• Matt Morrell

Synthesizers and Star Wars

The journey of learning synthesizers has taken me down some terrific YouTube suggestion rabbit holes but no video stands out like this 27 minute masterpiece by Christian Henson Music.

This is a wonderful technical discussion of the "stuff" that makes up acoustic sounds we hear in the world versus synthesized sounds. For instance, if you strike a piano key on a real piano, you hear the note itself as well as these tiny notes "around" the note called harmonics. You also hear bits of the other strings in the piano, as well as the little echoes and things inside the instrument and the room.

A synthesized piano note has essentially the note itself in a much more simple form. It doesn't make it "bad", but just like the uncanny valley effect of digitally animated human faces, our brains know something is off.

For me, when I think of the Uncanny Valley effect, I think of two great movies: "Toy Story" and Star Wars Rogue One.

In Toy Story, the animated toys register in my brain without any major complaint. I just accept that the toys are talking and move on. But the computer-animated humans throw off the mental acceptance of the universe and break me out of the story. Something is... off.

Likewise, Rogue One is my favorite Star Wars movie. I love how you don't need to know anything else about Star Wars to enjoy it and how the characters legitimately do not know anything about the rest of Star Wars. In every other Star Wars movie, the characters all seem to have seen the other movies and seem to wink at the audience.

The only thing that throws off Rogue One is the inclusion of a few main characters from the originals, Grand Moff Tarkin and Princess Leia. When I think of the movie, my brain immediately thinks of those CGI characters and creates a tiny break in trust towards the story.*

In the second half of the video, Christian goes through how he processes a synthesized note to build out the harmonics, distortion and other audio colors around the note to create a sound that our brains can trust as more pleasing.

Up until this video, I had thought of the analogue vs digital debate as a bit of a snobby farce. Now I'm not so sure, especially after seeing it visually represented in the spectrum analyzer.

One of the top comments has been rattling around in my mind since reading it and I think it's worth sharing. This is from user Wells Oliver:

Reminds me of the great Eno quote: “Whatever you now find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature. CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit - all of these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided. It’s the sound of failure: so much modern art is the sound of things going out of control, of a medium pushing to its limits and breaking apart. The distorted guitar sound is the sound of something too loud for the medium supposed to carry it. The blues singer with the cracked voice is the sound of an emotional cry too powerful for the throat that releases it. The excitement of grainy film, of bleached-out black and white, is the excitement of witnessing events too momentous for the medium assigned to record them.”

Of course, this raises the question of whether the uncanny valley effect in modern CGI will acquire its own charm over time. We may look forward to tutorials on recreating the "slightly off" CGI of Rogue One and Toy Story in years to come.

* My wife used to watch General Hospital, a long running soap opera that has to deal with the loss of actors all the time, either permanently due to death and career changes or just for a few days due to sick leave. How do they handle it? An announcement at the beginning of the show that "The part of character x will be played by x." That's it. They move on with the story and no one acknowledges a thing. I asked my wife if she was ok with that - of course. That's how it works... as a space "soap opera", I wonder if the reaction to Rogue One would have been more generous with a bit of old fashion understudy switching.


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