The Roundness of Sound

Posted 29/11/11 by adamplace

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The advent of digitalisation in music has seen some interesting developments in the industry. Piracy has ultimately led to (largely) free access to music.  While in many ways this has opened up new realms of possibility in terms of listening, and encouraged artists to amp up their live shows in order to sell concerts, one thing recorded music has been lacking in this new digital age is… roundness.

Ever since weʼve been able to get our hands on recorded music, it has been in a round
format…  Look at the vinyl record, the CD and then compare this with how music is presented to us on sharing websites like Soundcloud.

Many approaches to digital music are firmly orientated around the linear generation. With the AlphaSphere, can we expect to find a 'round' approach to music becoming celebrated again?


I am not saying that music needs to get rounder just for the sake of being rounder — based on some kind of nostalgic fallacy; or that not having nice round discs or records to play our music on means we have lost something fundamental.  However, if we look at some of the basic elements of music, there are aspects such as loops that are inherently round.

Much modern music is made up of loops, especially sample-heavy music such as Hip Hop.  However a linear attitude permeates digital music from the most elementary level.  A look at any modern DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) or VST (Virtual Studio Technology) reveals that the core of the software for arranging composition is based on linearity.  This is probably based on convenience, rather than anything else; we read written music from the classical tradition similarly to western script, from left to right.

The AlphaSphere is an infinitely programmable musical instrument that I am working on with nu desine, based on an idea I had back in 2007.  I was disappointed that there wasnʼt a better hardware controller for music production than a MIDI keyboard or music production centre (MPC).  The MIDI keyboard, based on the design of the piano’s mechanism, i.e. a felt hammer on a string, and the MPC both represent just one particular playing style: velocity sensitivity.

A sphere is a natural, playable form.  It is such an intuitive shape; yet before now the sphere was almost totally unexplored in music, save for some notable examples such as the Reacball.  Not only does the spherical form open up a new way of playing music, it also represents a radical departure from previous traditions relating to linearity.  With the AlphaSphere you can play a scale from start to finish and then get back to the start, or progress up to higher scales by changing row.  An example of one really cool thing the AlphaSphere lets you do, through its roundness, is to play perfect fifths from one side to the other.  If you, say, map a major octave on one row, tapping two pads either side will produce sounds exactly a fifth apart.  Its geometry allows for a new dimension of musicality, which can be interpreted in multiple ways. We are only just beginning to scratch the surface.

While it is a step away from the western tradition of music, the AlphaSphere still
accommodates it. It represents a way of bringing the disparate elements of contemporary music into one form.  Our work on AlphaLive, the software behind the AlphaSphere, models these samples/loops (see the image below).  As you can see it conveys a sample not as a single linear waveform, but as a loop, which circles from the start through the recording and then back to the beginning.

Many of the current approaches to digital music are firmly orientated around the linear generation. It could be time for a change. A new audio encoding format is long overdue, and a new medium to record and play music is definitely in the collective musical consciousness — see Björkʼs Biophilia app, or apps such as Fireplayer.  The AlphaSphere represents a way of experiencing and playing music in a non-linear fashion. As its use grows can we expect to find other ways of a more cyclical or ’round’ approach to music becoming celebrated again?

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