Quantum Mechanics and Digital Audio


Quantum mechanics is a branch of science that studies the nature of the particles that make up the universe. It was the first to ask the famous question, “if a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?”

One of the main assumptions of quantum mechanics is that all matter exhibits properties of both particles and waves. Light exists as particles called photons, but they travel together in waves. Sound travels through the air in waves, but the air is made up of particles. Quantum mechanics deals with subatomic particles, so we’re not talking about dust in the wind, or even water molecules. It is theorized that all these teeny tiny particles that make up the universe are discrete points, despite the fact that they move together in waves, which are continuous in nature.

Let’s change gears. In the early days of analog recording, the waves that made up the music were reproduced as smooth waveforms. If you look at a vinyl record with a microscope, you would see a wiggle inside the groove. That wiggle is a direct representation of the sound wave that comes out of your speakers. It is analogous to the wave, hence the term, analog. A tape works the same way, it creates groups of  continuous magnetic fields that vary in strength. When they pass over the tape head, the magnetic energy is transferred to the speakers.

Flash forward to the digital age. As computers grew faster, they were able to take measurements of analog sound thousands of \times per second. This is the process of analog to digital conversion. Each of these measurements is a discrete point, but when they are played back they are able to create a full sound wave that propagates through the air.

Sound familiar?

The ability of the discrete measurements to recreate a sound wave is due to the nature of our perception. The standard CD audio sample rate is 44,100 samples per second. We simply can’t perceive such small discrepancies in continuity, so our brain smooths everything over for us. This has a serious implication in relation to the grander scheme of quantum mechanics.

Even at a sample rate of 44.1 kHz, there are an infinite number of times per second the sound is not being measured, due to the fact that there are an infinite amount of points on a line (or wave). So if the particles that make up the universe are discrete points that only create the perception of a contiguous universe, what does that say about the reality we live in?

One thing’s for certain, it sure as hell isn’t what we think it is.

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CCM – The Ralph J. Corbett Audio Production Center

Here at CCM, the Electronic Media division is the proud home of several state of the art facilities. Our audio production suite is no exception. Here’s a brief snippet from the E-Media division’s website:

The Ralph J. Corbett Audio Production Center includes first class, acoustically treated recording spaces, control rooms and post-production suites. Our studios are designed to support surround sound production and mix environments using modular digital multi-track and digital audio workstations.

Hell yeah they are! We have some really cool toys down in the basement. Check it out:

C|24 Control Surface

What we have here is a $10,000 mouse. It provides direct hands-on access to recording, editing, routing, and mixing functions in Pro Tools. Take a look at the product description from Avid’s website. And read this over-glorifying article from mixonline.com.

AVID HD I/O

The C|24 would be meaningless without some serious hardware backing it up. The HD I/O is a High Definition Input/Output device. It is used to convert analog signals to digital signals and vice versa. This interface is the brains of the operation. Don’t take it from me, listen to Butch Vig, legendary producer, songwriter, and drummer:

Pro Tools|HD is the only system that has the combination of sonic quality, stability, high resolution, and track count that I need… It’s the only platform that can take you from creation to production to final mix without any compromise.

Grace Design Model 801 Microphone Preamplifier

We use this a lot for vocal recordings. The 801 has a completely transparent sound, no additional color is added. When a microphone needs to be amplified, the audio signal degrades. It’s not really a matter of making it sound good, it’s a matter of damaging it least. So “additional color” is a misnomer. For a much better explanation, click here. The Grace preamps are a big part of our studio’s signature sound.

Tube-Tech LCA2B

Once again, this is a key part of our signature sound. The Tube-Tech is a master limiter and compressor. It’s the icing on the cake. When you’ve got that perfect mix that sounds fan-freaking-tastic, just put it through the Tube-Tech, and prepare to be humbled.


Phonemes, Tonemes, and Chronemes – The Spoken Word as Music

Some people are naturally born as great speakers. The speaker’s life experiences and passion help sculpt his craft, but there is more to it than that. Words flow from their mouths like water over a fall. Music and the spoken word are closely related. The first instrument used to create music was, in fact, the voice.

So what exactly do all those rhyming words mean? Well, they are the most basic building blocks of spoken language, and they all have direct counterparts in the world of music.

A phoneme is defined by Merriam Webster’s dictionary as “any of the abstract units of the phonetic system of a language that correspond to a set of similar speech which are perceived to be a single distinctive sound in the language. For example, the combinations of the letters CH, SH, TH, and EA are all phonemes. They are the building blocks that are used to construct words.

A toneme uses pitch within spoken language as a cue to the word’s meaning. English does not use tonemes, but many Asian and African languages do. I remember a time when I worked as a sushi chef at an Asian fusion restaurant. The Chinese owner was trying to explain to me the difference between the Chinese words “mao,” “mao,” and “mao.” At the time, I didn’t really understand, but now I realize it’s a relatively simple concept.

A chroneme uses the duration of a syllable to determine the meaning of the word. Once again, this isn’t used in the English language, but is fairly common among European languages, especially Latin. For example, the Italian word “vile” means “coward,” while “ville” means “villas.”

Do any of these sound familiar? Phonemes can be related to the idea of timbre. Timbre is the quality of the sound being produced. A flute sounds different from a violin, just the way CK sounds different from AT. When composing a piece of music, or even just playing guitar in a crappy garage band, the sounds we choose to make are an integral part of the music.

Tonemes coincide with musical pitch and its associated aspects of melody and harmony. Chronemes relate directly to rhythm, tempo, meter, and articulation. Without these things, there would pretty much be no such thing as music, not even percussion. It’s interesting to note that tonemes and chronemes are absent from the construction of words in English language, yet it’s pitch and rhythm that usually separate noise from music. They play a different role in the way we speak. Both the speed and which we talk and the tone of our voices are direct indicators of emotion. They provide context clues, setting the stage for the words that are spoken.

Do the structures of different languages reflect on the culture they arose from? Evolutionary musicology combines the psychological aspects of music with the theory of evolution. It includes vocal communication in all animal species (including humans), the evolution of human music, and universal standards in the world of music and verbal communication. Both music and the spoken word are indicators of the way people think, and give a great deal of insight into their respective cultures.


The World In Six Songs

“The World In Six Songs” is an amazing book written by neuroscientist/musician/producer Daniel Levitin. Here’s a brief synopsis from the back of the book:

Mixing cutting-edge neuroscience, his own sometimes hilarious experiences in the music business, and illuminating interviews with experts from Sting and David Byrne to conductors, anthropologists, and evolutionary biologists, Levitin reveals the prehistoric, elegant systems at play when we sing and dance at weddings, cheer at a concert, or tune out privately with an iPod. Levitin explores how the evolution of our brains made music, art, science, and society possible. He uncovers six fundamental ways that songs communicate emotion and ideas – songs of friendship, joy, comfort, religion, knowledge, and love – and so have built human nature.

The tagline for the book is “How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature.” Levitin draws on his unique expertise to explain how music has evolved with humanity.

Here’s my world in six songs:

Friendship: Bill Withers – “Lean On Me”

A total classic. Need I say more? Yes, I do. The first slide says Michael Buble. This is not Michael Buble.

Joy: “The Star Spangled Banner”

This is a retired Cincinnati fireman singing the national anthem before a Bengals home game. Good stuff right here.


Comfort: 30 Seconds to Mars – “The Kill”

The lyrics speak of inner strength and the singer’s voice is incredible. The production value is amazing as well. This song always puts me in the zone.

Religion: Cat Stevens – “Morning Has Broken”

Cat Stevens plays a traditional Christian hymn in his signature folk rock style.

Knowledge: “Follow Me Up To Carlow”

This is an Irish folk tune that has survived hundreds of years and countless pop music incarnations. It recounts an infamous battle in which an ancestor of mine, Feagh McHugh O’Byrne, was greatly outnumbered by British forces and still managed to triumph. Songs were often used in oral tradition as it’s easier to remember the words to a song than it is to memorize a story.

Love: Billy Joel – “Just The Way You Are”

This is the song my wife and I had as our first dance after out wedding.

What’s your world in 6 songs?


The Nucleus Accumbens – Sex, Drugs, and Rock n Roll

The nucleus accumbens is a group of nerve cells in your brain, part of the mesolimbic system, responsible for pleasure and motivation. It helps determine what foods we like, what we do with our lives, and has an influence on basically anything we enjoy. The nucleus accumbens is in integral part of sexual arousal, drug addiction, and musical satisfaction.

So there’s a physiological construct behind the age-old stereotype of “sex, drugs, and rock and roll.”

The nucleus accumbens regulates dopamine, a key neurotransmitter involving pleasure. When you are listening to music, it releases dopamine in rhythm with the music. It even begins to predict where the music is going.

This is most evident in jazz music. Most people either love jazz or hate it. Jazz theory is a completely different branch of music theory, as it relies heavily on dissonance and improvisation. Defying these conventions causes a jolt to the nucleus accumbens, which some people find immediately displeasing. Others welcome this changing of the rules, and feel a greater satisfaction with the anticipation created by a jazz clarinet solo, and absolutely love it when the clarinet modulates back to the home key and releases the tension.

The Blurred Reality of Humanity compares the ego to a jazz band:

What the numerous pathologies of self-experience expose is that even in normal cases, there is no unified “I” behind experience. Rather, to use another musical metaphor, the mind is like a jazz orchestra that usually plays with sufficient harmony to disguise the fact that it lacks a single player, a score, or even a conductor. A few bum notes or absent musicians, however, and the illusion is shattered.

Here’s another really cool snippet comparing consciousness to a pipe organ:

Consciousness of self emerges from a network of thousands or millions of conscious moments. Gazzaniga explains this thought with a metaphor of a pipe organ. “The thousands or millions of conscious moments that we each have reflect one of our networks being ‘up for duty’. These networks are all over the place, not in one specific location. When one finishes, the next one pops up. The pipe organ-like device plays its tune all day long. What makes emergent human consciousness so vibrant is that our pipe organ has lots of tunes to play.”

The nucleus accumbens also plays a role in dancing. As the chemicals are released in rhythm, they communicate with the cerebellum, and are responsible for coordinating movement and involuntary body control.

For some reason, my nucleus accumbens and cerebellum don’t talk to each other at all.


Greek Esoteric Music Theory

Long before Pythagoras came up with his “Music of the Spheres,” the Ancient Greeks based their music theory on mythology. Different tones represented different gods/goddesses, astrology, and the elements.

While the study of numerology and mathematics was used in constructing their music system, a great deal of the technical aspects revolved around theology. There are different categories of chord structures for deities, elements, planets, etc.

Here is a chart grouping different pitches by elements of the zodiac.

Seem confusing? It is. Here’s something that might be a little easier. Pythagoras based all of his musical philosophies around the four-stringed lyre of Hermes. This chart shows how the strings of the lyre were supposedly tuned, along with several associated attributes.

So what does this mean? As with many ancient cultures, spirituality permeated the lives of the ancient Greeks in a way that we don’t see in our modern Western culture. Philosophies of the ancient Greeks were often interwoven; music, mathematics, theology, astrology, and many others seemed to be governed by some unifying principle. A few thousand years later, we are still searching for that same Truth.


CiCLOP: The Cincinnati Composers Laptop Orchestra Project

On April 19, 2011, the Cincinnati Composers Laptop Orchestra Project had its first live performance as part of the Sonic Explorations concert series through the College Conservatory of Music’s theory and composition department. Their debut performance was Clix, a piece written by cutting edge electronic music artist Ge Wang. The piece was totally improvised, and accompanied by a visual element that was interacting with the computer code during the performance.

Started in February 2011, the orchestra is the brainchild of composition doctorate student Joel Matthys. As director and founder of the group, Matthys is responsible for composition and computer programming. Fellow composition doctorate student Paul Schuette assists Matthys in his duties and performs with the orchestra.

I asked Matthys why he brought a laptop orchestra to CCM. He said:

Computers are here to stay. This is something that’s going to continue happening, and we should be exploring it and trying to answer some questions about it. In a way, CCM is very conservative. This is the perfect place to try to explore some of these issues from a standpoint not just of experimentalism, but trying to deal with the aesthetics of it, how it fits into the history of music and the world of music.

Laptop orchestras were born in the 80s, before most people even had computers. These “laptops” were actually individual computers on separate circuit boards small enough to snap into a three-ring binder. They were networked together and performers could send lines of code to each other while playing music. CiCLOP uses modern technology to the same end. According to Matthys, “We’ve moved past the digital age. We’re in the networking age. Social networking. This is what our lives have become. So an ensemble, a musical ensemble that does this is dealing with our culture in a really direct way.”

There is a performance of the Sonic Explorations series every quarter. They feature a wide variety of computer music performances, interactive electro acoustic pieces, and fixed format video projects.


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