Computer science graduate student Cynthia Bruyns immersed herself in the complex world of machine-generated music and, from the user’s perspective, simplified it.
Now she’s taking it to a whole new level.
The audio software she devised, which she calls Vibration Lab, will simulate the sounds you can make on any existing percussive instrument — not surprising, if you’ve ever taken an electronic keyboard for a spin at the mall — but then comes the value-added part. Bruyns has made her program into a scientific tool that may soon be used to invent brand-new instruments as well as make new kinds of music.
Says Bruyns (which is pronounced like more than one UCLA mascot), “Every object’s sound comes from the way it’s vibrating, and every object vibrates differently depending on its shape and material.”
Using modal analysis to break vibrations into their component parts, such as frequency and damping, the program can mimic real-world materials like wood or brass, adding the properties of mass and stiffness, interior and exterior pressure. Then, using an interface with three-dimensional graphics, you can use mouse or keyboard keys to “strike” the resulting object with a virtual stick and hear the sounds it makes. (Which is far easier than manipulating controls on several oscillators, the other, slower, way of going about such simulations.)
You might then be able to construct your imaginary instrument with real materials. But you don’t need to if you don’t want to. Your cyber-device is fully playable.
Movie folks have shown interest in using Vibration Lab to automate sounds for animation (which would have made Toy Story, for instance, much easier), but Bruyns is more interested, to date, in its possibilities for music and art. She’s been a DJ and now helps produce records, under a record label she runs with her electronic-musician boyfriend, releasing them in Europe. She is enhancing the program to model sounds of instruments like the kettledrum, whose sound depends on air, and is thinking about adding, down the road, the capabilities of wind instruments like clarinets and flutes. She hopes Vibration Lab — the research for which forms the core of her Ph.D. dissertation — will become a tool that visual artists can use to make sophisticated sound sculptures. Commercial possibilities are certainly tempting, but she also values Berkeley’s pioneering open-source tradition, by which software is freely available.
Before entering the doctoral program here (from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Stanford), Bruyns worked for the Biological Visualization, Imaging, and Simulation Laboratory at NASA Ames Research Center. She now works part-time with Apple Computer’s Interactive Media group and also tells prospective students (some very young) about what it’s like to be a woman studying and working in science.
Further information about Vibration Lab and an online preview are available through Bruyns’ website.
Photo: Justin Maxwell