-digital conversion peripherals. The system was developed by Marcus West while he was a research student at the university. He wrote the software program and what it has to offer is truly remarkable. The software, called SEQUEMUSE, occupies about 4.5K words of core and is written in assembler language. Besides sequencing music, it has the ability to compensate for the shortcomings of analogue synthesisers (i.e. drift and non-linearity) by going through a tuning up routine. This is a routine in which the computer monitors the frequency of the VCO being tuned, compares it with the note it has been programmed to play and if there is any deviation in pitch it increases or decreases the control voltage accordingly so that it is in perfect tune. It does this through the audio range, semitone by semitone, and then stores the relevant control voltages in its memory so that it is able to provide exactly the right voltage when programmed to play a particular note. You can use this procedure to programme micro- and macro-tonal scales as well as totally bizarre scales and modes (i.e. Dorian, Phyrygian, etc.).
To programme the computer, one uses a QWERTY typewriter keyboard terminal - this takes a bit of getting used to but with practice is easy enough even for those people unfamiliar with computer programming. The user enters bar data as a number of bars, each with a specified number of notes (up to 31 per bar) each with its own pitch, duration and envelope characteristic (timbre and dynamic changes can also be programmed but require other control voltage outputs to control filter cut-off frequency and VCA gain, etc.). Up to 200 bars may be defined which might not seem very much but one of the controllers most powerful features is the ability to repeat bars a specified number of times; these bars can also be transposed up or down both tonally and chromatically and changes made at any point in the sequence. For instance, if I were to programme the following into the computer (after I had defined what notes, etc. exist within the bars, of course): '4(1 3 5)2-6.' bars 1, 3 and 5 would be played four times (as indicated by the number before the bracket) which would be followed immediately by bars 2 to 6. A complete piece of music could therefore be entered into the computer using, let us say, only eight bars of four notes each. These could be transposed up or down, repeated in any configuration or harmonically and rhythmically transformed in any number of sophisticated ways. This is in sharp contrast to other computer controllers which require that you programme in every single note - a tedious task, especially if you have a lengthy piece of music. Speed of the piece is totally variable with SEQUEMUSE without, of course, any change in pitch and pieces can be 'dumped' onto cassette for storage of programs. The 4 voice polyphonic system can be extended by synchronisation with a multitrack tape recorder.
I have had the pleasure of working with Marcus on this system and it really is very powerful indeed. Examples of music performed on the computer can be heard on E&MM Demonstration Cassette No. 7.
Another development is a self-improvisational computer system which is being built by Mike Greenhough, the director of the studio. This system generates sequences of pitches in real time according to statistical rules. It can also be controlled in real time by a voice input, following the voice's pitch in perfect tune. It quantises the voice digitally and compensates for human pitch error. The 'improvisations' can be stored in computer memory where they can be edited into a more structured piece. It is basically intended as an aid to composition and as such is proving to be very interesting. Other projects include an 8-voice polyphonic, digital synth with a unique infra-red scanning dynamic keyboard which was being developed by Steve Parkes whilst he was a research student. Another interesting development is a Walsh function generator. This is a system which, instead of using sinewaves for waveform generation (i.e. using sinewaves as multiples of a fundamental frequency at relative levels to create harmonics and hence different waveforms), uses squarewaves for the same purpose, these being easier to produce digitally than sines.
So, as you can see, there is a lot of highly innovative work going on at Cardiff University. Plans for the future include exploiting a new link between the computers and a mainframe computer (which is situated elsewhere in Cardiff) for even greater control. Tight financial limitations have limited the purchasing of new equipment but this has not prevented them from being extremely innovative in their approach to electronic sound. Any of you who may be interested in the courses or any of the developments can obtain further details from Mike Greenhough, Dept, of Physics, University College, Cardiff. I'm sure it has a great deal to offer anyone interested in this field; it will certainly give one a good grounding in both the basic and more advanced techniques of electro-music - techniques which can be put to good use whatever aspect of synthesiser music one may be involved in.
Feature by Steve Howell
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