1 Video A Day

I set myself the challenge of producing a video on youtube every day starting 29th of August till 29th Of September.

You can see to all here as I publish them - wish me luck!

29 August:
Screaming Spaces

30 August:
Internet Armageddon

31 August:
Ambient Reverb' Explained

31 August (bonus - might on call this one if I get stuck another day!):
Choir Of The Ninth Circle

1 September:
Vlogging: 3 Different Audio Choices

Joi Ito You Are Fundamentally Incorrect - Yes 'Nowist Innovation' Is Good But It Is Not New

Joi Ito made a great talk, very entertaining but completely wrong.

Now don't get me wrong, I have no idea what sort of background Joi Ito comes from, so I cannot pass judgement on why he should get such a distorted view of the past. I do know he washed up at MIT after travelling the oceans of life. Maybe his passage across those oceans led him to see only a very narrow mode of innovation from large corporates and universities?

You see, his proposal is that lightweight innovation which happens quickly (weeks and months) rather than slowly (years) and cheaply (one person band from a bedroom) rather than expensively (millions of dollars up front) is new and different. That somehow the internet has fundamentally changed the nature of innovation; that companies like Google and Facebook are completely different form the MBA backed, bank funded behemoths of the past.

What would cause someone to think this? How could someone get anything so wrong when they are seemingly so clever?

Let us takes some examples; did you ever wonder where the modern invention of the car (automobile) came from:

"Benz's lifelong hobby brought him to a bicycle repair shop in Mannheim owned by Max Rose and Friedrich Wilhelm Eßlinger. In 1883, the three founded a new company producing industrial machines: Benz & Company Rheinische Gasmotoren-Fabrik, usually referred to as, Benz & Cie. Quickly growing to twenty-five employees, it soon began to produce static gas engines as well."

No corporate funding there. Though in fairness, it did take him two years from founding the company to getting the first machine working. So how about that speed thing Ito was talking about, is that new?

OK - Marconi:
"Marconi, just twenty years old, began his first experiments working on his own with the help of his butler Mignani. In the summer of 1894, he built a storm alarm made up of a battery, a coherer, and an electric bell, which went off if there was lightning. Soon after he was able to make a bell ring on the other side of the room by pushing a telegraphic button on a bench.[13]One night in December, Guglielmo woke his mother up and invited her into his secret workshop and showed her the experiment he had created. The next day he also showed his work to his father, who, when he was certain there were no wires, gave his son all of the money he had in his wallet so Guglielmo could buy more materials.[citation needed]"

With no money he was able to convert his storm alarm to a communication device in 6 months. How fast does something need to be? Whilst internet company growth might be considered faster than this, the innovation behind them is no faster and the initial funding (rich kids with allowances - let's be honest) has been much greater.

Indeed, I would also suggest that the development of the early transistor devices of the 1960s followed a very similar trend. Low investment and rapid innovation without huge backing from corporates or universities:
Moog Synthesiser (R Moog)
Telcan Video Recorder (M Turner - yes he was a relative)

Another example from history - how about John Browning? He developed the highwall quickly and with little money and they lead to world history changing machines all based on his designs. After all, when Hermann Göring (probably - no hard proof) said 'the war is lost' it was P51s over Berlin firing guns designed by Browning decades earlier which he saw as his nemesis.

So what is really going on and what did Ito get so very wrong.

I hope by now it is clear that Ito is wrong, completely and utterly wrong. Actually, I would suggest dangerously incorrect. 'It is different this time' is one of the most vicious traps on modernist hubris possible. What he is seeing is nothing new, it is history repeating its self. Disruptive innovation comes in avalanches. The avalanches are caused by the initial disruption. 

Better steel and the invention of the cartridge were small snow slips which allowed people like Browning and Maxim to change the world of warfare. Small, reliable transistors spawned Moog and NEV.

New developments in radio wave detection spawned Marconi's burst of innovation.

Better understanding of combustion, better theromdynamics and better steel (again) spawned the automobile.

The key is that these bursts of low investment, high output, rapid cycling innovation happen at the start of the disruptive avalanche. Some change, some new invention, some new approach which allows a big impact for a low investment of resource and time allows the world to pivot to a new reality.

Why Do These Avalanches Stop?

Consider creating a completely new search engine now? The snag is that the disruptive technology which allowed Google to be so successful is no longer disruptive. Huge corporates have either adopted it (Microsoft) or created it (Google); consequently, the barrier to entry is impossibly high.

In the early 1990s I was involved with a small electronics firm. This was the very end of the electronics disruptive period. Sinclair had been successful with a kit computer a decade earlier, showing that micro-electronics could breathe new life into the disruption of the transistor age of the 60s and early 70s. However, we were up against surface mount and miniaturisation. The old 'Fred in a shed' techniques of making your own circuit boards and soldering stuff onto them were becoming pushed out by the huge barrier to entry of high throughput manufacturing systems (think production lines and the model T Ford).

Now, as Ito points out, we have self assembly machines which are bringing garage built electronic back in. But the key is BACK IN, this is not new. There will be a new golden age and then the barrier to entry will rise again. Entry level entrepreneurs will keep finding the latest technology or idea which gives them a low barrier to entry. Large organisations will adopt their ideas and the barrier will rise again. Thus, they will go find something new. That is the way of things; that is the circle of innovation. 

Audio Stretching Explaned

Picture out a train window
Sounds experienced at a different speed

What is stretching?

Take a sound, any sound, say a song, sound concrete or just voice and stretch it out. I guess you can think of playing a 78rpm record at 33 a sort of stretch but that is not what people mean. The key idea to stretching is to uncouple pitch and time so pitch stays constant but time dilates. What took one minute might take ten.

Why might we want to stretch?

There are many reasons. I guess the most common is to convert a short sound segment into an ambient background. There are issues with this though (like repeating artefacts). Another is to create completely new effects, for example to make ultra-long impulse responses.

What Methods can be employed to perform stretches?

Well, there three ( but actually, two of them end up the same ). The most obvious is using a segmenting approach. We can chop sound up into little segments of say 100 milliseconds. If we double up each one we get a 2:1 stretch. The hope is that the 10Hz introduced by the 100milisecond segments will not be noticed. The truth is that such a naive approach makes a sound a lot like shouting through a fan. Basically, it does not work well enough for anything but Dr Who style sound effects.

The second approach is to use the Fourier Transform to separate time and pitch. The human ear is insensitive to frequencies below 32Hz other than as pressure waves (we feel pressure on our ear drums but not actual pitch). So we can take a piece of music and window an FT across it. This is a bit like the segments, we take a lot of little pieces of the sound and transform them into just pitch and phase Information. Then we can 'randomise the phase'. This means that the variation in the position of each frequency within the sample is removed and converted to something random. We can then regenerate a longer segment with the same pitch information as the original but the different phases. This gets rid of the fan effect but has other issues. It is pretty powerful though. It is this approach which Paul Stretch uses.

The third approach is again to use little segments or grains (pretty much the same thing though grains are a concept which is more applicable to granular synthesis) but convolve them with white noise. This has a mathematically similar effect to the random phase thing although it also adds more randomness to the pitch magnitudes over time. Nevertheless, guess what, convolution is usually done in frequency space, i.e. After a Fourier Transform, so actually convolution with white noise ends up pretty much the same maths as randomising phases.

People might talk about converting between sound and pictures and stuff like that. But in reality, that is just a visually appealing form of FT based stretching for people who like pretty colours.

Invasion uses a subtly different stretch approach, how does that work?

Well, it is only an evolution of two of the existing approaches. Actually, it started with Sea Of Sound, Hadean Scream was 90% there but Invasion nailed it. The key idea is to employ both convolution with white noise and granular stretching (segment based but using granular concepts). But, more than that, it uses a dispersion approach to the granular stretch. I think it is the dispersion which makes it powerful and interesting.

What I mean by dispersion is best demonstrated by listening to 'Cold'. Here I take grains of the sound and duplicate them, making hundreds of copies of the grain. Then I mix them back together but at randomised times. In Cold they follow the original sound, the grains are delayed and randomised. As there are so many of them they form a cloud of sound which swells and fills in the gaps around it. By pitch shifting the grains ( simple resampling ) I got the effect of a huge number of instruments followng on from the lead at different pitches.

It occurred to me that if I were to space out the grains and get rid of the originals, then the random,grains would rise and swell to form a new, stretched sound. Hadean screen does exactly this. The approach gets rid of one issue with Paul Stretch which really frustrates me. The issue is that some low frequency artefacts end up repeated in the output at a regular pace producing annoying effects. The attack of a piano key or the vibrato of a singer can make a very annoying repeating pattern in the output of a phase randomised stretch. The time dispersed granular approach breaks up these patterns.

In Hadean Scream I used normal impulse response reverberation to smooth out the final product; that works nicely, but is not all that ambient. If you listen to some of Eno's ambient work you can quickly tell that a key idea is soft attack. Sounds slowly appear out of he background. How to create very slow, soft attacks? Normal impulse response reverberation is not going to do it because the pulse has a sharp attack which brings out the attacks in the processed sound.

My idea (which panned out) was to make diamond shape 'super grains' of white noise. In Invasion these are 20 seconds long. They linearly grown from zero to a peak magnitude at 10 seconds and the linearly die away to nothing at 20. Using these as the impulse response for the reverberator performs that 'convolution with white noise' stretch approach but with the super soft attack and decay.

Can this approach be taken further?

Well, yes. Indead, even in Invasion and Hadean Scream I used pitch shifting as well as stretch. This means we can produce harmonised ambience from stretched sound. However, so far the stretch amount and pitch shift amounts are all fixed. I would like to make them dynamic; eventually I would like them to change in response to the sound being stretched to produce a more organic, living sound.

Can other people try out your ideas?

Yes, naturally, Sonic Field is open source. Just contact me and I will be glad to help.