Analog DIY versus Digital DIY

Sean Costello costello at
Wed May 6 01:04:10 CEST 1998

Hi all:

Philosophical question time:  If a person is just getting into
electronic music DIY, and is starting from scratch (i.e. NO technical
background whatsoever), what would be more useful at this point in time:
learning how to construct analog musical circuits, or learning how to
program a computer to produce sound?

I ask this because I have been doing both in the last few years. 
Starting from an absolutely non-technical baseline (an Anthropology
major - what was I thinking?), I learned how to read schematics, and
construct simple circuits (fuzzboxes, a few filters).  My theoretical
knowledge has progressed immensely by purchasing the complete
Electronotes, but I still struggle with the math.  On a more practical
level, I have found it very difficult to learn soldering, circuit board
layout, and the other practical skills that lead to good analog synth

In the past few months, I have begun exploring digital sound generation.
I have installed Csound, and messed around with it.  I have also started
to learn C programming, as there are many sounds that Csound still
cannot produce easily (there is no frequency shifter unit module, for
example, although you could accomplish this with phase vocoding if real
time is no consideration).  I have learned some basics of FIR and IIR
filter theory, and have tracked down some excellent books on the subject
(I would highly recommend Elements of Computer Music by F. Richard Moore
for any techies interested in the subject - not only does he get into
the technical and mathematical details of most major computer music
techniques, he provides C code that is good enough to have been used for
unit generators in Csound, Cmusic, and maybe other programs).  So far, I
have found learning computers somewhat easier than learning analog
electronics, but this is tempered by the fact that I have several years
of reading Electronotes and such under my belt at this point.

Now, what would you all consider more important at this time - learning
analog, or learning digital?  There are a lot of factors to consider,
from the usability of the end product as a musical instrument, to the
reliability of the end product, to the availability of necessary parts
(matched transistor pairs, custom chips, the right DSP for certain music
programs, etc.). I mean, I don't see how creating your own C code for
music is any less DIY than creating your own circuits.  However, having
a full-fledged musical instrument that you can touch may outweigh any
convenience that a computer might offer.

Personally, I would love to have the best of both worlds:  A stand-alone
digital musical instrument that was FULLY user-programmable.  Something
like the Nord Modular, except with the ability to run all major computer
music programs (Csound, Cmusic, Cmix, Common Lisp Music, etc.), as well
as code generated by the user.  Maybe the Analog Devices SHARC chip will
enable this.  Or maybe Yamaha will come out with something based on the
SynthBuilder technology from Stacatto Systems.  Either way, the Nord
Modular's concept is very cool: a stand-alone small keyboard with knobs,
that can be programmed from a PC, yet can be used without a computer for
live performance.

Anyway, enough rambling. What do the esteemed DIY deities have to say
about this?

Sean Costello

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