The synthesis of sounds with timbre. Full circle.

Timbre is so intimately tied to electroacoustic music that it feels like a betrayal of the medium to turn to pitch. Yet I feel drawn to pitch.

If colour can be analogous to pitch ...

... then perhaps texture is analogous to timbre

When David Worral referred to the “timbre fetishists” during his 2010 ACMC talk, I secretly rejoiced. I’ve also tacitly moved towards just-intonation for no other reason than it is an excuse to focus on pitch rather than timbre.

But now I have made an important observation. Timbre plays a role in facilitating the perception of sound location. A tone created by a sawtooth oscillator is more easily located in space than a tone created by a sine oscillator.

And so timbre takes on a different kind of importance. It need not carry any of the compositional structure, but it still must be there to help reveal where the sounds are in space.

In the world of synthesised sounds, achieving pitch is extremely easy. I have found that achieving timbre is difficult. Achieving pitch *and* timbre is very difficult.

I’ve tried dozens of combinations of sine oscillators, chaotic oscillators, resonators on both, bandpass filters on white, pink and brown noise, frequency modulation, pulse oscillators, sawtooth oscillators, etc. They all lack a “listenable” texture. They lack a complexity and warmth that pitched tones need as context.

And so I search and research. And now I have done a complete circle back to classical instrumentation. I have found that those interested in studying and producing rich timbres are those who try and re-synthesise existing instruments. It is those who try to replicate real physical sounds. Physical modelling they call it. Right they may be since very little compares to the sound of a violin.

I dont care whether my sounds are an approximation to real instruments or not. But it seems that to achieve the kind of complexity I need, one may need to be informed by the acoustic behaviour of real physical objects.

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2 Responses to The synthesis of sounds with timbre. Full circle.

  1. Jason says:

    All great stuff for the thesis!

    “very little compares to the sound of a violin” — Right! But a lot of what’s so great about a violin is the way the timbre CHANGES as the violinist changes how they use their fingers. Still, I don’t want to overstate this point: I think a violin sound is actually great even if it’s not modulated that way. (Have you heard the old Mellotron violin sounds, which a lot of people have used unmodulated?)

    • yes …. and I have several hundred sources of the same sound. This means that I very quickly get phasing between the different sounds, since they are effectively identical. This simply wont happen in real-life because the human input introduces very subtle variations. Next question: how to introduce subtle variations to avoid phasing. Historically, I have used granular synthesis to do this. But it is difficult to get clean pitching with granular synthesis. I guess there has to be some form of stochastic process in there.

      I did do a piece last year with excellent fluegel horn sounds from Sibelius using the Garritan Personal Orchestra. But got lots of phasing when I used the same sound 400 times. Had to ‘break-up’ each instrument using granular processing and this really changed the sound’s character (lost dynamics in the high end).

      I’m also working in Just-Intonation, and so need to pitch sounds by frequency.

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