Adding techno to music

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McGill Reporter
April 5, 2001 - Volume 33 Number 14
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 33: 2000-2001 > April 5, 2001 > Adding techno to music

Adding techno to music

When Thomas Edison recorded "Mary had a Little Lamb" on a wax cylinder, he probably never imagined what he had unleashed. Vinyl, magnetic tape, compact discs and Napster are direct descendants of that first scratchy recording. It seems as soon as you finish replacing all your 45's with CDs, suddenly everything is on MP3.

We may be able to look forward to more improvements to our stereo systems thanks to a new centre here. The McGill Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media and Technology (CIRMMT) recently received the official green light from Senate.

For music professor Wieslaw Woszczyk, the centre is more than just an academic endeavour, it's a calling.

"There is a stewardship mission over music," he says. "We want to ensure that the respect for quality and nuance in music mediated by new technologies be preserved."

Such a stewardship is necessary because when music is transmitted through television, CDs and computers, the quality of the music needs to be maintained. A jazz quintet or grunge band might play the performance of their lives, but if the medium transmitting the music is sub-par, much of its impact will be lost. That's why we need people who understand both music and the technology that delivers it, explains Woszczyk.

"It has become clear that music is mediated through electronic media, which is why it is better that music-sensitive people are there to deliver it."

The CIRMMT will certainly have the people to ensure it does. Woszczyk himself is currently director of McGill's Sound Recording Studio, where he trains talented young producers and engineers who tend to get scooped up by the likes of Sony and the National Film Board as soon as they graduate. In addition to being a professional audio engineer prior to coming to McGill, he has been designing and building audio equipment since he was in his teens.

Woszczyk will be joined by music colleagues such as Professor Phillipe Depalle, an internationally respected expert on digitally processed music, and adjunct professors Steve Epstein and George Massenburg, producers who have won seven Grammys between them.

Other members include neuropsychologist Robert Zatorre, an expert on the portions of the brain that process music; psychologist Daniel Levitin, a music producer/engineer turned academic who studies psychoacoustics, auditory perception and musical talent; and robotics expert Vincent Hayward, who is looking into novel forms of interface designs for human-machine interactions.

Professor Jeremy Cooperstock from the Centre for Intelligent Machines is also a founding member of the CIRMMT. His research interests lie in "shared presence" -- giving geographically separated people the sense of being in the same room.

"Music is really an application that pushes the envelope to an extreme degree" in this area, says Cooperstock. "Good musicians can perceive delays of just milliseconds."

Cooperstock has already had a great deal of success in these applications. Last year, in what he calls the first transcontinental mixing studio, a jazz ensemble played at McGill, while the sound was mixed in real time in southern California. Being able to do this in real time requires the ability to digitally transmit pictures and sound ultrafast and of outstanding quality.

Cooperstock hopes that in the future, it will be possible to control all aspects of a shared musical space at a distance -- to mute some instruments and make others louder, while visually zooming in to look at, say, a single violin string -- all over a network.

"When you start to talk about allowing these possibilities, whole new realms of applications open up," he says.

The research done at the CIRMMT will likely focus more on the computer keyboard than the piano keyboard. Computers have been able to synthesize music for years now, and the quality gets better all of the time.

"Now we are able to model everything on computer," says Woszczyk. "We model instruments, studios, performance halls."

However, when McGill's new music building is opened in 2003, the CIRMMT will have plenty of access to "brick and mortar" studios and performance halls. Researchers will have access to a new library, high-tech computer labs, and world class studios. They will also be able to study full orchestras or choral ensembles on a new scoring stage. Woszczyk hopes that the expanded facilities will allow for an expanded student body: 40 to 50 graduate students from the current 25.

The centre is not just a focal point of music technology research in Quebec, or even in Canada. The centre is already partnered with the Groupe d'Acoustique Université de Sherbrooke and CEGEP Drummondville in Quebec. In addition, they have close connections with both industry and international research centres. Takeo Yamamoto, a corporate engineering advisor to Pioneer Electronics in Japan, and Søren Bech, an audiovisual technology specialist who oversees hearing and vision research at Bang & Olufsen in Denmark, are both allied with the CIRMMT.

"We've created a pool of experts with complementary abilities that can work within the centre and at a number of satellite laboratories," says Woszczyk.

The centre has already earned $6.5 million in funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation. Woszczyk suspects that there will be plenty of funding opportunities for the future as communications, software and multimedia industries clamour for the sorts of people who have the types of skills evinced by CIRMMT members.

From studying the brain to beating a drum, the CIRMMT will be a place where different disciplines form new synergies.

"I hope it will make a statement about our appreciation of music and its complexity," says Woszczyk.

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