Experimental Sound Synthesis 57-344

Spring 2019

Carnegie Mellon University, School of Music

Instructor: Dr. Annie Hui-Hsin Hsieh


Class Meeting Time and location: Mon/Wed 10:30 – 12:20, Media Lab (A10 A, Hunt Library Basement)

Office Hours: Monday 4-5:30 pm, Media Lab

Class Website:


This is a course looking into the world of experimental approaches to creating music and sound, with particular emphasis on some of the key practices and concepts developed in the 20th and 21st centuries. We will examine a variety of ways in which sound works are made and perceived, as well as understanding the historical perspectives and critical viewpoints of each approach through the application of hands-on practicum. The topics covered in the course are roughly divided into three large areas: the materialism of sound, the use of software and hardware in the production of sound works, and the creation of interdisciplinary sound installation. Students from different disciplines will work together to collaborate on the designing, prototyping, and execution of a series of ambitious projects in response to the topics covered in class.

Prerequisite Knowledge

You are not required to have prior knowledge in aspects of the course in order to succeed. However, one will benefit from having some basic level of understanding in one or more of the following areas:

Audio manipulation and production (Pro Tools, Ableton or Audacity) Real-time graphical programming environments (Max or PD) Experimental music composition/performance Basic physical electronic fabrication skills Physical computing platforms (Arduino, Raspberry Pi)

Listening and Reading Materials

It is without saying that the best way to really understand how music works is through continuous listening, and the reading is what will enhance each stylistic and aesthetic in detail to help building a comprehensive and expanding vocabulary towards an understanding of experimental sound art.

Most of the listening materials will be either added to the class Youtube or Spotify playlist after each class. There are some special recordings that have been converted to WAV. files and shared on the Canvas website as well. I will direct you to those sources when we get to these topics.

The reading material assigned for each week will be read before each meeting. For example, the readings provided for week 2 will be completed before coming to class on Monday of week 2. These will be made available online all semester, at the Files section on Canvas. We will begin each Monday class discussing the reading materials first, before expanding the topic to encompass more in-depth knowledge and practice. Therefore, it is in your best interest to read the materials before arriving at class. This is also how you will be graded for the participation portion of your grade. I expect a lively engagement in conversations and discussion on and about the topic each week. Having said that, this doesn’t mean you have to always agree with everything the listening/reading materials provides. This discussion session is designed to be a safe space where we question, critique or reflect on each topic, and your active participation will only contribute towards a vibrant classroom atmosphere through the exchange of perspectives.

Grading and Assignments

3 x short reading and writing assignments – 300 words each 30% Project 1 – Acousmatic Soundscape composition of 10 minutes 15% Project 2 – Light and Sound interactive project 20% Project 3 – Class exhibition at the Carnegie library Oakland 25% Attendance 5% Class Participation 5%

Written Assignments

There will be 3 short written assignments of 300 words each, each graded out of a total of 5. These will be focusing on one or two specific reading materials and are designed to help deepen and expand some of the more intricate ideas we examine in the course. The prompts to each of these assignments will be posted on Canvas 2 weeks before each of the due dates.

You will submit your written assignments to Turnitin on the Canvas page for each assignment.

Work Submission Procedure for practical-based projects

(Presentation + delivery of the file/document + final documentation posted online)

All projects are to be submitted following these steps:

1) Presented in class

2) Upload all files of the project and relevant materials to the Google Drive.

3) Upload the final documentation of the project onto the designated class website.

Late Assignments

Late assignments will be penalized at a 50% deduction of grade, for up to a week after the due date. Later than that will incur in a 0.


Your projects are expected to be fully realized and complete on the due dates indicated on the course schedule. 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.

The short-term assignments and your individual project will be graded on a scale from 0 to 6 points. Of these 6 points, 3 shall be awarded to the quality and originality of the concept in the work. Another 3 points shall be awarded to the quality of the technical execution of the work.

Here is roughly how each point will be graded: 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: Good. The work demonstrates a sufficient execution and a well-presented concept. The work demonstrates great insight but has the potential to be expanded to be more substantial.

3: Excellent. The work demonstrates exceptional conceptual design and is well-executed.

The final project (Project 3) will be worth a maximum of 9 points, awarded with the same criteria as above, but then multiplied by 1.5.

Collaboration and working in groups

Each group for projects 2 and 3 will consist of 4 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 specialty 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!

The main objective of 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, bring them to class, post them online, or integrate it into your project presentations.


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 with powerful audio/video equipment. Your participation in the course makes all of this equipment available to you throughout the semester.

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 back up 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. I cannot provide technical support on your computer for you. If you choose to work from your own computer.

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.

Lastly, although you are free to choose which audio editing software you might want to work with, for those who are new to this practice, I would suggest downloading Audacity – a free DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) created by legendary CMU professor Dr. Roger Dannenberg!


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: 1) Attribution – You must clearly identify where the code/images/sound came from. 2) Transformation. You must significantly transform the materials you are using.

In general, 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 :


Unexcused absences are disruptive and disrespectful – especially when we are working on group projects. If you are unable to attend class for any reason you must email me, and the other members of your group, at least 24 hours in advance. NOT THE MORNING OF!

Every absence must be documented, and can only be of one of the following situations: (1)Illness with a note from Health Services or a doctor the day you return to class

(2)Official school business with a note from the supervising faculty

(3)Observance of religious holidays.

For item (1) you must present an approved note at the next class meeting. If you think you are going to miss more than one class, someone must let me know. An email the morning before the class meets will not be accepted as an excuse.

For items (2) and (3), you must let me know and present me with an approved note at least 24 hours before the class you will miss. Failure to do this will make you ineligible to receive credit for the homework due at the missed class.
More than 2 unexcused absences will result in a drop in letter grade.
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.

Extra Time Commitments

This is a 9-unit course, students are expected to spend up to an additional 5 hours per week to work on your personal or group project, or completing the reading/listening materials assigned for each week.

Whom to talk to when you’ve got a question, problem, or concern

You should talk to me if you have any issues concerning missed or late homework, absences, or other day-to-day course matters. Grab me after class if you have short and/or pressing questions; for longer questions such as to clarify concepts, terms, or anything relating to the materials we covered in class, that would be a matter that can only be resolved by arranging a one-on-one meeting with me.


If you have a disability and are registered with the Office of Disability Resources, I encourage you to use their online system to notify me of your accommodations and discuss your needs with me as early in the semester as possible. I will work with you to ensure that accommodations are provided as appropriate. If you suspect that you may have a disability and would benefit from accommodations but are not yet registered with the Office, I encourage to contact them at


Email will be our primary form of communication outside of the classroom, so please make sure your Andrew account is set up properly to receive them. I will sometimes send through follow up information regarding extra reading/listening or even practice materials, as well as some general housekeeping reminders. Please do check your mails regularly so you don’t miss anything important.

You should also join the class Facebook Group where we can communicate and share ideas regularly throughout the semester.

That’s it, have a fantastic semester, looking forward to working with you all.