The Theory and Technique of Obtuse Electronic Music Textbook Writing.
April 21, 2011 4:21 PM   Subscribe

Miller Puckette's The Theory and Technique of Electronic Music, as a textbook, seems obtuse and unrefined to me. Am I missing something?

I finally decided to work through this book based on the recommendation of basically everyone everywhere, but I've found it a very frustrating experience. I'm normally pretty good at learning by working through a textbook, but I've had numerous hang-ups in trying to do that with this book:
  • Important things are assumed without being mentioned, and I'm usually confused for a while before finally realizing what he meant. An example in chapter one is when he describes frequency as f = wR/2pi, where w is angular frequency and R is the sample rate. I had no idea what R was doing at the top of that fraction until I realized that that equation holds when the independent variable is sample number, NOT time.
  • For nominally being an introductory text, he casually invokes a lot of knowledge to make conclusions that I can't decipher. An example in chapter two is when he says that the error between an ideal sinusoid and its interpolated version is "a residual signal all of whose energy lies in the overtones of the original sinusoid." I don't know enough about acoustics to even begin to understand the implications or even meaning of that.
  • The questions are all of the kind that require you to infer a lot of the implications of the basic relations he sets forth in the chapters without having seen them demonstrated. A question at the end of chapter 2 asks: "if a wavetable’s contents all fall between -1 and 1 in value, what is the range of possible outputs of wavetable lookup using 4-point interpolation?" I assume that this probably involves evaluating the 4-point interpolation function at some minimum or maximum, but beyond that I'm lost. I feel like I would need a lot more preparatory work to understand how to begin to approach this question. I might figure it out in the meantime, but this has been my experience with all of the exercises; they've all been done by the skin of my teeth. I also have no idea if my answers are correct, because there's no answer key.
I know that the thing is free, but unfortunately the amount it costs is irrelevant to its utility for me. Also, to be clear, the math is not an issue for me. My questions are:

1. Am I just being impatient? Everyone recommends this book without reservation.
2. What type of person is this book aimed at? I thought it was me: someone with a musician's understanding of pitch and overtones, who understands the basic principles of the logarithmic nature of pitch, and who has a solid mathematical competency. I'm not convinced that that's the case.
3. If I am just missing some essential background knowledge, what's a good source for acquiring it?

posted by invitapriore to Education (6 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I don't have a background in this subject, but I am an educator. One option you might consider is to set up a course at P2PU and try to recruit some fellow students into going through the book with you. Not sure if that is helpful…
posted by msittig at 7:25 PM on April 21, 2011

MP is a pretty technical dude. As an unmathy rube, my goto is Curtis Roads - The Computer Music Tutorial
posted by rhizome at 7:45 PM on April 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

get through some of the book without getting hung up on the little details. just keep making music with what you've been able to pick up. revisit the book later. it's all about making music anyway. you need some practical, usable, knowledge so get in there with pd or whatever and poke around.

as an aside...supercollider is pretty cool. it can be overcomplicated at times, but it's the most powerful thing that exists today for making computer music.
posted by victory_laser at 12:57 AM on April 22, 2011

What were you hoping to get out of it? It sounds to me like it's geared toward someone who wants to write synthesizers from scratch. Is that what you're interested in, or did you just want more information about how synthesizers work so you can use them to make music?

Almost none of the music producers or musicians I know ever get to that amount of detail when they're working with synthesizers.
posted by empath at 12:47 PM on April 22, 2011

Response by poster: empath: mostly, I think I want the sort of intuition that will tell me how I need to make a patch to produce whatever sound I'm thinking of in my head. I figured that having the sort of low-level technical understanding of what various synthesis techniques do would help. I know it's not a substitute for just messing around with the things and seeing what happens, and I do a fair amount of that, but there are always those cases where you're stuck in a place when making a synth sound and you don't have the perspective or experience to figure out what's wrong, and the theory gives you the sort of mental nudge you need to get where you want to go.
posted by invitapriore at 1:08 PM on April 22, 2011

My experience is that that kind of knowledge can't be read and must be derived through experimentation/practice. Miller Puckette and, for that matter, Curtis Roads are much more down the academic trail and I would not recommend tackling them as an intro. Though Roads' book is a tutorial and indeed an intro, it's 1300 pages and a bit daunting if you're still at the "make a patch" stage.

I recommend, "Any Sound You Can Imagine," by Paul Theberge.
posted by rhizome at 1:16 PM on April 22, 2011

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