Friday, August 8, 2008

The John Whitney Music Box

John Whitney is best known as a pioneer in experimental film and computer graphics, but he also did some work in experimental sound and sound synthesis. Jim Bumgardner has written a fun toy based on one of Whitney's ideas called the John Whitney Music Box, a screen shot of which is presented below:





Each of the little dots revolves in its own orbit. The period of any given orbit is exactly half of the period of the orbit outside of it. Whenever a dot crosses the positive X-axis, it triggers a synthesized sound at a certain pitch. The revolving pattern produces a fascinating patterns of sounds, repeating about once every five minutes, as the dots orbit about. There are 20 variations, with sounds ranging from plucked strings to chimes to sine-wave harmonics of a given fundemental. The visuals are based on an idea Whitney developed in 1981 (and which was all but unrealizable using the computers of the day); the idea to tie the visuals to the specific sounds and scales is Bumgardner's.

As for Whitney's experiments in sound, I'm aware of two specific things he did. Some years ago, I wrote a very short and silly story about a musician who "recorded" an LP (this was back in the vinyl days) by taking a needle to an acetate master disk and hand-engraving a groove in it. The result was what I called a pseudo-recording: a medium which "plays back" something that was never actually recorded. Not until the first time it is played back is the pseudo-recording ever actually heard, and it is entirely possible that the pseudo-recording's creator has little or no idea what it will sound like until that first playback.

Well, it turns out that Whitney and some other film experimenters actually did something like this. Back in the day, the sound on many movies was encoded directly onto the film in the form of an optical soundtrack, occupying a narrow stripe of the film in between the picture frames and the sprocket holes There were several systems, but usually this was printed on the film negative by a mirror, which reflected a light source onto the soundtrack stripe, and was modulated by a voice coil driven by an audio amplifier, as in a loudspeaker. Whitney, however, produced some experimental animated films where he not only drew the animations, but he also drew the soundtrack. Unfortunately, I haven't yet found any examples of these early animations on the Web. Another idea Whitney had was to produce the soundtrack using an aperture mechanically linked to an array of 20 pendulums, swinging with different periods. Some Web quotes I've found describe the results as sounding highly electronic. I have some ideas about how such a device might have worked, and I'm going to do some experiments to see if I can duplicate the result with Csound.

Returning to Bumgardner for a moment, he synthesized some of the sounds used in the Music Box using a softsynth of his own creation called Syd (as in Barrett, I presume). It looks interesting; its capabilities are, according to the author, based loosely on those of the Buchla 200 modular synth. Unfortunately, it doesn't appear that he is actively maintaining it at this time. Perhaps another enterprising synthesist would be interesting in picking up that baton. (Don't look at me; I've got too many projects going as it is...)

1 comment:

TJ Milian said...

the musical animation is awesome. thanks for the story behind it.