the software that defies the limit of sound

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If Spain can be represented with a guitar, the NESS team at the University of Edinburgh works on instruments that not only escape from association with a country, but from reality. It’s hard to imagine what a fire-breathing trumpet or a giant drum would sound like, but technology is to solve that sci-fi mystery. The software developed by the University allows you to know how different types of instruments would sound, each one more strange, that you are looking for expand the limits of synthetic sounds to create music, until now impossible.

The art world and the technology industry have worked hand in hand for decades. Nevertheless, the sound that is achieved by computer it does not yet have the quality that you get from physical instruments. This difference is the one that the researchers of the NESS project have tried to reduce.

During more than five years of research they have tried to improve the realism of synthetic sounds, as well as the speed when processing it. The last phase has brought together a series of artists who have put the results to the test creating pieces of music with digital instruments, some impossible to reproduce In the real world.

Accelerate digital music

The NESS project began in 2013 with the intention of taking as far as possible the synthetic sound limits, a technology that has been studied for decades. “Digital sound has a long history dating back to the 1960s, but the algorithms were very limited by the hardware of the time,” says Stefan Bilbao of the University of Edinburgh.

A team of 12 people have worked for years to achieve a more realistic result from synthetic sounds, as well as a faster response from the software. An entire orchestra of wind, string and percussion instrumentsComposed of different materials and shapes, they are born from the computer, giving life to new scores almost instantly. Trumpets that expel air At 727 ° C, batteries that require a large group of people to play them are some examples.

String instrument simulation

Edinburgh University


Before coming to these fancy instruments, it was first necessary to synthesize with the utmost accuracy the sound of existing instruments. To reduce the difference between the sound produced by a real and tangible instrument, from that produced by a computer, it is required recreate the responses from the materials, simulate the vibrations and the physical reaction of sound waves in each environment.

The NESS team decided to create a mathematical model that simulates the physical properties of each instrument virtually. For example, computer-generated string models take into account the mechanism of the bow and the action of the fingers on the strings in detail. It was necessary to study how the air behaves inside a trumpet according to the length and diameter of its tubes; recreate the movement of the strings of a guitar and project it onto a body with a specific cavity.

Sound room simulation

Sound room simulation

Edinburgh University


With all this, the sound is still not entirely achieved. For lovers of a good concert, it will not be difficult to imagine the next element that influences the authenticity of the sound. The room where those instruments are played it is also responsible for the end result. For this reason, they have worked on the simulation of the virtual room where digital sound must be projected.

Instruments with uranium

During the last phase of the project, the research team collaborated with various artists to test their software. Composer Gadi Sassoon came to code a 1.6 kilometer long trumpet in which he introduced large amounts of air at 727 ° C, as if it were the throat of a dragon spitting fire. This peculiar instrument can be heard on his new album, Multiverse, presented at the end of 2020.

“The composer can design an instrument, but the most unusual part is that of learn to play that instrument“, explains Gordon Delap, a composer who has been working on the project from the beginning.” The first sounds that are obtained are very similar to those that could come out of the room of a child who is learning to play a wind instrument “he says jokingly .

After several hours of work Delap managed to get his new instrument to produce the sound he was looking for, similar to that obtained from a dungchen, a traditional trumpet of Tibetan music. Although this is not the rarest instrument that the NESS project has brought to life.

“Ashes to Ashes” del proyecto NESS

Edinburgh University

Have been tested 3D batteries with 300 interconnected parts, trumpets that require several hands to be able to play them or, even, instruments made with uranium as Delap recalls in one of the interviews with the components of the research project.

Processing speed

Along with the sound quality, lprocessing speed was another priority. In the early stages of the NESS project, the university gave the team one of the basements on the Lauriston Place art campus. “It was a spacious room and with a good amount of obscene graffiti on the walls, sometimes when the process was slow we added a few of us,” they joke.

Percussion tests at the NESS Project

Percussion tests at the NESS Project

Edinburgh University


Although the acoustics of that concrete-walled room were not good, the important thing was that the first simulations they heard in it were produced remotely through the NESS GPU server miles away. The algorithms developed by the team have managed to speed up processing remotely thanks to the university’s computer center and the UK Archer supercomputer inside it.

“Lyou changes have been important, now parts can be generated faster, almost at the moment. I can build an instrument, have a score, and make small modifications to hear them instantly “explains this composer.” Looking to the future you can see all the interesting things that could be developed with this project such as more dynamic three-dimensional environments in which to place the listener, “he adds.

Years of research have served this team to give life to a start-up. Physical Audio that offers a synthesizing software with which “to model the propagation of waves in helical springs”. The program is downloadable in a free trial and uses less than 10% of the CPU.

Projects like this present a new way of creating music from computers and experimenting with sound as Sasson and Delap have already achieved.

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