Sound and Vision

Without the inventions of Max Matthews, we wouldn't have CDs, MP3s, techno -- or much more

The graduate course "Music Controller Design and Interface" meets twice a week in a crumbling old ballroom at Stanford. The course's professor, Max Matthews, is in his late 70s and slightly stooped, with the patient smile of someone who's spent a life clarifying esoteric subjects. During a recent lecture, he explains to his students why the objective of his course -- nothing less than creating one's own musical instrument from scratch -- is so difficult.

"Instruments of any kind normally take 10 or more years to master," he says to his eight students, all of whom are roughly a third of his age. "So if you want to make yours capable of creating good music in the near future, you have two options. One: You design it so it can be played like an instrument that people already know. Or two: You develop really smart software that makes the hardware a lot easier to operate. When I created mine, I did both."

Matthews mentions his own invention, the Radio Baton, in an offhand manner, as if it were of little historical significance. But in computer-music circles the Baton was a landmark creation -- an instrument that could conduct an entire orchestra of computer-generated sounds -- and it was far from Matthews' only one. Over the course of his 50-year career, Matthews has been at the forefront of the digital sound revolution, enabling everything from crystal-clear cell phone calls to laptop techno. Max Matthews is the grandfather of computer music, without whom the experience of sound would be unfathomably different.

In 1957, while working at Bell Telephone Laboratories, Matthews invented digital audio, the process of turning sound waves into ones and zeros and then back again into sound. This ability to translate analog sound into a common medium increased music's portability and malleability a thousandfold. The prevailing playback and recording formats of today -- CD, MP3, and DAT -- wouldn't exist without digital audio, and neither would modern dance music, with its computer-driven drum machines, samplers, sequencers, and synthesizers. While vinyl-collecting audiophiles still revere analog methodology, the digital domain is by far the dominant means for producing and reproducing sound. "I would say maybe 90 percent of the stuff we listen to involves computer synthesis in one way or another," Matthews estimates.

With the amount of human energy that has been poured into computers in the last half-century, digital audio would have most likely happened eventually, with or without Matthews. But his ability to generate sound on a computer as early as he did, with extremely slow equipment and no precedent whatsoever, is remarkable. Such scientific milestones as the discovery of DNA and the splitting of the atom may have been flashier, but Matthews' feat has had an equal impact on our daily lives.

"What really impressed me when I heard him talk about what he was doing in those early years is that he had to make all these innovations, just one brilliant idea after another," says David Zicarelli, president of the influential San Francisco music software company Cycling '74 (the flagship product of which is called MAX, in tribute to Matthews). "All these things that are really the basis of all the techniques we use now. When someone asked where he got the ideas, he just said, "Well, it seemed obvious at the time.' But it wasn't obvious to anyone else."

At the time, Bell was the only U.S. telephone company, and its vast resources allowed it to pursue all sorts of arcane technological questions. The company's huge budget and computer access, which were rarities at the time, attracted some of the most brilliant technical minds of the era. And since mathematical know-how is often accompanied by an aptitude for musical expression, it's no surprise that many of the engineers tinkered with music as well. For his part, Matthews was a great lover of classical music and played the violin ("Although neither wisely nor well," he quips). Matthews' boss, also a music man, allowed Max to use the company's computers after hours for experiments, although the whole thing was unofficial because Bell was legally constrained from developing commercial products outside of its telephone business.

Matthews' earliest synthesized sounds were created as listening tests to evaluate the quality of phone lines. Grasping what this new capability meant in an artistic context, he developed a program called Music 1 that allowed him to play music on a computer. The initial piece produced with Music 1 was by all accounts a horrible-sounding 17-second composition titled "In the Silver Scale," crafted by another Bell employee. But Matthews and various colleagues improved upon the program over five subsequent versions, which were sent out to interested parties for free. This was in the days before the advent of keyboards, so the Music program was mailed as stacks of 3,500 punch cards with a note reading, "Good luck!" Only a select few professors with access to mainframes and a surplus of patience managed to get Music 1 up and running on their machines.

During Matthews' tenure at Bell, which lasted until the company's dissolution in 1987, computer-music research was largely a fringe pursuit of university music departments and the classical music world. The vast majority of composers either ignored or scoffed at the strides he and his colleagues made with computers. "Most of them and a good part of the rest of the world were absolutely terrified of computers," Matthews recalls. "If you remember the film 2001, where the computer HAL went mad and had to be turned off, thatwas the general feeling at the time." (Fittingly, during HAL's death throes, it hummed Matthews' computerized version of "A Bicycle Built for Two," which marked the first tune a computer sang.) "By contrast," he continues, "there was a small number of very farseeing, very famous musicians who saw the possibilities here, which was that computers can synthesize any sound that the human ear can hear."

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