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Digital Sound Basics Primer Kitchen
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Digital sound basics.

What other types of instruments exist besides acoustic ones?

First, there are instruments such as the familiar electric guitar. They use electric amplification to increase their loudness and sometimes alter their tone color. Acoustic instruments become electric instruments when they are processed through the use of microphones, amplifiers, and loudspeakers.

Second, there are electronic musical instruments. These instruments use advanced, electronic technology to create sound directly--without any of the technology of acoustic instruments. They do not use vibrators and resonators, and their sounds always come out of a loudspeaker. The newest and fastest-growing family of electronic musical instruments are called digital instruments. Digital instruments are based on computer technology.

For more information on the development of electronic musical instruments check out A Brief History of Electronic Instruments.

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How are computers used to make digital music?

Most of today's keyboards are really computers, they contain hardware circuitry to process and create musical information. They require electrical power to run, without it they can't make any sound at all! The computers that run them use binary numbers, 1's and 0's, to represent information about musical data. Because these musical data are expressed in numbers, we call this "digital music."

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Are there different kinds of digital musical instruments?

Yes, there are two basic catagories.

One is called sampling. A sample is a digital "snapshot," or recording, of an acoustic instrument's sound. The sample is stored digitally in computer memory, and is used as the "model" for recreating the instrument's sound.

Samplers like the Kurzweil 250, Ensoniq EPS, ASR, EMU, etc. are among the most remarkable achievements of advanced computer technology. Samples contain an enormous amount of digitally encoded data about musical sound, and require large quantities of computer memory--much more than is required for any other type of digital musical instrument. In order to be useful, samplers must be able to manipulate all of its data instantly in order to produce a note as soon as the musician strikes a key on the sampler.

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What are the other types of digital musical instruments?

Besides the sampler, the other type of digital musical instrument is the synthesizer. There are many different types, but all have one thing in common: unlike sampled sounds, synthesized sounds are built from scratch and shaped (or filtered) into the sound you hear.

A recent type of digital musical instrument is called the cross wave synthesizer. It combines the best features of sampling and synthesis. Another type is called a physical modeling synthesizer. It creates sounds based on the complex mathematical model of real acoustic sounds. The sounds it produces are incredibly realistic and dynamic. That is, they are able to electronically produce complex sounds that evolve in time, just like a real piano string or trumpet.

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What are the advantages of using electronic instruments to make music?

The greatest advantages that digital musical instruments have over acoustic ones are the degree of control over any sound and the increased creative possibilities they offer musicians. In the past, a piano's sound for example, depended on the mechanical limitations of the piano and the mental and physical limitations of pianists. It's obvious, but true, that you couldn't play piano notes higher than the highest note on the piano or faster than the fastest human pianist available. Today, however, computer-based technology allows us to recreate the sound of the piano and play, manipulate and alter it in a way that was never before possible. For example, a composer can program a computer-based musical instrument to accurately recreate the sound of a piano--and then play it higher and faster than a human pianist ever could by playing an acoustic piano. With digital musical instruments, a composer has new controls over familiar sounds to create new music.

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What do computer-based musical instruments look like and how do you play them?

Today, most digital instruments are played with keyboards that look like pianos. Anyone who can play the piano can use a sampler and make music. However, if you can't play a keyboard--if you're a guitarist or a saxophonist, for example--then you can't play a keyboard synthesizer. To accommodate other musicians, recently engineers have been designing devices called "controllers" that are used to play digital instruments. Currently, these controllers resemble--and are played using the same techniques as--many different instruments that people use, including saxophones, guitars, drums, as well as piano-like keyboards.

However, some digital instrument designers believe there will eventually be controllers that are not based on the design of conventional acoustic instruments at all. Instead, controllers will be designed to make the best use of any and all physical resources that the human body has for controlling an instrument.

Most controllers and digital instruments being sold throughout the world are able to communicate with each other. That is, they're "compatible." This is because their data are all expressed in the same format, a computer language called MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface). Digital musical instruments probably have a higher degree of compatibility than any of the other electronic products now commonly used. Note, for example, that VHS video tape cannot be used on a Betamax system, nor can Apple software be used on an IBM PC. They're "incompatible." If music is our universal language, then MIDI is our universal computer music language.

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How will digital music technology affect the music of the future?

Digital instruments, because of their many advantages, are taking their place along side of acoustic instruments. Digital instruments are rapidly evolving along with the rest of computer technology and replacing each other, just as the piano replaced the harpsichord. However, since digital technology allows musicians access to the rich sounds of acoustic instruments, greater control of those sounds and the use of computer programs that aid in creating and arranging music, the future is bright for digital music technology. Much in the same way word-processing software aids writers in creating texts, digital technology helps to eliminate the drudgery and leave musicians and composers more time for the really important work: creativity.

Computer technology makes it easier for everyone to enjoy one of our greatest means for expressing feelings and ideas: music.

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"Music is the arithmetic of sounds as optics is the geometry of light."

Claude Debussy


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