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Sounding Off

William Brent

IT TURNS OUT THAT YOU can see sound as well as hear it. Using sophisticated software, Audio Technology Assistant Professor William Brent combines human, robotic, and computer-generated sound to create a dynamic new aural and visual art form. We asked him about this exciting technology, which is changing how we perceive music.

How did you first become interested in experimental sound?

As a graduate student in music composition, I was introduced to a computer language for developing real-time audio synthesis and processing applications. The idea of synthesizing sounds from scratch, transforming the sound of live instruments in concert, and generating music algorithmically was appealing to me.

Describe how you turn sound into a visual experience.

Our minds contain sophisticated networks of relationships between aural and visual stimuli. When I hear the sound of a cello, some part of my brain also imagines what the instrument looks like and the physical movement required to play it. In my work, I explore new aural/ visual relationships by using audio analysis of live musicians to produce real-time animation and video, or computer vision techniques for tracking the physical gestures of a performer to control audio.

What are some of your current projects?

In collaboration with AU Musician-in-Residence and saxophonist Noah Getz, I am creating software that will act as an intelligent improvisation partner for him. The software will be trained according to the tendencies of his own playing style. I am also creating a new percussion-based digital musical instrument that will allow any surface to become a sensitive and expressive multi-percussion setup. The instrument senses when the player strikes the surface with a drumstick, and then samples the position and angles of both sticks at that instant to deter- mine what sound to play and what level of additional audio processing to apply.


How do you envision the future of your field?

We’ll see radical new ways for people to experience, learn, and perform music. This will lead to new kinds of concert experiences for audiences, new virtual instruments, and audio production software that will greatly enhance our ability to control sound in concert and studio applications. Innovative music education software will transform the way we learn traditional acoustic instruments.

To learn more about William Brent’s work, go to