Music 151/215
Computer Music Composition

University of California, Irvine


Assignments are posted here for the immediately upcoming class session(s) and all past class sessions.

For Thursday, March 11:

Prepare for the final written examination by researching the definitions of the terms, and the answers to the questions, posted on the class MessageBoard. The written exam will be given in class.

Turn in your completed composition project as a stereo audio file (.wav or .aif) or--if it's music for video--as a self-contained movie file (e.g., .mov) with uncompressed stereo soundtrack. The composition must be at least three minutes in duration, and can include any combination of recorded acoustic sources and electronic/digital sources, and should be made primarily using the Pro Tools and/or Reason software. Turn in any accessory working files that will help show your working methods (source audio files, Pro Tools session folder, Reason song file, etc.), and a thorough written description of what you were trying to accomplish musically and technically (.doc, .pdf, .rtf, .txt, etc). The materials should all be turned in on CD-R (or DVD-R) clearly labeled with your name.

Note: The final deadline for turning in the final composition project has been extended to Friday March 12 at 12:00 noon. You may either turn in your project in class on Thursday or deliver your project to the Music Department office, 303 Music and Media Building, by 12:00 noon on Friday.

For Tuesday, March 9:

Come to class prepared to ask questions either about difficulties you are having with your own composition or things you don't fully understand in the technical information discussed in the class (i.e. potential exam topics).

For Thursday, March 4:

There is no required assignment for this date. If you'd like feedback from Chris and/or Joe on your composition work in progress, you can put files in the EEE DropBox called "Composition draft". There is a size limit, so you probably can't put a whole Pro Tools session in the DropBox, but you can put .mp3 files, .rsn files (remember to make it self-contained if it requires other non-standard audio files), and other reasonable-sized documents in there. Then send us an email to let us know it's there, and we'll respond with comments as quickly as we're able.

For Tuesday, March 2:

Read the article on "Advanced Reverberation", Part 1 and Part 2. Pay attention to the discussion of "predelay" (initial delay), "early reflections", "RT60 decay time", "high-frequency damping", and "direct-processed mix", noting what sonic effect each one plays a role in establishing.

For Thursday, February 25:

Write a further elaboration of your compositional plan, containing more specific details and decisions than the first plan, informed by the work you have done on the piece thus far. Post your plan on the class MessageBoard by 6:00 AM on Thursday.

For Tuesday, February 23:

Using Reason's MIDI sequencer and any combination of Reason devices, compose an interesting rhythm made up of multiple sounds. The sounds you use may include any desired combination of synthesized sounds and sampled sounds, and any desired combination of pitched and unpitched sounds. The main goal of the assignment is to employ the time grid provided by the sequencer to help you organize events in a way that creates an engaging "groove" or sense of rhythmic pattern.

If you don't have a clear concept in mind for a groove you want to try to create, it will be helpful to listen to music that has a rhythmic groove you like, and analyze how the component sounds are combined to create that effect, as demonstrated in class, to get some initial ideas. The examples analyzed in class focused on patterns that repeated (with variations) every 4 or 8 beats, with each beat divided into 4 parts. That model (or a "swung" version of that model) is useful for recreating a great many of the grooves used in popular music. However, you are not required to use that format. (For example, your groove could be in some other meter such as 3/4 or 7/8, or could use some other beat division such as triplets, or could employ patterns that repeat with some other periodicity, or could use changing meters). Deciding on a meter, a tempo, and a predominant underlying pulse (main beat division) is a good first step in any case. You don't have to just adopt the default settings, unless those are the settings you actually want.

Begin by constructing different "layers" of pattern -- individual events located at desired moments in time, or rhythmic patterns of pitch, or patterns of percussive sounds -- and experiment with combining different layers. Note that these sounds are not necessarily drum sounds; any sound can be an articulator of a point in time. To keep the pattern interesting over a longer period of time, try adding or removing layers, or varying the layers slightly. Develop your pattern in a way that remains interesting for 30 seconds (or more). Although the main focus of this exercise is rhythm, paying attention to contour, timbre, accent (some things louder than others), panning, etc. can all add to the rhythmic interest.

Hand in your assignment as a Reason file (.rns) deposited in the EEE DropBox called "Reason Rhythm". Your Reason file should be saved such that it will make the exact sound you want when it is opened and played. Check to make sure that the file plays the sound you want just by clicking on the start button. (Before you hand it in, save it, close it, then reopen it and play it to be sure that the saved version works as you want it to.) Important: If your Reason file uses sound files that are not part of the normal sample sets included with the Application, you must be sure to include them in your Reason file by making your document "self-contained". Do that by invoking the "Song Self-Contain Settings..." command in the File menu before saving your document.

For Thursday, February 18:

Prepare a plan for your computer music composition project. The composition itself is to be completed by Thursday March 11, and should be at least three minutes in duration. The composition can include any combination of recorded acoustic sources and electronic/digital sources. Planning the composition consists primarily of making decisions -- true statements -- that describe the piece you want to make. Decisions you should make include duration (how much time, how many measures at a given tempo, etc.), formal structure (how will the overall duration be divided into contrasting sections or developing trends), sound sources you will use, intended function of the music (for video, dance, etc.), mood, and any extra-musical concepts that will be expressed. Your plan should be in textual form, but could easily include charts, diagrams, or notated musical ideas, as well. It should be a detailed plan of your intended form, content, and methodology. Post your plan on the class MessageBoard by 6:00 AM on Thursday. Prepare to discuss your plans in class.

For Tuesday, February 16:

Make a complex evolving sound lasting approximately (i.e., at least) 30 seconds. You should produce this sound using only Reason software. Within Reason, restrict yourself to using only the Subtractor module for sound synthesis. Since the Subtractor is a monophonic synthesizer, you may want do one or more of the following to make your final sound stereophonically and timbrally interesting: a) use more than one Subtractor, b) route the Subtractor(s) to a mixer and use mixer panning for spatialization, c) apply stereo effects processor(s) (e.g., delay, reverb, etc.) to the Subtractor's output. For example, you might create a rack that contains a mixer, one or more effects processors connected to the auxiliary sends/returns of that mixer, and one or more Subtractor modules connected to the inputs of the mixer.

The objective of this assignment is to explore and understand the components of the Subtractor synthesizer by designing a Subtractor patch that has interesting possibilities and using control automation to change its parameters in real time. The goal is to make a single, fairly unified sound (though it may be arbitrarily complex internally) that is interesting because of the way it changes over time, not to make a composition of rhythmic notes in a traditional musical sense. Obviously you will need to have at least one note of long duration stored in the MIDI sequencer part of your file, starting at the beginning of the file and lasting at least 30 seconds. If you need multiple notes to play an interesting chord or to activate multiple Subtractors, they should all occur at the beginning of the file. Even if you find that you need to have some new notes occur in the middle of the sound to add to its interest, refrain from relying on "melody" (the succession of different notes) for interest.

You are strongly advised to read the chapter of the Reason Operation Manual (Macintosh HD/Applications/Reason/Documentation/English/Operation Manual.pdf) that explains the Subtractor synthesizer module in detail. It's very thorough and well-written. For that matter, both the Operation Manual and the Getting Started manual are remarkably clear and helpful, so don't hesitate to consult the online documentation regarding any questions you have as you work.

If you make more than one such sound that you think is interesting, by all means feel free to hand in multiple versions of your assignment (properly named to make clear what each file is). Hand in your assignment as a Reason file (.rns) deposited in the EEE DropBox called "Reason Sound". Your Reason file should be saved such that it will make the exact sound you want when it is opened and played. Check to make sure that the file plays the sound you want just by clicking on the start button. (Before you hand it in, save it, close it, then reopen it and play it to be sure that the saved version works as you want it to.)

For Thursday, February 11:

In the Reason Getting Started manual, read "Tutorial 3 - Creating a drum pattern" (pp. 53-56) and "Tutorial 4 - Recording a bass line" (pp. 57-64). In the Reason Operation Manual, read "Chapter 5 - The Sequencer" (pp. 51-98) and "Chapter 18 - Redrum" (pp. 175-186).

You can find these documents in the Applications/Reason/Documentation/English/ folder, or in the downloadable Reason Complete Documentation (.zip, 18 MB).

Listen to Musicology by Prince and Drive by Bobby McFerrin. (You will need to have RealPlayer installed on your computer.) Pay particular attention to the way that each piece creates a characteristic rhythmic "groove" or "feel" by the interplay of different recurring individual rhythmic components. In both pieces, the complex composite rhythm is created by layering multiple simple rhythmic patterns. In Musicology, focus on the first 16 measures, and pay particular attention to the first 4 measures, analyzing what instruments are present and what rhythmic pattern each plays. In Drive do likewise for the first verse.

For Tuesday, February 9:

Go to the MIDI Manufacturers Association web page of tutorials explaining MIDI and read "An Introduction to MIDI" (.pdf file). If you're a glutton for punishment, and want to read even more about MIDI, or just want to read a second version of the information to help you understand it, take a look at the tutorial on "MIDI and Music Synthesis" by Jim Heckroth.

In the Reason Getting Started manual (.pdf, 5.1 MB), read the "Guided Tour" chapter, and read Tutorial 2: "Playing Devices and Selecting Sound".

In the Arts Media Center or the Gassmann Studio, experiment with the Subtractor synthesizer in Reason in an effort to understand all of its features (to understand the role and effect of all of its buttons, faders, etc.). To this end, the chapter on the Subtractor in Reason's Operation Manual is very well written, comprehensible and helpful. Reading it is highly recommended. You can find this document in the Applications/Reason/Documentation/English/ folder, or in the downloadable Reason Complete Documentation (.zip, 18 MB).

If you learn better from instructional videos, watch the "New to Reason?" basic instructional video.

For Thursday, February 4:

Make a good quality recording of instrument and/or voice -- enough to give you at least 30 seconds of finished program material. You may make this recording in the small recording room right in the AMC (see AMC director Ross Whitney), or using portable recording equipment checked out from the Arts Media Center (you can take the equipment to another location), or using the Gassmann Studio and its adjacent recording room. Experiment to find the best microphone placements, levels, etc. for your particular source material, and record enough takes to be sure you have the quality you require. (You'll doubtless record more material than you'll end up using.)

You're advised/encouraged to team up with classmates for this portion of the assignment. It's much easier to record if at least one person is concerned with the technology while another is the "talent" providing the sound. With good planning, you should be able to record more than one person's source materials in a single session by trading duties.

Once you have finished recording, edit it in Pro Tools to remove parts you don't want, organize parts you do want, make sure the levels are as you desire them, etc. You may also add audio effects if you so desire, but explain what you did in a text document. The objective is to end up with at least 30 seconds of good-quality, good-sounding recorded material, such as a short musical performance, a short voiceover or dialog (use your imagination -- and possibly your voice-imitation skills -- for the textual content), or even a combination of music and spoken word. (Examples: a short instrumental piece, a short song, a 30-second mock radio advertisement or public service announcement, a dramatic monologue or dialogue, etc.)

You can do your Pro Tools editing work in the Gassmann Studio or in the AMC, whichever you prefer (or in MMB 115 for graduate students). If you recorded using portable equipment, you will need to import the audio into Pro Tools. If you used the Tascam HD-P2, after you have recorded you can attach the HD-P2 to the computer as an external FireWire device, drag your audio files onto the computer's hard disk (in a folder bearing your name) in the AMC, or onto one of the audio hard disks in the Gassmann Studio. (Ross can check out a FireWire cable to you. There is a setting on the HD-P2 that tells it to behave as an external FireWire hard disk. Check the manual for this.) Then import those audio files into Pro Tools as audio regions. If you recorded using a DAT recorder, after you have finished recording you can re-record (digitally transfer) the audio directly into Pro Tools. (Ross can help you with this if you are struggling.)

If you need/want to, you should be able to transport an entire Pro Tools session between Gassmann and the AMC using a CD-R, a portable FireWire drive, or a flash drive. (If you are starting in Gassmann, and have a session with more than 24 tracks or that uses non-Digidesign plug-ins that you need to transfer to the AMC, some information may get lost, but for most modest purposes the transfer is pretty easy.) In any case, you are responsible for backing up your own data. Hopefully nobody will trash your files, but there's no guarantee of that.

Please note that this full assignment -- recording, editing, etc. -- can be quite time-consuming and requires organization and preparation. Plan ahead to make sure you have the Gassmann Studio and/or all your necessary recording equipment reserved for the time you intend to do your work. Anticipate at least two to three hours for your recording: setup time, testing time, recording multiple takes, listening to be sure you got good material, and teardown time. Anticipate at least a similar amount of time, if not more, for editing: importing the audio into ProTools, editing to get only the good bits, organizing the audio regions, setting levels, etc. Everything always takes longer than you'd wish, and problems arise with using the technology. Allot yourself enough time, and be patient.

Turn in your final mix as a stereo audio file -- and your entire Pro Tools session -- on a CD-R bearing your name. Include a text file (.txt) or Word file (.doc) explaining your process, and explaining any digital processing you did to the sound after recording.

For Tuesday, February 2:

Although it is mostly the same information as was covered in a previously-assigned article, read the article "What is Amplitude?" by Jeffrey Hass. (This article is one chapter of a brief online primer on acoustics, other parts of which you might find instructive.)

Read about how the human hearing system works. You should be able to define words such as compression and rarefaction, frequency, amplitude, pinna, tympanic membrane, ossicles, cochlea, basilar membrane, and organ of corti.

Read about the experiments on loudness perception carried out by Fletcher-Munson and Robinson-Dadson. The curves show how much (in most cases, additional) amplitude is required for different frequencies to sound equally loud to a 1000 Hz reference tone. To test your understanding, see if you can summarize the experimental results in a few sentences. (You're not required to hand this in, but the exercise will solidify your understanding.)

Read the Wikipedia articles on harmonic series (music), and musical tuning.

For Thursday, January 28:

Read the online document Gassmann Policies (.pdf).

Read the online document Gassmann Tutorial (.pdf), from page 1 to the middle of page 4 (through section II.C.4). The rest of the document describes how to route digital audio in the studio and record that digital information to Pro Tools and DAT. However, for now we will just learn to route the audio in analog form, using the analog audio patchbay. That will have been demonstrated in class on 1/26; the (considerably more complicated) method of routing digital audio signals will be reserved for a future lesson.

For Tuesday, January 26:

Using Pro Tools in the Arts Media Center, or in the Sound Design lab if you are a grad student, or on your own computer if you own Pro Tools, compose a 30-second audio collage using pre-recorded audio files. It can be meterless/beatless or you can use the metric grid to impose a beat. The primary goal of this assignment is to become familiar with Pro Tools -- importing audio, placing audio regions (understand slip, shuffle, and grid modes), editing to create new audio regions (captured from existing regions with command-R), automating volume and panning (either by drawing breakpoint line segments in the edit window or by recording automation of realtime adjustments with the mouse), and as time permits experimenting with audio effects (you can create new effects-processed versions of a selection with the AudioSuite effects, and/or use plug-ins via inserts or auxiliary outputs/inputs). The best way to gain familiarity with the program is just to use it, trying to get the exact sounds, rhythmic placement, volume balance, and panning that your desire, and of course by (gasp!) consulting the .pdf reference manual as needed.

Any sounds you can make or find are legitimate for use in this assignment; however, if they are copyrighted, you must attribute credit to the "author" and cite the source of those sounds. You can register at to obtain download access to the many sound files there, and you can use the Soundminer sound effect library which has been made accessible to you by permission from the UCI Drama Department.

Since there are only a few ProTools systems in the AMC and twenty-three people enrolled in the class, don't leave your assignment till the night before it's due, or you might not find an available computer! Try to do your work at times when you suspect others won't be there. Of course, it's also OK to intentionally go at the same time as a classmate to work side-by-side and consult each other.

Turn in your finished musique concrète composition on a data CD with your name on it, containing a) a complete Pro Tools session folder of your project (session file, audio files, etc), b) an audio file of your final "bounced" composition in AIF or WAV format, and c) a text file containing any information you want me to know about your project, in .txt. .doc, .rtf, or .pdf format. Please name the files in such a way as to indicate clearly what they are.

For Thursday, January 21:

Read the following articles. Focus on at least one remark in these classic writings that seems to you to be particularly insightful, prophetic, or meaningful in relevance to technology and musical practice today. Describe in detail why you think it is a significant idea, and what its implications are to you as a maker of music. Post your writings on the MessageBoard.

Russolo, Luigi. "The Art of Noises", 1913.

Cage, John. "The Future of Music: Credo", 1937.

Cage, John. "Experimental Music: Doctrine", 1955.

Varèse, Edgard. "The Liberation of Sound", 1936-1962.

For Tuesday, January 19:

Listen to the following works on the class listenings page. The files on that page use various methods of streaming. Some are streamed via a QuickTime server, others require Real Player, and others access the Naxos Music Library which requires that you be on the UCI network or accessing it via VPN. If you have trouble hearing these works on your own computer, try using a UCI computer. (The Arts Media Center provides headphones at its computer stations.)

Choose one of these works that intrigues you because of its composition, techniques used, rhythms, or timbres, and write a brief composerly analysis of how the composer achieved the effect that you liked. You need not try to write a comprehensive analysis of the entire piece, but instead should focus on one particular aspect that you think can be instructive to you in your own compositional thinking. Post your analysis on the class MessageBoard.

Schaeffer, Pierre - Etude aux chemins de fer, 1948. This is considered a classic (one of the very first pieces of musique concrète ever) by the person who coined the term. He made it the piece in 1948 with disc cutters, not tape!

Cage, John - Williams Mix, 1952/3. The source sounds and edits in this piece were chosen strictly according to a systematic score combining explicit instructions and chance operations. Thus the editing is an abstract process for creating rhythms that is largely independent of the source sonic materials.

Stockhausen, Karlheinz - Studie II, 1954. This piece consists entirely of electronically produced sounds, but was constructed by detailed editing of each individual sound. (You can find this piece on a CD in the Arts Media Center, the liner notes of which give a detailed description of the making of this work.)

Barron, Louis and Bebe - Forbidden Planet, 1956. Likewise, this piece is made up entirely of electronic sounds designed to create a futuristic imagery (for 1956).

Varèse, Edgard - Poème électronique, 1958. Another classic of early musique concrète, originally composed for multi-channel diffusion in the novel Philips Pavillion at the World's Fair.

Beatles, The - Revolution 9, 1968. This work demonstrates many classic tape techniques such as reversal, looping, speed changes, etc., and because of its distribution on a rock album it is an early instance of avant-garde electroacoustic music merging with popular recorded music.

Dobrian, Christopher - Overture from Microepiphanies: A Digital Opera, 2000. A mash-up of recorded operatic overtures, making inside jokes for those who know the operatic sources, and imitating what an artificially (not-too)intelligent computer program might come up with if charged with a database of "knowledge" about opera overtures.

Hancock, Herbie (and Swift, Rob) - This is Rob Swift, 2001. Realtime musique concrète editing via virtuosic turntablism, using only non-musical vocal sound sources, performed with instrumental music.

For Thursday, January 14:

There is no new assignment due on this date, but you should begin working on the assignments for the subsequent two weeks.

For Tuesday, January 12:

Read the Shure Educational Publication on Microphone Techniques for Live Sound Reinforcement (PDF file). Read at least pages 1-11, and more if you're interested. (This article contains quite a lot of useful information, fairly clearly explained. You might also be interested in pp. 32-33 discussing microphone placement.)

Read the Soundcraft Guide to Mixing, an instructional brochure available online as a PDF document, to reinforce your understanding of the explanation given in class. Read at least pages 3-7, and more if you're interested. There is a lot of useful information in this brochure, fairly clearly explained. You might find particularly useful section 3 (pp. 10-16) on Mixing Techniques and Section 6 G-J (pp. 28-30) on techniques In the Studio.

For Thursday, January 7:

Read the article Dobrian, Christopher. Digital Audio. (1997). Come to class with specific questions regarding topics, (italicized) terms, or concepts discussed in the article that are unclear to you.

Analyze television commercials (on TV or YouTube) for their composition. (TV ads are some of the most highly produced video clips you will see, in terms of $$ spent per second of video.) Notice the pacing and organization of the video editing and the content, and the balance and relationship of voice, sound effects, and music. Post a link to the video (if possible) and a commentary containing any interesting observations you made -- about its composition, editing, form, use of sound, and emotional impact -- on the class MessageBoard. Don't forget to check the MessageBoard regularly to answer any questions others might have posted there.

January 26, 2009
Christopher Dobrian