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: a co-founder of the International Computer Music Association, he was also an editor of the Computer Music Journal for 23 years. He spent most of the '80s researching computer music at MIT, and now teaches in the Centre for Research in Electronic Art Technology at the University of California. He has written many books on the subject of computer music, including the excellent Computer Music Tutorial, which I would not hesitate to recommend to anyone, regardless of their level of familiarity with the subject. He also composes, and recently performed at the 2003 All Tomorrow's Parties festival, curated by Autechre. It is no surprise, then, that his book on granular synthesis, Microsound, 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 organisation 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 Reaktor 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 in five easy steps! However, if you are seriously interested in exploring granular synthesis, and understanding the principles behind it, then this book is ideal.
Sonic Eye is a very simple yet useful troubleshooting gadget that will find many uses in both studios and live sound setups. Essentially it is a battery-powered, buffered level meter built onto the end of a jack plug with three LEDs denoting -16dBu, -22dBu and -32dBu. Power comes from a small internal battery, so, to conserve power, the unit is only active as long as the black button on its surface is held down. Plug it into any line-level or instrument-level output and immediately you can tell if there's signal present. It even works with electric guitars and basses, and of course it's ideal for plugging into a patchbay (when the expected signal doesn't materialise) or into a console effects send to check for signal. Other uses include checking assignable outputs on synths and soundcards, effects pedals, rack gear — in fact just about anything except speaker-level signals and microphones (and even some high-output, high-impedance dynamic mics might trigger it). Simple though it is, I think the Sonic Eye could save the typical studio owner an enormous amount of head-scratching! This is a wonderfully simple piece of test gear to help find where that missing signal went.
Direct Sound Extreme Isolation Headphones are designed to offer more isolation than ordinary closed-back models — the typical figure quoted is 29dB, which is a lot! They achieve this by fitting a headphone system into what is effectively a pair of ear defenders, with bulkier and heavier cups than you'd expect from regular phones. The headband, which is fully adjustable, has a strong spring to ensure a good seal between the phones and the head.
The spec for the phones is a nominal 20Hz-20kHz response, though no plot is supplied. The electrical efficiency is quoted as 96dB/mW and the impedance is 32(omega), which should work with most headphone outlets. A plug adaptor is included so the phones will work in either 3.5mm or quarter-inch sockets. Separate cables lead to each phone, joining at around 300mm to form a single cable.
My tests revealed the phones to be sufficiently accurate to be used for most applications other than final mixing, though there is a slight emphasis to the bass end that doesn't seem entirely natural. They're certainly fine for performer monitoring, mic positioning, live recording (where separation is always a problem) and for providing a cue mix to drummers or electric guitarists. The downside is that the phones aren't as comfortable as most, not only because of their greater weight, but also because of the greater pressure on the sides of the head. This isn't serious for short-term use, and if you can take them off for a minute or two at the end of each pass, that's fine. I wouldn't want to wear them for hours on end though.
In summary, I'd say that these are about the best compromise you're likely to get between comfort, isolation, audio quality and UK price, and to my knowledge nobody else is making affordable phones designed to offer such high levels of isolation. Compromises have to be made to meet these disparate needs, but there's no doubt these phones provide a wonderful tool for monitoring close to loud sound sources, whether in the studio, recording live or practising drums along with a backing track.