Virtual Sound ($45), by Riccardo Bianchini and Alessandro Cipriani, is a tutorial on the Csound programming language. Written in a gentle and historically informative style, the book is easy to read and follow thanks to the efforts of the authors and the Italian-to-English translator, Agostino di Scipio. Bianchini and Cipriani have extensive backgrounds in computer music and impressive academic credentials.
Virtual Sound is organized in two sections: a 17-chapter, 330-page Csound tutorial; and a 200-page collection of appendices, useful charts and tables, and selected articles about Csound-related topics. Chapter topics reflect a tried-and-true pedagogical approach, starting with a general introduction to Csound, moving to various synthesis methods, and then gradually integrating more Csound-specific topics such as table opcodes, using Csound with MIDI, and Csound as a programming language.
Bianchini and Cipriani provide a thorough grounding in the basics and do an admirable job of explaining Csound's potential beyond note-by-note generation. The text describes how to build orchestras that can serve as rich compositional resources, even to the point of generating multiple musical ideas.
It's clear from the presentation, flow of materials, and general tone of Virtual Sound that the authors are experienced composers of electroacoustic music as well as effective teachers. The pervading attitude in the book is that computer-generated music is expressive and evocative. That is one of the Csound tome's most attractive features.
As an example of the authors' effective pedagogy, many chapters in the book are followed by sections called Extensions that provide technical — and in some cases, historical — enrichment. For example, in the subtractive synthesis chapter, the authors refer to Stockhausen's Gesang der Jünglinge and Kontakte as examples of works in which subtractive synthesis was used. However, they don't go into specifics, such as how Stockhausen made the wonderful resonant-filter sounds in Kontakte and how to reproduce them with a Csound instrument.
The articles in Virtual Sound's Appendices and Readings portion are noteworthy. First is an introduction to WCShell, a front end for Csound written by Bianchini. That section also includes articles about Csound and Linux, granular synthesis, algorithmic composition, additive synthesis, and interactive control of real-time Csound. For the most part, the Appendices and Readings portion builds on topics discussed earlier in the text and shows the reader how to elaborate those ideas to form practical and versatile production tools.
The dual-platform (Mac/Win) CD-ROM included with the book contains several versions of Csound and a suite of freeware Csound utilities. The Windows offerings are more interesting and include WCShell and a graphic Csound-orchestra builder called Spaghetti (also by Bianchini). Also included are Gabriel Maldonado's DirectCsound, a real-time PC version of Csound, and VMCI, a virtual MIDI interface. The example orchestra and scores in the text are on the CD-ROM. However, the examples are not organized by chapter or by synthesis algorithm, and the book gives no specific directions for their use.
I would prefer the inclusion of audio or multimedia examples that illustrate chapter concepts and integrate more thoroughly with the printed material. Although it is convenient to have the free programs together on the disc, most of the CD-ROM's content can be downloaded easily from the Web.
Some locations use Virtual Sound as a textbook, and it can also serve as a valuable reference. Its skimpy index leaves a lot to be desired, however, and the bibliography is somewhat dated. I also wish for a general discography of pieces that employ the techniques covered in the book. Despite those shortcomings, I felt as I read that I was in the hands of master teachers whose love of their subject and musicianship comes across on every page.
Overall EM Rating (1 through 5): 4