Psychoacoustics in the recording studio

Producer Bruce Swedien considers understanding the nature of sound and hearing as an essential element in developing your studio skills:
Determining the abilities and limitations of human hearing is invaluable to us involved in the production of music recordings. Any resource that produces sound for the purpose of human listening should take into account what the listener’s ears are going to do with that sound, if we are going to take that resource to its utmost potential.
He also mentions the importance of listening - especially to live instruments - and the acoustic environment. Read the full article.

Why so loud?

Perhaps a truism of composition is that most (all?) effects can be overused. Including compression:


Spectral Music

Some examples:
François Rose's Perspective of New Music article explains some of the composition methods.

Percussion Music

  • Luigi Nono's composition for percussion and live electronics:
  • Edgar Varese Ionisation. And an article about the piece: Jean-François Charles - Organization of Scattered Timbral Qualities: A Look at Edgard Varèse's Ionisation.
  • Graham Fitkin Hook.


Here is Milton Babbitt's Semi-Simple variations:
 and a jazzed up version of it. The same band also playing some Ligeti.

a 'simple' song

My Funny Valentine

Messiaen - Quartet for the End of Time

Messiaen uses interesting approaches to both melody and rhythm particularly clear in movements 5 (starts around 18'20") and 6 (starts around 25'25"). A very good discussion of Messiaen's rhythmic processes can be found in this article:
Julian L. Hook Rhythm in the Music of Messiaen: An Algebraic Study and an Application in the "Turangalîla Symphony"  Music Theory Spectrum , Vol. 20, No. 1 (Spring, 1998), pp. 97-120

Melody - flute solo

Two interesting pieces for flute: Debussy Syrinx and Varese Density 21.5 (various recordings available) the scores can be accessed: Syrinx and Density.  Here is a good article examining both pieces with reference to melodic construction and the influence of the earlier piece on Varese's composition. And an interesting discussion of performance interpretation in Density.

Percussion instruments

A guide to many percussion instruments from The Orchestra: a user's manual project. 

Genre and Style

Well crafted fun 

with useful compositional lessons.

Xenakis percussion music

Rebonds A:

Rebonds A from Alpine Chocolate on Vimeo.

Some background about Xenakis and his work.

Live coding

Here is a documentary explaining what is live coding. And a version of Reich's Piano Phase done with live coding. 

Analysing electroacoustic music

New sounds, new techniques, new approaches to understanding(?):
  • Several Analysis articles from eContact.
  • The orema project is a growing resource with analysis examples, discussion of approaches, and other useful resources.
  • Rajmil Fischman's graphic score for Point-virgule.
  • graphic score of Schaeffer's Etude aux Objects
  • And a temporal analysis of another Schaeffer study. 

Soundscape Composition


Organised Sound 7:1 is an issue dedicated to soundscape composition with papers by some prominent practitioners including Hilegard Westerkamp and Barry Truax. 
Issue 14:1, on the topic of sound art, also has good, relevant articles. While issue 16:3 (listening) is also highly relevant.
Andra McCartney on Soundscape composition and electroacoustic music. 

Live electronics

Some examples of music for solo instrument with electronic processing:


Analogue 'sequencer' using distance sensor (with the arduino platform).
Silent Drum from Jaime Oliver (not jamie) using Pd/Gem to map gesture to audio creating a new instrument.

Non-standard notation

When using live electronic manipulation of sound composer's often resort to non-standard forms of notation.

  • Pedro Rebelo uses various notation idea including graphic scores and partially notated instructions in many of his pieces. Exposure is one example (video of performance and downloadable score) but you can also look at other examples on his site.
  • Another score which combines conventional notation with graphics is Echoic by Edgar Barroso (scroll down to hear a recording of the piece).
  • Other interesting examples include Harvey's Advaya and Pres by Saariaho (both for cello).

Cage - Ligeti

  • The Wonderful widow of eighteen springs Sung by Cathy Berberian. 
  • Musica Ricercata #2 performed by  Pierre-Laurent Aimard.

Kurt Weill - songs

'Ballade von der Sexuellen Horigkeit' sung by Ute Lemper; An arrangement of the same by L. Berio. And September song as performed by Weill's wife Lotte Lenya.

Louis Andriessen

A recording of part 4 of De Materie (the full piece is available through naxos-music-library

Eric Satie

Perhaps the most often heard music of his (in films etc.) are his Gymnopedies Similar in spirit are his Gnossienne. His 1924 score for the short Entr'Acte film is quite interesting (the first 2'30" are a kind of intro. Keep watching).

Paul Lansky

American composer Paul Lansky has been involved with electronic music since the 70s. His piece Six Fantasies on a Poem by Thomas Campion uses a processing technique called linear predictive coding (LPC) to transform a recorded voice. He is using a single reading of the poem to generate 6 'versions' of the poem. Three of those are available on his website (compare, for instance,  'Her Reflection' with 'Her Song').  Notjustmoreidelchatter is another voice based piece. You can read more about Lansky, with detailed examination of several of his compositions.

Wild is the Wind

Comparing this version of Wild is the Wind to this rendition, mainly focusing on the structure and how to work with (and around) conventional forms.

Keith Jarrett

A pianist worth knowing: the opening of Paris concert with notated transcription (minor errors included):
 Vienna concert, his version of Summertime, and many more examples. An interesting film about his work across genres on stage and in the studio. And you can hear him playing the organ as well. And in collaboration with Saxophone player Jan Garbarek (another musician worth knowing)

Phenomenology of Sound

An introduction to Schaeffer's idea of the sound object, and a more detailed article explaining the idea of phenomenology in general and Schaeffer's development of it to sound.  
Denis Smalley built on scheffer's idea to talk about the spectromorphology of sound. Here is an overview with list of additional sources.
Francis Dhomont's Acousmatic update gives his view as a composer influenced by Schaeffer and spectromorphology.


This chapter from Miller Puckette covers all aspects of delays very well with several examples of how you create and use delays for different effects in Pd. A video tutorial covering the basic Pd objects for delay and reverb. A different approach to reveb is using convolution (a technique that can be used very effectively for processing sounds).

Noise and Subtractive Synthesis

We use the term noise for:
a) auditory sensation arising in response to non-periodic sound waves/signals, with flat and dense spectral distributions (vibrational/physical frame of reference) 
b) auditory sensation that is undesirable/unpleasant/unintended within a given context, interfering with auditory sensations that are desirable/pleasant/intended (i.e. sounds) within the same context (cognitive/semantic frame of reference, focusing on communication)
 Vassilakis et al lecture notes 

Also see Truax about the meaning of noise

tutorial about using filters for subtractive synthesis (see also section 4-3 & 4-4 Music & Computers). Noise elements are actually used in music often, a very interesting example is the work of Italian composer Luigi Nono. Other examples include Ryoji Ikeda and Carsten Nicolai (alva noto) - Impulse or Fades.

and this is an article explaining different approaches to noise generation refining our understanding of the range of possible sounds: 
Atomic noise

FM Synthesis

A basic introduction to frequency modulation in Pd and a video tutorial for building an fm patch . A demonstration of the Yamaha DX7. An extensive discussion of the properties of frequency modulation from Barry Truax (with links to examples from his compositions using this technique). And a technical explanation of FM with illustrations of the sidebands and more from another master of the technique - Bill Schottstaedt.
Several illustrations of configuration for fm-synthesis sounds (bell-like, brass-like, etc.). A general tutorial about fm-synth with reference to various software implementations. 
This method was pioneered by John Chowning. Here he is explaining how he discovered this technique: 
 His piece Stria applies the Golden Ratio to constructing its fm-synthesised tones.

Computer Music Journal dedicated an issue to this important work, were you can read about the techniques used in the composition of this piece. And here is an article by John articulating his ideas about the link between synthesising new sounds and tuning systems that computers make available.

Amplitude and Ring Modulations

Two of the simplest forms of modulation. A good explanation of amplitude modulation from our friends at Columbia university. Ring modulation using Pd and a Video tutorial on amplitude modulation in Pd.
The German composer Stockhausen used ring modulation for his piece Mantra applying principles of 12-tone composition technique to the relationship between then pianos and the modulators.

Additive synthesis

Additive synthesis is based on the superposition of simple sine tones. A video tutorial explaining the [osc~] object and how it works:

Read about additive synthesis technique here and here. A Theramin inspired demo using wiimotes to control an additive synthesis patch. And an acoustic instrument based on Fourier analysis mapped to additive pipe organ. 


  • An explanation of the most commonly used filters.
  • A more in depth chapter including theory, applications, and more sophisticated filter designs.
  • Short delays will have a filtering effect (see the above chapter for explanation). The phasor and flanger effects are an example.
  • Both are essentially types of comb filtering.
  • Which is an effect you usually want to avoid with careful mic placement.
  • Simple (analogue) filtering was used to great effect in Stockhausen's piece Mikrophonie. Some of the composer's notes about this piece are available here.

Granular Synthesis

Curtis Roads demonstrating the technique of granulation:


An introduction to the concept of using grains of sound. A central resource for granular synthesis with basic explanation, musical examples, and links to applications. Borderlands is an application (developed by a music technology students) for granular synthesis - an iPad version as well as windows). 



This wonderful multimedia presentations about the physics of sound and hearing. These were created for physics students so some parts have scary equations. Nevertheless these have excellent illustrations and explain the basics of sound from acoustic vibrations to perception very well. 

Electronic music examples

A large collection of recordings from ubuweb: History of Electronic Music.


An exhibition at the Science Museum about some of the pioneers of music technology.

Music & Computers

This introductory text covers a range of topics from basic acoustics to synthesis with good examples and interactive tools.

Ablinger - voices and piano

creative transcription of recorded speech Peter Ablinger's ongoing series of pieces for piano and CD.

Some information on these from his website including a small extract from the score.

Pd examples

As a programming environment the strength of Pd is in its flexibility:

Learning Pd

  • The examples that come with Pd itself (under Help menu) are the first source. Starting with the simplest constructs and methodically introducing topics with very good explanations.
  • ctrl-click on an object to open the associated helpfile which is a working illustrations with good explanations.
  • ctrl-click on the canvas and you get a list of Pd objects arranged by topics (e.g. scroll down to see how you handle MIDI etc.)
  • The Floss Manual for Pd starts with how to install and goes on to explain basic synthesis ideas with Pd.
  • Johannes Kriedler's tutorials are an excellent source as is his book Loadbang.
  • Andy Farnell's  book on sound design. 
  • An excellent set of examples patches from Alexandre Torres Porres (which will eventually result in a book)
  • This video tutorial is the first in a good series from Dr. Rafael Hernandez.
But the most important thing to remember: you have to actually do. Open patches, change parameters, add objects, change the sounds. Reading about or watching others create patches isn't enough. 

Visualising Music

http://www.musanim.com/ is a wonderful way of illustrating music without the use of traditional notation. For example looking at a Bach violin concerto:

Or showing how small units of material combine over the opening of the Rite of Spring

Generative Art

Darwin Tunes is a project from Imperial College using the idea of evolution by selection and applies it to music generation.
This short documentary form PBS provides some interesting examples of generative art:
BoxCar2D is an interesting and fun demonstration of the power of evolutionary processes.

Better Writing

Some useful resources about good writing including topics such as planning and organisations, researching, defining topics, and constructing arguments:

One of the important skills to develop is the difference between description and analysis.


F. Rzewski's The People United Will Never Be Defeated is a set of variations on this song (with it's political overtones). 

Composition Manifesto

An interesting approach from composer/producer Matthew Herbert - P.C.C.O.M. (With thanks to Henry Macleod.)

Bartok - Bulgarian Dances

 It is possible to learn much about composition from Bela Bartok's Mikrokosmos as it is to learn playing piano through it . Here is a recording of Bartok himself performing the Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm. And here is each one individually with the score: 1 2 3 4 5 6. And here is a jazzy arrangement, and another one.
Traditional Bulgarian vocal music (in a good arrangement performed by a fantastic choir) uses interesting rhythmic and harmonic practices.

Music Theory

Aptly titles 'Music theory for musicians and normal people' This collection from Toby W. Rush is a wonderful resource about music theory from basic notation to chromatic harmony


Reich's Clapping Music is one of the most famous pieces using phasing as a musical device. An animated illustrating of the process. His Music for Pieces of Wood shares similar approach but achieves in in a slightly different way:
 Piano phase, as the name indicates, applies phasing techniques but with pitched material. The first part of Tehilim (psalms) uses phasing to generate rich evolving textures. And discussion of the composition process:

Rhythm, Meter, Pulse

There is a world of opportunities beyond 4/4:
The music of Charles Ives is worth exploring in depth. Gong on the Hook and Ladder is a good place to start. The 2nd movement of his 4th symphony starts relatively simple but soon gets rather complex. 


The studies for player piano by Nancarrow are interesting both from the perspective of music & (analogue) technology and in their innovative approach to composition rhythm in particular. Here is #8:

This essay includes a biographical sketch and some ideas about Nancarrow's rhythmic procedures

Drum notation

A guide to drum notation from MIT. 

Introduction to Algorithmic Composition

A short student essay about algorithmic composition provides a good overview and link to sources.  This video shows one instance of using Pd to generate music algorithmically:
A more complex example:
And an example of using cellular automata (this one implemented in supercollider):