Of Men and Mice
The world of music is being invaded by computers whether you like it or not. So what can they offer the musician? Mark Badger takes a sideways glance at the development and application of this burgeoning new technology.
Mark Badger takes a sideways glance at computers, their design and applications in music production.
This article will at times seem hardly connected with music, to the extent that I feel it necessary to warn you here at the introduction. I'm going to discuss the benefits of modern technology, and the associated drawbacks. It is a form of review, but not of any one specific product. Rather, I want to examine how we, as human beings, interact with the new breed of electronic assistants, and computers in particular. By studying how we use such tools now, I hope that we can gain an insight into the sort of techniques which will become available to us over the next few years. As with many discussions, occasionally it will seem like I'm going in circles; please persevere, for there's something to interest everyone.
Back before World War II, one of the most difficult problems which faced artillery gunners was trying to figure out where their cannons would end up sending the projectiles they fired off. There are a lot of factors they had to take into account: the weight of the object they were firing; the power of the charge itself; the weather; the relative elevations; and, of course, the distance from the target. Ballistics was a science that was best learned empirically, in battle. This meant that highly experienced gun commanders were sought-after personnel who really could not be risked in the field. Obviously a dilemma for people engaged in war.
The concentrated effort to find a solution promoted a scramble to be the first to make a machine capable of performing the necessary calculations. The machine would have to know about the limitations of the cannon itself, and be fed values for the parameters outlined above. It could then calculate and display the precise angle of elevation and required direction of the barrel to achieve a 'hit'. The personal computer was on its way.
In 1987 the microchip calculator, whose genesis was the search for greater destructive accuracy, plays a huge part in virtually every aspect of modern life. While the military continues to search for even more efficient methods of achieving its aims, we in the musical world have been able to pursue more peaceful goals by utilising their earlier discoveries.
We've been making excellent use of the tube (valve) amplifier ever since the Thirties, and now the transistor plays a vital role in almost every electronic acoustic application.
The on-going development of transistor construction techniques has now led to the widespread introduction of a new technology. These new facilities have added two new buzzwords to the language of musicians of our generation - digital and computer. Let's take a look at the ingredients of these two words, which we seem to hear so often in association with the 'latest and greatest'.
Usually, we relate the word 'computer' to a device with a typewriter (QWERTY) keyboard and a TV screen (a Visual Display Unit). These are, perhaps, the essential popular ingredients. If you've had personal experience of such devices, the word might conjure up more (!) - software, floppy disks, whirring disk drives, entangled cables, chattering printers - it depends very much on whatever machine you've spent time in front of. These popular associations, though accurate in an everyday sort of way, can easily mislead people when they consider their relationship with these machines we call computers and how they can be used to assist them with their work.
The difficulty arises from our perception of exactly what a 'computer' is. In fact, there are many thousands of devices which share the essential electronic ingredients of our, now common, personal computers but have no QWERTY keyboard or VDU. We just don't recognise them as 'computers', as they don't fit our popular definition. If, however, you take a look at the actual circuit board of these devices, you will find that it is only the keyboard and display which distinguish them from 'personal computers'. The distinction is borne more by semantics than by the electronics by which such machines function.
This is due, in part, to there being very few basic 'tools' available to the circuit designer. These tools fall into just three main categories: resistors, capacitors and transistors. Of course, there are many different types within each of these groups, but they represent the main building blocks of every device which utilises electricity to perform a task.
A computer is primarily a calculating device. It has a power supply, a microprocessor, some memory in which to store the equations, and a means of accepting 'input' and delivering 'output'. There is a popular myth that the computer uses a different type of electronic building block, something digital. Not true. 'Digital' is merely a distinction created by the logic which makes such electronics work, not the building blocks themselves.
The reason for the recent promulgation of computers and other digital devices is two-fold. A single set of digital microchips can, with appropriate changes to the levels of voltage which control them, be made to perform very many different tasks. In other words, they are programmable. Linked to this are the economic desires of the electronics industry who, because of very high development costs, need to produce devices which have many applications. If only a thousand examples of the latest brilliant idea from the backroom boys are sold, the profits will take a nose-dive. If, on the other hand, designers can find a use for the same chip in everything from a compact disc player to a credit card, the factory is in for some good business. The reason that the latest and greatest tend to be 'digitally computerised' is not because of any inherent quality advantage, but because they provide quality with relative economy. Programmability is the key word; the same chips can be programmed to perform completely unrelated jobs.
If you look 'under the bonnet' of a modern synthesizer you will find that it is also a 'computer'. Its microprocessor scans an input, performs a calculation accordingly - using an equation held in its memory - and then sends the results to the output. Many use exactly the same type of digital microchips as used by their more familiar cousins. It is the 'human interface', the link between man and machine, which is radically different. A piano keyboard has replaced the QWERTY one and, instead of a VDU displaying a graphic feedback, we have a speaker producing an acoustic one.
Now, one of the fascinating things about any piano or synth keyboard is the attraction of the keys themselves. It is so obvious that those black and white things are there to be touched, that they are rarely passed-by by fingers given half a chance. As soon as you place your fingers on the keys the results of your action are caused. Any intuition that touching this part of the instrument will produce a result, whatever your conception of harmony, is instantly rewarded with the acoustic feedback created. It is soon obvious that pressing the keys to the right produces a higher pitch, those to the left a lower one. The system is so simple that many people become extremely accomplished keyboard players with no outside training whatsoever.
Let us now return to look at the popular concept of a personal computer, which relies on the QWERTY keyboard as its 'input selector'. This seemingly simple device is capable of some extremely complicated coding. Consider just the letters of the alphabet available - 26 if you don't distinguish capitals. How many unique codes can be generated by a string (combination) of any possible three letters? 17,576 to be precise (ie. 26x26x26). If there are two strings which will produce some sort of result, it would either take a lot of time, or a lot of luck, to discover the appropriate keystrokes. That's why things like instruction manuals exist; the letter combinations need to be explained and defined. The more options, the more codes that are needed, and the more explaining that is required before any of them make sense. Even given the possibility that everything is plugged in correctly and that the text of the manual actually seems to have been written in English, the propensity for frustration is exponentially multiplied by the options available.
If you contrast our search for the appropriate three-letter command on a QWERTY keyboard with the obvious relation to the sound of a piano one, hopefully you will get the drift of what I'm trying to say. As long as we fit the means of operating our device into a form which has been proven over time to provide an intuitive interface, people will find it very easy to deal with.
Simplicity of understanding can be further improved by limiting the jobs that a given device will perform. Also, by providing some sort of direct feedback to the user, an indication that the device is indeed carrying out the task that it is intended to complete.
The synthesizer contains a computer which has been dedicated to producing sound. Its designers have arranged its functions and controls so that it will do just one job and have committed the electronics to that task. The manner in which most synthesizers perform their task, creating sound, is so obvious that even a baby can relate to the action of touching the keys. Other examples of 'dedicated' computers are drum machines, digital reverbs and delay units, synchronisers and autolocators, and samplers. Though these are not as easy or obvious in use, all contain the same type of microchip calculators that are to be found in a personal computer. In fact, anybody who has used an example of one of these devices will know that the less they actually do, the easier they are to use. The units which are the most widely used have struck an excellent compromise between facility and function.
I believe that the entire readership will have felt that I left a key word out of my previous list of common associations with the word 'computer' (actually, probably two, but we'll come to the second in a moment) - frustration. I bet you that word popped into mind when I mentioned 'computer'. Computers are renowned for being FRUSTRATING! Many readers, no doubt, will have also noticed that in my praise of the synthesizer's 'user interface' I avoided mentioning the bugbear of most modern synths - programming them to make different sounds. Here, the 'intuitive' interface of the synthesizer collapses. The obvious association between cause and effect vanishes as the provision for alteration increases, with an accompanying rise in the level of potential frustration. There's that word again. Programmability is again the key. It is the strongest link between all digital devices, but with it comes another link: the potential for misunderstanding, confusion, and frustration.
The advantage that the QWERTY typewriter keyboard has over a piano keyboard, and the reason that it has been chosen as the most common interface between man and machine for personal computers, is its flexibility. We've looked at all the distinct possible combinations of three letters already, so what about a whole line of digits? Mind boggling, eh? There you have it. Personal computer manufacturers have settled on the typewriter keyboard because it allows their product to deal with a huge variety of different types of codes. Not only text or numbers, but programming language codes like hexadecimal (which counts in base 16 and uses letters beyond the number 9). The VDU enables all these digits to be displayed in relation to one another and with graphics. In doing so the computer manufacturers are able to sell the same machine to entirely different groups of people.
However, the manufacturers immediately run into a severe difficulty. With all those possible codes, how on earth can they make such a machine easy to use, quick to learn, capable of sustaining interest for long enough for the necessary learning period to be completed? Especially as the whole process is further complicated by the fact that most personal computers can be loaded with different software programs in order that they can deal with different jobs. The answer lies in providing the personal computer with the sort of 'instant feedback' that a piano keyboard has.
The computer I've written this article on also serves as my controller when I'm composing music. These two tasks are so different in terms of the codes used that they require the keys on the computer's keyboard to perform entirely different functions. I auto-correct my timing with my music software, my spelling with my word processing software. However, I have one sort of input device attached to my computer which does the same thing whatever software I'm running. This magical input device has gone a long way towards alleviating the frustrations of millions, and, as with all great inventions, was discovered by accident!
The mouse has completely transformed personal computer usage. I even use my mouse to make programming my synthesizers easy and understandable. Ironically, what makes the mouse such a powerful tool when using a computer is that it is such an extraordinarily simple thing to learn to use. The mouse is a plastic box with a button (or two) on its back. As you move the mouse around on a flat surface your actions are mimicked by a cursor or arrow-shaped pointer on the computer screen. This 'magical' control is immediately attractive and provides instant feedback. Once informed that selecting any software option is performed by moving the to cover an on-screen label and pressing the button on mouse's back (known as 'clicking'), using the software to fulfill a task is child's play. All the education can happen as work progresses, through doing the job, exactly like when learning the piano. This enables almost anyone to interact directly with their computer, in a physically understandable way, even though they may perhaps not fully understand what they are actually doing!
Of course, any personal computer is just a heap of circuitry until it's memory has been loaded with some software. Likewise, a mouse is an entirely useless attachment until it has been integrated into that same software.
WIMP (short for Windows, Icons, Mouse, and Pull-down menus) is the acronym given to the sort of 'user interface', or 'environment' if you prefer, provided by the mouse and its software integration. As you may have guessed, it originated in the United States where people take a special delight in using 'techno-terminology', but don't know who or what a 'wimp' is!
A Window is a bordered area on the computer screen. An Icon is a graphical representation in the window, ie. a picture of something to be selected. The Mouse we've talked about already and is used to move the cursor arrow around the screen and do the selecting. The Pull-down menu is simply a list of options which become visible when they 'drop down', usually whenever the arrow is moved to the top part of the computer screen. These options usually relate to the operation which the computer will perform on the thing represented by the icon that is displayed in the window, which is selected by using the mouse. Got it? If not, read it again, it's a remarkably simple concept.
Having established a sort of 'standard software interface' I can now use my mouse to edit my article, write my music, programme and play my synths, move the faders on my mixing desk, edit a sample - in fact, do anything which my computer software will allow my personal computer to do. All without touching the QWERTY keyboard. The better the software is, the more I can do with the mouse.
Another benefit of this approach is that if I now use a computer and software from an entirely different manufacturer, and they have implemented the same WIMP environment, I should be able to make sense of how to get it up and running. This, in turn, means that I can immediately use the software. Hopefully, this instant gratification will provide sufficient interest for me to complete the 'learning curve', the period of discovery required before I'll be able to settle down to some serious work with the program.
Ostensibly, the WIMP computer environment was developed by the famous Xerox Corporation at their PARC Laboratories (Paolo Alto Research Center, California). They say that it was developed in order to assist Indian architects with designing temples, which require certain conventions about tedious repetition of architectural detail. While this is certainly an interesting story, to say the least, I can't help thinking that the funding came from the military. That the intention was to have the computer screen display a map of the territory, so that the artillery gunner could then use the mouse to tell the computer his present location and where he'd like the shell to land.
Whoever funded the original project which developed the WIMP interface, the same designers later quit Xerox and joined the expanding Apple Computer Corporation. Their input resulted in a 'dead-dongo' of a computer called the Lisa, and later the introduction of the computer which was to revolutionise virtually every other machine's interface - the Apple Macintosh.
The Mac software developers had extensively integrated the instant appeal of the mouse with the tasks the computer performed. It has been a complete success, so much so that now every other major computer manufacturer has developed WIMP environments for their machines. The 'latest and greatest' from these manufacturers all use the remarkably simple user interface provided by the mouse, and so a new tool has been added to the many at our disposal. This new tool is different from virtually every hi-tech tool previously developed in that it performs only one task, but this job can have any number of results. The computer that it works with is fully capable of educating the user as to what to do with the mouse. In conjunction with good software, it is truly a self-supporting system.
The mouse has tamed the computer, transforming it from a cryptic calculator which required years of patience to master, into an easily confronted and simply operated box of incredible tricks. If you thought that computers represented the uncompromisingly frustrating cliff face of high technology, look again. Things have changed radically, and there is now a stairway to a hi-tech heaven. It looks like an unassuming little box with a button but it is really a whole lot more. In fact, it's anything the software author needs it to be. In order to make sure that the authors make some profits, they need that mouse to be two things: simple to understand, and powerful in effect. It's a combination which brings us all great benefit.
The history of personal computers is too short to support the idea that the development of the way in which we interact with the hi-tech tools of the future ends with the mouse. As our technology develops, so too will the ability to integrate other simple controlling devices with those boxes with QWERTY keyboards and VDUs. We can already look to the wealth of MIDI-equipped musical instruments for inspiration. We've got MIDI guitars, drums, wind instruments, general pitch convertors and triggering devices, as well as piano keyboards. With the introduction of Yamaha's fabulous DMP7 mixer we now have MIDI faders too! All provide an alternative means of controlling computer events, though are perhaps too 'music specific' to achieve popularity with non-musicians. Perhaps we should look again to the military for an insight into what the future holds. Fighter pilots are currently using helmets which track their eye movements while they observe their targets; perhaps we can look forward to concerts where the band looks menacingly at banks of synthesizers, samplers, effects units, mixers, etc. (Sounds familiar already!! But that's a different story.)
Whatever, we can be sure that the tools we use will be even easier to get to grips with than they are now. The future holds the certainty that access to high technology will become inversely less complicated as the techniques which make it work become ever more complex. We've turned the comer of confusion and have almost passed through the computer's 'dark ages'. The future is bright. In the meantime, give the computer mouse a squeeze, it won't bite; it represents the friendly face of computing.
Feature by Mark Badger
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