HAL Sings Daisy One Last Time
April 21, 2011 11:01 AM   Subscribe

Max Mathews, died today, here in San Francisco. One of the fathers of electronic music, whose early voice synthesis project became a centerpiece in 2001: A Space Odyssey - HAL singing that old tune "Daisy Bell."
posted by njohnson23 (28 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Daisy Bell.
posted by Drama Penguin at 11:02 AM on April 21, 2011

RIP... his recording of Daisy Bell is one of the only songs to ever make me cry. I don't know why, I guess it's just the beauty of synthesis, the dawning of an age of electronic whimsy.

Others were working with electronic sound before him, but I feel he humanized it and made it less sterile. A true pioneer.
posted by cloeburner at 11:15 AM on April 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

posted by hal9k at 11:24 AM on April 21, 2011 [5 favorites]

posted by sonascope at 11:27 AM on April 21, 2011

posted by idiopath at 11:42 AM on April 21, 2011


Mathews demonstrates the radio baton.
posted by mkb at 11:46 AM on April 21, 2011

posted by heatvision at 11:52 AM on April 21, 2011

posted by lupus_yonderboy at 12:09 PM on April 21, 2011

cloeburner: "Others were working with electronic sound before him, but I feel he humanized it and made it less sterile."

Much more than this - on the technical side he also implemented the synthesis model used for almost every piece of digital sound synthesis software to come afterward. Everything from Csound to PD to SuperCollider to Max/MSP (which, by the way, is named after Mr. Matthews, in honor of his innovations) and even the likes of Audiomulch and Reaktor use the same model he originated, of table lookup based oscillators in a directed graph of data processing units passing streams of control data alongside pointers to arrays of audio data.
posted by idiopath at 12:11 PM on April 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

posted by ants at 12:25 PM on April 21, 2011

I was lucky enough to hear Max speak a few years ago, and was just amazed. Among his stories: the IBM 704 had no audio output. Instead, the early versions of MUSIC wrote their output, as raw audio, to tape. The tape drive had to be hacked to allow high-speed playback of the audio, which was recorded at far below real-time.

It occurred to me at the time, and it's even more poignant now, that something of his early compositions and those of the folks he worked with, is lost forever. The hardware required to produce them will never exist again. We can emulate them on more modern instruments, but we'll never hear them as they were originally produced.
posted by multics at 12:46 PM on April 21, 2011

I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I'm a... fraid.

posted by benzenedream at 12:59 PM on April 21, 2011

idiopath: Is there a good primer on table lookup based oscillators in a directed graph of data processing units passing streams of control data alongside pointers to arrays of audio data?

Every single one of those terms make sense to me, I've coded, soldered or at least used every one. The high level picture jus t does not gel to me.
posted by Dr. Curare at 1:14 PM on April 21, 2011

The computer performance program, MAX, was named after him, by it's author Miller Puckette.
posted by StickyCarpet at 1:21 PM on April 21, 2011

Here is a good one from Miller S. Puckette, the other namesake of Max/MSP. The examples all use Puckette's program, PD.

As I mentioned before, the model is pretty standard, the only general purpose audio synthesis environment that I know of that is significantly different is chuck (which has multiple control rates / time as a first class value, and a thread based rather than directed graph based processing system).
posted by idiopath at 1:24 PM on April 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Dr. Curare, I posted too soon: this chapter addresses one aspect of what I am talking about (control signals as single values and audio as pointers to arrays AKA buffers), and the rationale behind its implementation. Add to that oscillators as precalculated lookup tables (also still ubiquitous today), and you pretty much have Matthew's original MUSIC software.
posted by idiopath at 1:32 PM on April 21, 2011

Thanks idiopath.

I will be reading this at work instead of working on "Critical Bug: Two users [out of hundreds of thousands] report one missing item in their inventory."

Total cost of the missing item: 25 cents.

When I am done, I will mark as "Unable to reproduce".
posted by Dr. Curare at 1:43 PM on April 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Max Mathews: a great man! He lived well; he was a maker and sharer; he was a kind human being; I didn't know him that well, but I loved the guy for what he did, who he was, and how he lived his life.

I had the pleasure of working indirectly with Max Mathews during a stint at Stanford University's Technology Licensing group, and through some years during a prior career in the electronic music instrument manufacturing industry.

Max was a joyful guy - someone who was tickled pink at the idea of waking up in the morning to work on his loves, music and technology. I remember a visit with Max one day at Stanford University's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA); we spent some time chatting and then he took some time to explain the workings of his Radio Baton. He invited me to a performance the following week where he accompanied someone (can't remember who, but I think she was related to John Chowning, another inventive and delightful guy (who invented FM Synthesis, eventually licensed by Yamaha Corp., - a technology still prominent in the world of music synthesis, today).

Max reminded me of the perfect combination of ultra-kind and sharing human being and consummate geek; he exhibited a pure focus and delight in his inventions and simply loved showing his inventions to people.

Max is absolutely in the class of inventors that includes Bob Moog, Don Buchla and Chowning.

Much of what we take for granted in the world of music technology we owe to Max Mathews. He belongs to the sonorous heavens now, and still lives with us in ways that we will only come to understand when we join him; he's still ahead of the pack!

Good journey, MAX! We're traveling right alongside!
posted by Vibrissae at 2:00 PM on April 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

posted by kuppajava at 2:13 PM on April 21, 2011

HAL singing that old tune "Daisy Bell."

More commonly known as A Bicycle Built For Two.
posted by y2karl at 5:30 PM on April 21, 2011

Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do,
I'm half crazy all for the love of you.
It won't be a stylish marriage -
I can't afford a carriage,
But you'd look sweet upon the seat
Of a bicycle built for two.

We will go tandem as man and wife,
Daisy, Daisy,
Wheeling away down the road of life,
I and my Daisy Bell.
When the nights dark, we can both despise
Policemen and lamps as well.
There are bright lights in the dazzling eyes
Of beautiful Daisy Bell.

posted by ovvl at 5:33 PM on April 21, 2011

Well, dammit.

I lived down the street from Max and when I was in high school, I worked for him at Bell Laboratories making violins. His lab, 2D-562, IIRC, was quite a room. It had a sound proof chamber, racks of expensive synthesizers, mixers, and tape decks, a few terminals, a work bench with all manner of implements of destruction.

Max was a charming man. He nearly always wore corduroy pants and an Oxford shirt, hiking boots and a belt with a buckle he machined out of aluminum that held his pen and pencil. You could always find Max in the halls because he was usually whistling an aria.

He was a terrific boss. He was totally open to me pursuing ideas I had for his violins. For example, I made all the necks from scratch from alder breadboards that were cut and three-ply laminated and shaped. I didn't like the alder too much and asked if we could dress it up some more by using alder-walnut-alder for the wood. I also suggested mixing stain to match tradition violin varnish. He gave me the OK for all that. When violins were completed, I suggested that we engrave each one for the prospective owner and the date and number. Again, greenlight. You couldn't believe how much care I put into that process. I also signed each one myself in a hidden spot. I didn't ask - I figured Max would be OK with it.

I made 12 total. There is only one that isn't signed/engraved and that is owned by Laurie Anderson. I made a point of meeting her at a book signing and showed her a picture of the violin and she lit up like spotlight, saying, "Max Mathews!" I corrected her that it was both of us and would she please let me engrave her instrument. I gave her my card. It never happened - one of my biggest regrets.

The violins were part of Max's master plan to make an orchestra that would be cost-effective and sound good. His violins incorporated circuitry to boost the singing formant, a waveform that was present in better violins. Output went to a custom amp with two speakers, one for strings 1 and 3, the other for 2 and 4. In this way, double stops wouldn't get muddy.

I came into the lab one day when Max was giving a demo and he hooked a violin up to a box that made it sound "just like a trumpet." Having played trumpet for 7 years, I vocally disagreed. Bad form, I know, but I was 16. Max took it in stride and asked me to come in with my trumpets and we would adjust the settings. How constructive!

I still list this job on my resume. It's been nearly 30 years since then, but I still take such pride in the work and enjoyed working with Max. This is one of the times that am truly grateful for having a photographic memory because I can still see his lab and the gear and remember all the good that went along with it. I can still remember the look of surprise when we presented Al Aho with a violin for his own. I can still see every piece, every part of the assemblies. I can still see the illegal metal shop where I machined parts. I can still see Max ambling down the hall whistling. And I'm very happy and very sad to hear that he has gone.
posted by plinth at 5:35 PM on April 21, 2011 [22 favorites]

Here's some samples from 2001 someone might wanna torture, and Max being interviewed at length for CMJ by Curtis Roads (PDF).

@Dr. Curare: One way to slip into the Matthews stream, as t'were, is to snag a copy of the opening chapters of the Csound Book (Chap. 1), a direct descendent.

If that's not scary then as part of the Csound Book itself Richard Boulanger offers some spiffy tutorials that'll get you in the door almost painlessly. Succeeding chapters ease/jar/drag you through the intricacies ... and the contents of the disks offer endless inspirations.
posted by Twang at 7:49 PM on April 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

max matthews is one of the handful of people who basically invented today's electronic music and it could be argued that he was the one who pretty much brought computers into it

as far as the csound/csound book goes - it's thick - and i seem to have an allergy to programming - that and i just want to press keys, twiddle knobs on the screen and make sounds - but just reading through the book taught me a lot about synthesis, to the point where instead of twiddling knobs through trial and error and intuition, i now have a good idea of what's going to happen when i turn those knobs and why - and it gave me a good overview of the history of computer synthesis

it's worth having - and god bless max matthews for setting this modern art in motion

i've heard that a lot of vst soft-synths actually have csound - which is a descendant of max matthews' MUSIC, etc. - at their core

anyone who is into computer music is following in his footsteps
posted by pyramid termite at 8:46 PM on April 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

This youtube video has a clip from 0:11-2:15 shows Max in his lab at Murray Hill. At about 1:00, you can see the plug-board that went into his mixer. What you can't see is that he consistently misspelled synthesizer on the masking tape labels, or the $1200 (1980's) Nakamichi tape deck blithely labeled/marked up with masking tape. I loved that lab.
posted by plinth at 10:16 AM on April 22, 2011

Adding to what pyramid termite said about learning synthesis, I'll share an idea ....

You can use Csound without all the "heavy stuff" to add some really cool mutations to existing audio. The book includes hundreds of "instruments , many of which will take samples as input (which makes them "processors").

You could pay a LOT of money for hardware or plugs that anyone else could buy - or use free Csound (with NO loss in quality). In time, learn to tweak existing instruments ... chain them together ... to literally build your own custom FX. And play stump the chumps!
posted by Twang at 1:55 AM on April 26, 2011

Early 2011 Max Mathews interview by Frieze magazine.
posted by Twang at 8:56 AM on May 12, 2011

« Older 83% male with an average net worth of $5 million   |   Want to 'nod out'? Ride the 'H' train Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments