Many people today seem to be obsessed with recreating 'classic' sounds, whether it's Minimoogs, TB303s or even traditional orchestral instruments. So it's refreshing to find that there are still people out there intent on pushing the boundaries of synthesis further and creating new sounds. Curtis Roads has done more than most in this field, and this book on granular synthesis that he has authored is a fairly comprehensive guide to the subject.
Roads' involvement with granular synthesis began in 1972, and his research in the field has resulted in him eventually developing his own software. Granular synthesis deals with sound at a 'quantum' level: the sonic atom being the individual sample (any one of the 44100 taken in a second at the standard sampling rate). To be audible as anything other than a click, samples need to be grouped together to form grains of sound. These grains are typically anywhere between three and one hundred milliseconds in length. Granular synthesis is concerned with the organization and processing of both samples and grains to create sounds that are often far beyond the range of more traditional methods of synthesis.
The technology and software required to manipulate sound at this level is now commonly available. Popular programs like Chaosynth and Max/MSP offer in-depth granular facilities, and Roads' own programs, Pulsar Generator and Cloud Generator, are, as you might expect, specifically designed for this sort of application. Although this technology has made it possible, granular synthesis remains a complex process. Microsound is perhaps the best theoretical and practical guide to date, its 409 pages concisely and fluently written throughout. The first chapters outline basic time scales in musical structure and the history and theory of microsound. Chapters three to six deal with the theory and practice of granular synthesis, examining everything from the organisation and processing of grains to the implementation of micro-scale transformations. The later chapters explore the implications and aesthetics of composing with microsound. The book concludes with a brief chapter about the future of granular synthesis. If there is any fault with this book, it is that it may be rather academic in tone for some readers - it is not a 'how to' book. However, if you are seriously interested in exploring granular synthesis, and understanding the principles behind it, then this book is ideal.
For those readers who would like to get their hands dirty themselves and try programming granular synthesis compositions, you might want to look up Jass and jMusic on the web. Jass is a unit generator based audio synthesis programming environment written in pure Java. Jass requires Java 1.5. jMusic is a freeware API that supports both real-time and non-real-time granular synthesis. jMusic has extensive tutorials and example programs available online.
I notice that Amazon does not show the table of contents for this book, so I do that here:
1. Time Scales of Music **
2. The History of Microsound from Antiquity to the Analog Era 43
3. Granular Synthesis 85
4. Varieties of Particle Synthesis 119
5. Transformation of Microsound 179
6. Windowed Analysis and Transformation 235
7. Microsound in Composition 301
8. Aesthetics of Composing with Microsound 325
9. Conclusion 349
Appendix A: The Cloud Generator Program 383
Appendix B: Sound Examples on the CD 389
NOTE: Sections marked by "**" have sample chapters available at the book's website at MIT Press.