Stay with me. I’m going somewhere with this.
I cannot exactly remember the first moment I looked over the audio engineer’s shoulder and saw a human voice digitally displayed in all its mathematical splendor, I just know that my world changed that day. Pro Tools was launched in 1991, the prodigy child of Evan Brooks’ 1984 Sound Designer. Sure, it was four tracks and $6,000, but it was a ticket to a new world.
As a young boy, I watched the piano tuner come to our house with his tuning fork, and well-trained ear. That tuning fork resonated at 440 Hz, basically the A above Middle C on your piano. Not important, right? Right, unless you’re a piano tuner…or any other human being.
Most of us have a vague idea that music is related to math. It has scales, meter, rhythm, etc., but the fact that sound is a mechanical wave, basically an oscillation of pressure, means not only is music all about math, but it turns out math is all about music.
When that mechanical wave gets pushed through a medium like air or water, we hear the resulting sound. Now, if that wave is going through something smooth, like a train whistle, the sound is constant and shrill. But add a few holes that you can open and close, and you’ve got a flute or a clarinet, or a valved trumpet, and suddenly it gets interesting. Then, that wave passes through the incredible array of human vocal cords, producing sounds of enormous complexity, that can beckon, agitate, soothe or awe.
Silently hold down the G key above Middle C on a piano, and then sharply strike the C key an octave below Middle C. What you clearly hear is the G, even though you never struck the key. That’s called an overtone, and the beauty of the human voice is that it is so complex and amazing, composed of so many overtones that make up the “single” note we hear, that as the air across the singer’s larynx decreases, more and more overtones drop out, until we end up with, for example, that primary oscillation we know as vibrato. OK. I fudged that explanation a little bit, but good singers become great singers the more control they exercise over that air flow.
Great voice talents know how to use their larynxes to “play“ their vocal cords. A great creative producer, on the other hand, is one who understands how profoundly moving the human voice can be, and collaborates to find the balance between the genuine art that may be happening in the studio, and “the way I wrote it.”
We know that oscillators, from flutes to hydrogen atoms naturally vibrate at a series of distinct frequencies, so it’s all math, which, it turns out means it’s all music. If atoms oscillate, then on some level we can lower the frequency, “slow down” the process until we can hear it. And yes, it’s happening. All around us, it turns out. I began searching for examples and this summer discovered a research project underway in Sweden in which scientists were able to record and make audible to the human ear the “music” of atoms. (Maybe this shouldn’t surprise us, since it was Einstein who said that he often thought in “musical architecture”.) There’s a great paper detailing this study of sonification, which is the word used to describe converting spectra into acoustics. Or, to put it another way, numbers into music.
When Native American audio producer Jim Wilson recorded crickets in his back yard back in 1992 and then slowed down and dropped the frequency in his studio, he was able to assemble the cricket “choir”.
Not only do crickets sing rhythmically, but he was able to find four-part harmony and what sounds an awful lot like an 8-tone scale. Did he play with these sound waves in the studio? Yes, but are these really crickets? As a matter of fact, they are, albeit arranged in studio. Still, the music is real. Lars Frederikkson, a Swede who has been working with crickets for several decades, has incorporated their chirpsong into a variety of musical forms…and vice versa.
In the beginning, I thought it was more like, you’re going to have a foundation — a kind of ambience of crickets — and then you have the musicians play on top of that, not really communicating,” he said. “Over the years now I’ve realized and many, many musicians have told me … they react, they react to pitch. They react to different instruments, they react differently. Bowed instruments is a good one for bamboo bells, for instance. And you get all sorts of interactive reactions from the crickets.
So why should this be important to those of us who make our living dealing with sound and acoustics every day? Why? Because whether or not we care about the science, we should care about our craft. How can we “settle” in the studio, when we’re surrounded by the creation oratorio going on all around us?
Whether it is an artist and easel situated before the crashing surf, a voice talent in a studio or you or me singing in the car, none of us are creating out of whole cloth, and we only hold ourselves back if we think we are. There is rhythm, pattern, meter and music all around us, and that should give us confidence. There has never been a more exciting time to watch art, craft and science come together. For those of us who tinker with sound, it’s invigorating to imagine the tools at our disposal, not the least of which are human voices and the music of the spheres. I’m reminded of a shepherd boy who once looked up into the stars, oscillators one and all, and then he wrote a bestseller. Maybe you’ve heard of it. It was called the Book of Psalms.