Analog DIY versus Digital DIY

Mark McLemore mgm at
Wed May 6 20:08:18 CEST 1998

On Tue, 5 May 1998, Sean Costello wrote:

> 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?

Having personally wrestled with this same conundrum recently, I ended up
going back to the analog route primarily because I already spend enough
time during the day staring at a computer.

> 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.

My problem with Csound and the like was, to paraphrase Wendy Carlos, for
every parameter you can control, you MUST control.  Analog instruments,
on the other hand, typically expose only the parameters that result in
relatively dramatic changes in sound quality.  In other words, I get
more of a kick out of tweaking a filter cutoff knob than tweaking the
envelope of potentially one of several hundred partials of a Csound

> 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.

I was after a balance between right-brain and left-brain thinking:
analog lets me follow a more intuitive and meditative approach to sound
creation while digital methods require me to be analytical.  As alluded
to above, I get enough of an analytical workout in the day job.  Also,
the craftsmanship of working with physical components, metal, wire,
circuit boards, etc. is more gratifying to me than staring at yet
another screen full of code :-).

> 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.

There's also the hybrid approach.  Each has it's strengths and
tradeoffs, so there's no reason not to dig into both.  Personally, I
like the idea of building a synth module around a SHARC processor with
functionality programmed into flash memory and an analog front panel
that allows me to hook it into other analog modules.  For example, how
about patching a harmonically-rich real-time Csound oscillator into an
analog Moog filter?  Imagine a digital module that multiplexes its
A/D converter between audio inputs and control voltages then
generates an analog output . . .

Mark McLemore                   mgm at

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