Carnegie Mellon University

Experimental Sound Synthesis 57-344/60-407

Spring 2018

Instructor: Dr. Annie Hui-Hsin Hsieh


Class Meeting Time: M/W 10:30 AM -12:20 PM

Location: Hunt Library Media Lab (HLA10A)

Office Hours: Tuesday 2pm-4pm, CFA 197

Class Website:

Course Description

In this course we will explore a variety of innovative approaches to creating “sonic artworks” – a field of practice intersects experimental music, sound design, sound art, and multimedia art. Topics will include: the materialism of sound, creating multichannel sound works, electroacoustic music, spatialization, reactive sound environments, sound installations, and beyond. It will be our goal to challenge conventional methods of creating and experiencing sonic art. To assist in this endeavor we will also develop our skills of critical listening, and will expand our vocabulary for describing our experience of sound.

In this course students from a variety of disciplines will work together to design, prototype, and execute a series of ambitious projects. The course will culminate with a concert and exhibition featuring works that demonstrate the concepts and skills we have explored throughout the semester. Using the Media Lab

You will have access to the Media lab outside of class hours. It is an excellent environment for you to work on your projects and the utilization of such facility is strongly recommended. To use the Media Lab outside of class time you must make a reservation using the online reservation system. When using the lab outside of class you must comply with the policies indicated on the IDeATe website.

File Sharing

We will be using a Google Drive directory to share listenings, readings, and project submissions.

Online Discussion

Please join the class Facebook Group to participate in online discussion and receive course-related announcements. While you are expected to post to this page at least once per week, on things you come across that are either informative to your current research, or interesting videos, helpful MAX tutorials, it is also a great place to engage in exchange and sharing of knowledge with the rest of the class. You can also post questions, concerns, or commentary that you might have about course-related topics throughout the semester. You can also use the space to make suggestions to materials you would like covered in the course.

Please post the group by the end of the day every Sunday so that we can discuss posts in class the following Monday.

Listening and Reading Materials

Throughout the semester, listening and reading materials will be shared periodically. I’ll expect you to take turn in leading group discussions on these materials the week after they are distributed.


There will be one personal project, two short group assignments, and a final project. Details are as below:

1. A personal recording project (due **02/07) /4

The primary focus of the project will be creating a perspective of ‘space’ that can be heard from the recording. There are many ways you may want to explore this idea, one of which could be a “soundwalk” through which not only the specific location where the sounds were recorded can be experienced, but a sense of journey is also presented through various contrasting auditory perspectives. Alternatively, you might want to explore the auditory image created by using different positioning of the microphones. Fundamentally, the work should provide the context of the recorded sounds, as well as their transformations beyond these preconceived conditions. Be extra attentive to all sounds and the details within each entity you recorded, take the listener into an auditory journey.

Duration: 7-10mins

2. A group research presentation (due 03/05) 5 students per group, **/4

Prepare a 15 minute presentation on one of the following topics:

1) Explore the social function of public art. Think critically about the historical, cultural, and even political implications public art can play in society. Select 2-3 artworks (sound/mix media/performance/visual/etc.) to illustrate your arguments.

2) Choose one artist from each of the following two groups (i.e. one from Group 1, one from Group 2), discuss the function of physical space in their works. Carefully construct your research to illustrate the role space plays not only in their works, but as inspirations for these individuals. What do they want to express through the use of physical space as an artistic material?

Group 1: Sasha Waltz, Maryanne Amacher, Bill Fontana, Cathy van Eck, Bernard Leitner Group 2: Kristina Kubisch, Iannis Xenakis, Giovanni Gabrieli, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Alvin Lucier

3) Synthetic sound and natural sound, machine vs nature, electronic vs. acoustic, in what ways can we see digital/technology in relation to art-making in the contemporary world? What role does it play in shaping art in the 21st century? Has this advancement changed people’s (for both spectators and artists) relationship to art?

4) Explore the concepts of cognitive listening and embodied listening: what are the main differences between these modes of sound perception? Could the employment of each mode contribute to vastly different perceptive results? Do an experiment within your group by selecting 1-2 sound works/music that best illustrate these concepts; listen to them and note down the experience. Think critically on how these knowledge can inform us in the making of our own sound art: what are some of the advantages and potential perils?

This “presentation” can be either a talk, group performance, or some kind of a demonstration of the particular concepts/works your group has chose to explore.

**3. A group performance project using light as a gestural-control device (due 04/09) /4

Using the light controlling patch you made on Monday (19th of March) as the base, create a performance piece that features all members of the group. Aside from using  light (and darkness, for that matter) as the main triggering agents, investigate into other ways a sound input can be used to control parameters of sound. For example, what aspects of a live input (eg. the amplitude of a sound coming in from a microphone, of an electrical musical instrument) can control which parameter of the sound output? And can the sound output be other than sine tone/pitches? Can you also mobilize the video camera somehow, rather than using the fixed inbuilt camera on the laptop? You can add an instrument if you wish, either play it alongside the others who are generating live sounds,  or hook it up to the electronics as a controller as well. You can also add additional MAX objects or subpatches to this base mechanism, but make sure the focus stays on light as the main controlling agent.

Think about the outcome as a collaborative music-creating project that will be performed live. It’s not necessary that each person takes turn to play in a “solo” moment, some members of the group can be the sound/motion makers, some can focus on building and customize the “instrument”, but the result must be demonstrative of everyone taking part in it, as an ensemble.

Steps: • Define 5 specific  gestures that generate specific patterns of sound (either rhythmic or melodic)

• Work out what equipments you will need (how many laptops? Any live inputs? How many outputs?)

• Make a structural plan for a performance that will be 7-10 minutes (for example: what happens at what time?  is there an accumulative moment/climatic point in the performance? Are there different, contrasting sections? And what happens there?)

What to submit: Aside from a live performance, each group is required to upload the following into our Google Drive that is labelled “Assignment 3”

• The structural plan

• Write out a short description of what those 5 sound-triggering gestures are, and what sounds they make

• Write a short description on what each member of the group did for the performance

• This document should be no more than 2 pages long, but with all the necessary details

Submit everything to our shared online Google Drive

4. Group project at Phipps **/8 (*tentative on-site installation: 04/25, exhibition opens on 04/28)**

Your final project will be a collaboration with Phipps Botanical Garden in creating site-specific sound installations to accompany the Summer flower show, in the beautiful glasshouse -the Serpentine Room. On a larger perspective, this will be a class project. However, in order for us to organize ourselves to achieve the best possible result, you will be working in a group capacity and the final presentation of all projects should form one continuous experience. More details of this exciting opportunity will be unraveled throughout the semester, so stay tuned!

5. Participation: **4 (attendance and participation in discussions)**

This portion of the grading rubric consists primarily of your participation in group discussions, in particular during the critiquing sessions when projects are being presented in class. Our goal in this exercise is to develop the skill of giving thoughtful, supportive, and productive feedback to your colleagues’ works. Here are a few pointers that might be helpful in formulating your personal perspectives:

The trajectory of the work: this could be the narrative, story, or a general direction you feel the work leads you towards.

The auditory experience: describe how does the timbre, pitch, register, periodicity and rhythm of events, spatial attributes sound to you, does it remind you of anything, or provokes you in someway?

The visual experience: while this might not always be obvious, there are visual elements involved in all live performances. Describe if the visual stimulus enhances and informs your auditory experience, or did it work against it? How are the experience in both situations?

Others (?)

Work Submission Procedure (Presentation+delivery of the file/document)

All projects aside from the final installation project are to be submitted following these steps: 1) Presented in class 2) Upload the documentation of making the project onto the class website 3) Upload all files of the project and relevant materials to the Google Drive to share with the class.

Creating excellent documentation can be just as much work as creating the work itself – it is acceptable if a group member wishes to take this on as their primary contribution to a project they will be assessed accordingly.

Collaboration and working in groups

Each group for projects 2-4 will consist of 4-5 students, and each individual is assessed on their personal contribution to the overall project. The same principle applies to the final class project where each person will be graded based on their individual contributions.

Working in groups is a great way to synthesis each person’s speciality into one collective effort. It is also a rewarding process to learn about things that you might not be familiar with before, from your peers, forming invaluable new collaborative partnerships that can go beyond this classroom!


Your projects are expected to be fully realized and complete on the due dates indicated on the course calendar. They will be presented in-class on the due dates for class critique. If we are running low on time, presentations may occur over the course of two class days rather than one. You will only have 10 minutes to set up the work for presentation, so do as much pre-staging as possible so that you can set up quickly.

Each group will have an additional week beyond the due date to complete the documentation that is posted on the class website. This allows the group to include documentation from the in-class presentation or performance, and to include any last-minute changes that might have happened. The post must be online exactly one week after the due date. Posting late will result in a reduction of the score by 1 point for every day of lateness.

Your work will be evaluated based on your specific role in the project. For example, a project with excellent sound editing but poor documentation would result in an excellent grade for the person doing sound editing, but a poor grade for the person handling documentation. The short-term assignments and your individual project will graded on a scale from 0 to 4 points. Of these 4 points, 2 shall be awarded to the quality and originality of the concept in the work. Another 2 points shall be awarded to the quality of the technical execution of the work. For both criteria, concept and execution, the determination shall be made accordingly:

0: Incomplete. For example: the patch does not work, the work does not address the goal of the assignment, the work was not delivered on-time, the work was not delivered at all.

1: Satisfactory. The work was delivered on time and addresses the goal of the assignment.

2: Excellent. The work demonstrates an outstanding concept or execution. The work demonstrates great insight.

The final project will be worth a maximum of 8 points. The points will be awarded with the same criteria as above, but then multiplied by two.

You class participation will account for another 4 points towards your final grade.

Your final grade will be determined by your total score out of the maximum score of 24.


There is a wide variety of sound, video, and photo equipment available to you from the IDeATe storage room. The Media Lab is also packed to the gills with powerful audio/video equipment. Your participation in the course makes all of this equipment available to you throughout the semester (and in the future, if you pay a minimal “Membership Fee.”)

We are able to afford these many fine instruments because we are a large community, working together. To be a part of this community you must respect communally used equipment, and take excellent care of it. If you damage equipment due to careless behavior the cost of repairs will be charged to your student account.

For your computer work you have three options:

You may work on the Mac Pro that is permanently installed in the Media Lab. Select the “Media Lab User” user account. When you are using this account create a folder with your Andrew ID and store all your files in this folder. It is very important that you back up your work every time you work on the computer. It is entirely possible that files on a communally used machine can be unexpectedly moved, erased, or modified. Get an external hard drive or USB thumb drive and backup your work constantly. You may also work on any of the 40 MacBook Pro laptops that are available to you in the IDeATe storage room. Similarly, you must be diligent in backing up your work when using these machines. The laptops and the Mac Pro all have Max 7, Logic Pro, Audacity, Arduino, Final Cut, Photoshop, Illustrator, and many other useful pieces of software.

Thirdly, you may work on your own computer. If you work on your own computer you will be responsible for acquiring and maintaining any of the software you choose to use. Your instructor cannot provide technical support on your computer for you.


When we are designing new software it is perfectly acceptable to use sections of code from examples found on the web, in help files, in tutorials, etc. Indeed, this is not only acceptable but is totally necessary if one wants to work efficiently. Furthermore, when we are creating new works of electronic art is perfectly acceptable to make use of found materials (video files, sound files, images, etc.) to use as raw material in creating new works of art/music/design.

When using found code/images/sounds in your own work there are two requirements: Attribution. You must clearly identify where the code/images/sound came from. Transformation. You must significantly transform the materials you are using. You should extend the material, modify it into something new, offer new insight into the concepts underlying the material, etc. Work that uses borrowed code or other materials without significantly transforming those materials will result in a low grade. More information on CMU’s Academic Integrity policy can be found at:


Attendance: Unexcused absences are disruptive and disrespectful – especially when we are working on group projects. How is your group supposed to advance the work without you???

If you are unable to attend class for any reason you must email me, and the other members of your group, in advance. Failure to contact myself and your group members before the start of class will result in an unexcused absence, which will noticeable impact your final grade. Three or more unexcused absences will result in the drop of one letter grade per absence.

This means that if you have three unexcused absences and would otherwise receive an A in the class, you will receive a B. If you have four unexcused absences and would otherwise receive an A, you will receive a C, etc.

Absences: You are responsible for what happens in class whether you’re here or not. Organize with your classmates to get class information and material that you have missed. We cannot repeat course material in class just for you. Also, please note that this applies to being significantly late to class as well: arriving to class more than 15 minutes late will be considered an excused absence.

Finally, the main objective to this course is to constantly with an open mind to experience, and create, things beyond those that you are familiar with. Treat the lectures, presentations, listening activities, readings, and other activities we cover in class as the springing board upon which you go on and explore more options that interest you the most. Be generous in sharing these findings with the rest of us if you wish, by using the online Facebook Page, or bring to class, or integrate it into your project presentations.