Turn your desktop computer into a musical
instrument. By Charles Platt
Electronic music originated largely during the 1950s in the BBC Radiophonics
Workshop, where reclusive “boffins” soldered resistors and vacuum tubes to
create synthetic compositions. They recorded the output onto pieces of open-reel ¼" tape, which they spliced together using razor blades on editing blocks.
tronic instrument, named after its Russian inventor,
consisted of a box sprouting 2 antennas, one controlling pitch, the other controlling volume. To play
it, the operator would make hand passes like a
magician. Internal electronics detected the varying
capacitance of the human body and emitted an
eerie, quavering note through a loudspeaker.
For a modern, more full-featured, virtualized
version of the theremin, go to rollosonic.com and
click Download Now. Double-click the program
icon, choose No for the installation option, and the
software will run without needing to be installed.
Click the Start button, click Get New Module, and
select the Ding-Dong Module to create some noise.
You’ll see a floating menu with pull-down options,
each allowing you to control a different aspect of
1. the sound.
THE SOUNDRY While the theremin responded to hand move-
To learn the basics about sound and how we ments, RolloSonic responds to mouse movements.
perceive it, see this excellent audio section in the The position, direction, and even the acceleration
Oracle ThinkQuest educational site at library.think of the mouse can be used. For a quick demo,
quest.org/19537. Click the Wave Applet and you set Horizontal Mouse Position as the Note-Input
can draw your own sound wave in this beautifully Source, leave Note-Velocity Control with a low
implemented piece of Java (Figure A). After drawing Manual setting, and use Vertical Mouse Position
a wave, listen to it while you refine it by adding attri- for Note-Length Control (Figure B). Now slide your
butes such as sine (for the melodious qualities of a mouse around its pad and listen.
sine wave) or sawtooth (for a fuzz effect). This is a There’s no way you’re going to make beautiful
great introduction to sound-wave fundamentals. music with RolloSonic. The screeching, buzzing,
whistling, and burbling will be unpredictable, confusing, and often quite horrible. Still, it’s unique,
and you can use the program to develop, distort,
or (with very little effort) destroy sound inputs from
other sources such as a microphone. Not entirely
practical, but fun, and free!
About 10 years later, John Lennon used tape loops
to create the eerie repetitive patterns in the Beatles
song “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Ironically, now that
we can synthesize sound without resorting to such
drudgery, electronic music has sunk into relative
obscurity (I’m talking about serious compositions
rather than the simple riffs of techno). Still, an
international community of sound synthesists exists
online, and all you need to participate is the computer that you already own.
Below are 3 applications that can help you make
electronic music. Audio is processor-intensive, so
you’ll be able to do more if you have powerful hardware — but if you just want to demo the software
below, even the cheapest eMachine will do.
When something really scary was going to happen
in a 1950s horror movie, most likely you heard a
theremin on the soundtrack. This primitive elec-
86 Make: Volume 14