Mixing historical, theoretical, and practical information, Microsound ($47.95) is an interesting and informative scholarly text that is ideal for those who wish to explore granular sound. In the book, author Curtis Roads, a composer and associate professor of media arts and technology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, investigates ways to create, shape, and control granulated musical sounds.
The book's content varies widely from the philosophical topics of time, composition, and aesthetics (chapters 1 and 7 through 9) to practical discussions of how to create particular kinds of musical sound (chapters 3 through 6). All are well written, though sometimes the prose is a bit terse. I especially appreciated Roads's attempts to take on nontechnical subjects such as composition and aesthetics.
The text addresses a professional audience and assumes that readers have a working knowledge of acoustics, digital audio, and mathematics. Readers lacking these skills might want to keep a reference book such as Roads's Computer Music Tutorial on hand.
An accompanying CD of audio examples provides the much needed sonic realization of the techniques discussed in the book. Unfortunately, Roads does not cite specific CD tracks as he presents each subject. Instead, a single appendix at the end of the book presents and explains the CD's contents. That's much less convenient for readers.
Roads begins the book with an explanation of the range of possible time scales of music, from the infinite to the infinitesimal. I found his supra time scale intriguing, as I usually don't think of music in terms of centuries. On the other end of the time scale lies microtime, the measure of sound grains. Here Roads provides some useful information about the limits of human perception and how granular sound relates to these.
Chapter 2 presents a history of microsound from antiquity to the present and begins with a four-page listing of all known electronic instruments created from 1899 through 1950. While interesting to read, it wasn't clear to me why the list belongs in this book, as none of these instruments used granular techniques. Roads then traces atomistic ideas of nature and sound, from the ancient Greeks up to a very modern Greek, composer Iannis Xenakis. This history helps put contemporary ideas and their roots into perspective.
With his fundamentals in place, Roads describes how to compose granular sounds. Chapter 3 explains the basic parameters and types of granular synthesis. It also discusses how the manipulation of grain parameters such as duration, waveform, frequency, density, and spatialization can dramatically transform sounds. These procedures create much of the “magic” of granular synthesis; chapter 3 alone could therefore justify purchase of Microsound for many musicians.
Chapter 4 leads the reader through “a catalog of particle-synthesis techniques.” I found the 11 synthesis types described here a bit uneven in effectiveness, but enjoyed that they stretched my conceptions of how to deploy sound grains.
In chapters 5 and 6, Roads delves into the rich possibilities of transforming existing sounds through granulation, first with simple grains (chapter 5) and then with grains derived from a windowed spectrum analysis using phase vocoder and wavelet techniques (chapter 6). Both approaches yield exciting sonic results, but readers must persevere through a barrage of theoretical explanations in chapter 6 on their way to the practical applications.
Chapters 7 and 8 demonstrate and discuss how composers have implemented granular sounds in their works. Roads focuses mostly on his own compositions and ideas, which is understandable but eventually a bit disappointing. I would have enjoyed discussion of a wider range of musical approaches and sounds.
Roads ends chapter 9 with a brief summary of his ideas and describes how he feels granular-sound ideas might be used in the future. A generous bibliography, indexes of the names and subjects mentioned in the book, and the appendix mentioned above listing the CD's contents conclude the text.
This book is a condensed presentation of ideas that have arisen over three decades of the author's experimentation and composition. It treats the subject of granular sound fully and deeply, and stands as the best single text on this subject ever written. However, it is written for a scholarly audience and thus may be of limited interest to those who are looking for a straightforward “cookbook” for creating granular sounds. Though at times it dallies on tangential subject matter, Microsound is packed with insight and stimulating ideas.