DSP is a secretive art form. But maybe its best-kept secret is, musicians can learn it. You just need a great teacher – and Vadim Zavalishin of Native Instruments, working in Reaktor, is a perfect place to start.
This talk is from June, but just came online – and it’s a rare chance to hear from anyone like this in the industry, let alone in a way that’s this clear and friendly from someone who’s one of the better DSP artists around. Even if you have little interest in programming, you can skim through this video and learn how Vadim made a lot of NI’s recent stuff sound better through analog-style filter modeling. But it might just get you into some casual toying about with core DSP, because Reaktor makes it easy – and Vadim makes it clear why it’s relevant to music and sound.
Some background first: Digital Signal Processing describes the transformation of sound through math, now inside your plug-ins, your hardware, and quite a lot of of Eurorack modules.
DSP is math, but the math itself often is straightforward. Take summing. You know the equation for summing signals, because it’s literally adding. That’s 1+1 adding – that one. (For years I listened to DAW programmers chuckle as people posted on forums about “summing engines,” because very often it is really the stuff you did in first grade. Well, if in first grade you used floating point numbers instead of integers, but you get the idea.)
Depending on the task in mind, of course, this can get to doctoral-level stuff instead. But if there’s only a handful of people doing DSP in audio, the reason may be that it requires overlapping expertise. You need to get the math part and the coding bits, but you also need a musical ear and a sense of art. (And you need to be willing to work with music instead of take a high-paying job for, say, the petroleum business or defense contractors.)
Music is very often about sophisticated results from simple building blocks. And so it is with DSP. DSP is a unique intersection between music, sound, science, art, and alchemy.
Then again, that’s why it could be a lot of fun to explore as a musician, and not just as an engineer. There’s not time for everything – that’s why it’s great to be able to “stand on the shoulders of giants” and use existing DSP code, and existing research, to say nothing of going out and buying a nice guitar pedal or using the modules in environments like Reaktor or SuperCollider or Max/MSP or Pd or checking out a new plug-in or soft synth or keyboard.
But Reaktor’s visual environment, structured tools, and the ability to plug your latest filter or distortion into a larger context make this software an ideal way to learn or experiment. I think it’s more fun than brewing your own beer or something, anyway, and I kill plants when I try to grow them. Filters it is.
I’m experimenting myself with Reaktor and also the lovely free FAUST environment. If anyone else is, too, let us know how it goes.