Sound and Vision

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

Composers such as Milton Babbitt from Princeton, Vladimir Ussachevsky from Columbia, and Frenchman Jean-Claude Risset lent their input to the development of the Music program. By the end of the '60s, the foundational program had inspired various software architects outside of Bell to create offshoots of their own, which evolved over the years into the robust digital applications used today. Computer music had become more than the extracurricular activity of a few Bell engineers, and academic departments devoted to it sprang up at universities like Stanford and MIT.

"Max was absolutely formative in the early years of digital audio," observes Joel Chadabe, computer-music historian and author of Electric Sound: The Past and Promise of Electronic Music. "But as everyone else jumped on the bandwagon, he ... began to be interested in other kinds of performance devices, because at the heart of it, he is a musician. Looking retrospectively, it seems very logical that the first thing he would do is develop sound and then develop something to play it with."

Along the lines of creating new ways for musicians to interact with computers, Matthews developed Generated Real-time Operations On Voltage-controlled Equipment (GROOVE) in 1970. Until then, there was no way to perform computer music in real time because early digital synthesizers took hours to generate sounds. Analog synths, on the other hand, could produce music instantly, but they were not programmable. GROOVE was a computer that sat between a performer and an analog synth and allowed the latter to be programmed in something approaching real time. GROOVE was the ancestor of the modern sequencer, which allows electronic musicians to arrange sounds into a song structure.

"I could play [GROOVE] with a piano keyboard, joystick, and a telegraph key with which one conductor could beat time," Matthews describes. "That was the first virtual orchestra."

But GROOVE suffered from the same problem Matthews spoke of in his class: It wasn't played like a familiar instrument. In 1987, after years of refining the idea, Matthews and Bell Labs colleague Robert Boie developed a tool that was more user-friendly: the Radio Baton. To use the instrument, a conductor or composer entered a score into the accompanying Conductor Program software and then conducted it by waving a pair of batons that had low-frequency radio transmitters at the ends. The transmitters relayed the motions of the wands back to the computer, which altered various characteristics of the score. Today, soloists and singers who can't afford to hire an orchestra often use the Radio Baton in performance, as do modern composers who want to re-create complex music live. Some music-technology experts consider innovations like the Radio Baton to represent a trend toward easier interaction with sound for nonmusicians, which may one day have far-reaching commercial applications.

As Matthews puts it, "I have envisioned a new way of appreciating music called "active listening.' Instead of buying a recording and sitting in a chair listening to somebody's interpretation of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, you'll buy the score for the Conductor Program and you will conduct your own interpretation -- at the tempo you want, as loud as you want, with the dynamics you want."

Nowadays Matthews splits his time between selling Radio Batons out of his San Francisco garage and teaching at Stanford. He says the Baton business is far from profitable, but he expects that some of his students will be more successful in the future. Their gadgets -- which have used lasers and accordionlike mechanisms and sported such tantalizing names as the Metasaxophone, Holey and Phony Controllers, and Crystal Mountain Environmental Sensor -- might one day play some unimaginable music or allow new ways of interfacing with sound.

As music technology continues to increase in speed and power, Matthews hopes the field he engendered will stay true to its original course -- toward human empowerment, not Stanley Kubrick's vision of alienation. "I think we are and should be in control of computers in terms of their job descriptions," he says, "and we should only ask computers to do things that we do not want to do ourselves."

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