Social top

Contact! 10.2

Spring 1997

Zen and the Art of Audio: A Primer
by Martin Gotfrit


Zen and the Art of Audio: A Primer is a hypertext reference for the theory and practice of capturing, storing, altering, and transmitting sound. A collection of computer files; text pages, audio files and graphics, it can be explored via several different navigation strategies using a web browser. The aim of this project is to provide a comprehensive source for practical information: either within the Primer itself or through links to sites on the Internet. The user is assumed to be either a student and/or an artist and this is reflected in the different levels of detail afforded each topic.


The School for the Contemporary Arts at Simon Fraser University is an interdisciplinary program in the Faculty of Arts that focuses upon the creation, performance, presentation and criticism of contemporary art. Practicing dance, film, music, theatre, visual arts, critical studies and interdisciplinary areas, many of the faculty are artists whose main form of academic research is producing new work. Through its programs and philosophy, the School encourages an interdisciplinary approach for its students. As a result, studio courses often contain a rich mix of students from a variety of disciplines. It is from within this context that the need for the Primer arose.


The development of the Primer is a direct result of special funding provided to S.F.U. by the Provincial Government under its 1994 Funds for Innovations in Education Program. Under pressure from the province to increase enrollment while reducing costs, S.F.U., like many institutions, looked to technologically mediated instruction as a way to achieve this difficult goal. I proposed the establishment of the Computer Lab for Music and Sound (CLMS) and was successful in getting funds to purchase equipment as well as hire researchers to create teaching materials. We were also fortunate that the arrival of the money coincided with the release of the new Macintosh Power PC series as well as dramatic growth in the WWW. The PPC made the shift from a single user studio to a multiple user lab possible, and continued developments in the creation and presentation of HTML documents supported the production of on-line manuals for the wide variety of applications used in the lab.


Zen and the Art of Audio: A Primer is a hypertext tutorial about recording, reproducing, manipulating, synthesizing and transmitting sound. Designed for students and artists, the material is presented in three different ways:

°Level One -- addresses practical issues and simple explanations
°Level Two -- reveals more details and deals with more complex activities
°Level Three -- provides information and references for more advanced queries.

The philosophy behind the three levels derives from my teaching experience at the School. Faced with providing a wide range of students with enough information to begin their studio work, I discovered that simple instructions were often enough to get the work started and that after a little hands-on experience, further exploration of the topic was easier and more relevant. For example, in early demonstrations the VU meter is described as an indicator of the signal level in relation to an optimum level (0 dB); later discussions delve into signal to noise ratios, headroom, meter ballistics, decibels, etc. Thus we tried a similar approach in the Primer. Level One pages contain the information needed to do the work while offering links to more detailed practical and theoretical explanations.

The initial implementation strategy was to select a different task for each of the aforementioned levels. The user would choose a task that pertained to their inquiry and begin navigation there. The tasks were (1) Record a sound to cassette in a simple studio consisting of microphone, mixer, cassette deck, amplifier and monitors, (2) Record and mix in a multitrack studio and (3) Record and mix in a post production studio with timecode synchronizing the video deck, computer and multitrack and the computer controlling various MIDI devices.

It has since become clear that, although the Task-driven method is useful in certain applications, other search methods are needed as well: The Primer now contains a table of contents and a word search function.


These are the main headings in the table of contents:

The Physical Attributes of Sound from Absorption to Wavelength

The Ear, Perceptual Attitudes, Psychoacoustics

Transducers, The Mixer, Storage and Retrieval both analogue and digital

Mixing, Editing, Equalization, Pitch Shift, Reverberation, Temporal Transformations, Dynamic Processing, Various Sound File Transformations: convolution, phase vocoder, etc.

Location Recording, Film Sound, Techniques of Electroacoustic Music (containing synthesis , sampling, etc.), Multitrack Recording, Sound Reinforcement, Theatre Sound, Art Installations, Multimedia

Transmission, Diffusion, Formats, Speaker Placement

Level 1, 2 & 3 Tasks

Electronics, Software Applications, Hardware, Timecode, Interface Protocols

Note: The Primer does not deal with compositional issues but concerns itself with the kind of material found in reference works such as The Audio Cyclopedia, the Handbook for Acoustic Ecology, various SAMS and Focus Press texts, the Yamaha Sound Reinforcement Handbook, etc. Thus, for example, we describe how a MIDI sequencer functions within a studio but do not suggest creative uses for this type of software.


The main application of the Primer is as a "hypertext" reference. It will be resident on the computers functioning as audio and MIDI workstations so that queries which arise during lab time may be addressed quickly. It may also be of use as a resource in courses where audio is a key component (film and video production for example) but not a strong subject for the instructor.


As of July. 1996, Zen and the Art of Audio: A Primer, is about 70% complete. Many of the diagrams and pages are done. Sound files need to be generated and several topics are not yet finished. The linking and navigation are still at an early stage and the overall "look" requires some fine tuning.


The Primer will be installed on the machines in our lab this September. We are hoping to transfer the material to CD-ROM during this time as well; this will facilitate both distribution and local use. We also intend to put a compact version on the Internet to gauge response and garner criticism.


Martin Gotfrit (project coordinator)
Kenneth Newby (researcher)
Scott Morgan (links & 'net research)
Arne Eigenfeldt (web master)

- Martin Gotfrit
Simon Fraser University

© CEC 1997

Social bottom