Digital Sound Innovation

When I was younger, I used to spend a lot of time tinkering with digital sound: mostly MOD files, on the venerable FastTracker. The highlight was remixing a track by Jim Young - I’ve unfortunately lost my version, but here’s the original (any competent media player, such as XMMS or Winamp, should still be able to play MOD files with the right plugin). I used the sound of my CD drive opening as an ‘instrument’ (slowed down many times), and felt very silly when I came to listen it to some years later. Only later did I realise that the professionals do exactly the same thing; Gary Rydstrom, one of Hollywood’s leading sound designers, describes how he used exactly the same kind of found art - bottles, floors, etc. - to design sounds for Monsters Inc. on the DVD extras for same. Nevertheless, my efforts were still pushing unlistenable.

So I was very gratified to listen to the singing computers podcast from O’Reilly recently, wherein David Battino discussed the state-of-the-art in voice synthesis, including singing. Although I never really played with this very much (voice synthesis is still surprisingly immature, proprietary and expensive; only now are we beginning to approach synthesis indistinguisable from real speech), it was still a fascinating to listen to someone tinkering with sound in the same way as I used too - with plenty of samples of speech synthesis from different devices and systems, including the giggle-a-minute Dictionaraoke site, which mashes up speech synthesis with real songs (it features up there with listening to Chipmunked songs for something to do when you’re drunk).

The future of digital music and sound as an innovative area has never seemed less certain, as digital photography enters the mainstream (see Flickr), and digital video is probably only a few years off doing the same (as bandwidth and storage continue to expand). But digital sound hasn’t reached a peak - there are still many things that are unachieveable in that world - real and convincing speech and singing being one of them. There’s still wiggle room in the area of noise cancellation too (get a pair of noise-cancelling headphones if you value your music). It’d be a shame if sound has to take a back seat after years of innovation - 8-track, compact cassette, CDs, MP3s being but a few inventions we now struggle to see ourselves without.