Programming audio visually

February 8, 2011 at 9:28 am 5 comments

Alex McLean is building a really cool new programming environment, described in a movie demo at Text update and source « Alex McLean.  He’s building a programming environment for audio programming, like CMusic, CSound, or SuperCollider.  In Alex’s system, you type the name of the oscillator or filter or generator, and typing the name generates the object.  You then draw lines to connect the pieces.

I want to draw two connections from the theme of this blog to Alex’s work.

  1. Occasionally, I point to geeky-fun work from here, because it is worthwhile for us to think about interesting and challenging ideas about computing and programming (like Alex’s unusual mix of textual and graphical programming) as exemplars to show and provoke students.
  2. Computer music is this strange stepchild of computer science that is almost nonexistent in most curricula, for reasons I don’t quite understand.  Making music with computers is really an old idea, and it’s super easy to do.  The tools and languages around computer music have become more and more esoteric, which does it make harder. I still have never been able to write a working CSound program without essentially copy-pasting examples. I just can’t quite wrap my head around it.  But the basic ideas are easy — I’ve played with sine wave generators in both Python and Squeak.  Yet, so few of us teach it or use it for examples.  Our computer audio class is always in danger of simply disappearing, because we can’t find anyone to teach it.  Why should something so easy and fun to do get ignored in computing education?

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What’s the argument for becoming a computer science teacher? What is Already ‘First’

5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alex  |  February 8, 2011 at 9:49 am

    Thanks very much for the link on your excellent blog!!
    I’ve got a couple of minor corrections, Text makes the connections automatically based on type compatibility and proximity, you don’t have to manually connect boxes. The other thing is that so far I’ve only used for composing and manipulating musical pattern, not lower level sound synthesis. There’s no reason why it couldn’t be developed in that direction however.

    Interesting points about computer music in education At Goldsmiths we start undergraduates with audio programming in PureData, and they clearly enjoy the immediacy of results. Whether it’s the best grounding for then moving to general purpose programming languages I can’t say.

    It’s also interesting and a little bit surprising that you have problems finding computer audio teachers, I’d certainly apply if the commute from the UK wasn’t so tricky!

  • 2. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  February 8, 2011 at 3:15 pm

    As someone with a patent in computer music synthesis (that still generates some revenue each year), I have often wondered myself about the lack of computer music classes. I think that the problem is that getting past simple wavetable synthesis requires using some higher math (z transforms and Fourier transforms) that few computer scientist have. The electrical engineers who have the math insist on throwing up all sorts of irrelevant prerequisites (like circuits classes) and boring prerequisites (like filter design), so that essentially no one survives to get to the fun stuff.

    In 1989 and 1991, I taught a computer music class that required no prereqs but some programming and calculus, but the number of students taking it was small, and the course was discontinued. I still think it provides a much better introduction to signals than the standard EE course.

    • 3. Elizabeth  |  February 9, 2011 at 4:25 pm

      I tried to get some computer music activities into the outreach programmes at my university. Ultimately, the reason it didn’t go through wasn’t the math — but because the computers in the labs here don’t have speakers, and we couldn’t get some.

      Most undergrad computer labs here, and at many other schools, just aren’t equipped to be playing music. I imagine this has a role in the lack of music in the curriculum — an instructor who wants to add in a music activity to a regular course has to face this barrier.

      • 4. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  February 10, 2011 at 1:26 am

        Given that a pair of cheap headphones costs about $2, and a cheap pair of computer speakers costs $10, I can’t see the lack of speakers on a computer as major barrier to doing computer music at a university. Requiring college students to own a $2 pair of ear buds is not onerous.

  • […] address. I’m looking forward to it! There is a special session on computer music in CS Ed, a theme we’ve raised here. At the First Timer’s Lunch (which the Board attends as old-timers to welcome the […]


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