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Onwards Tonus Maximus!

A number of instrumental musicians I have met, share a pattern: early in our musical lives we found ourselves with something akin to an audio-only vision, one or more sets of tones and elements therein, to which we found ourselves strongly drawn. For many guitarists, it is produced by specific designs of guitar as run through Marshall and allied amplification; among pianists there are a number of variations, even within those who play exclusively Steinway grands or instruments by Bösendorfer; violinists have quite the spread too; and it goes on and on.

In my own case, I was (almost) born and raised a piano player. My dad still plays a bit and also does quite a lot of work on them, and he taught me at age 3; the Yamaha Music School was given to take over for a while, and later I met my piano teacher, Myrna Lyons, who educated me as properly as I was able to absorb. I don't use the word “pianist” for myself because I never exhibited the startling fluidity, flexibility, and rapidity of many who I think truly deserve that word. I do play and enjoy piano very much…and in the last pile of years finally understood that I play best among others, which another story :-) I enjoy playing almost any piano, as long as enough of its notes approach tune with each other. But as a child I heard a sound on the radio and was told that it was a pipe-organ. Somehow I knew that what I needed to seek, sounded like that: not quite, but close.

In the ensuing years I found myself, often without intentionally doing so, trying all sorts of keyboards, home organs, Moogs, Casios, Oberheims, almost anything. I never found that tone in my mind's ear, my Tonus Maximus. I heard hints of it in some old movies, but they too were just hints; the One seemed increasingly like a fantasy.

And I never had opportunity to see a real pipe organ up close, eyeball to pipe-rack, until sweet Lori and I became the only practicing musicians in a church which had one. I had maybe five hours of knowledgeable help with all those knobs and buttons and things, and then it was up to me. And I was dismayed. This was the Real McCoy, rows of actual pipes I saw with my eyes, a 440-volt monster in the basement driven by special wires from the power company, gorgeous sound – and my tone was not there.

After I could not find my tone in the Real Pipes, I got a little sad, but one little indefatigable piece of my soul got pissed. He reviewed all of our musical history in front of my eyes very rapidly, and pointed repeatedly at my first endeavor in computer-related music. (He doesn't talk much, but boy can he point.) Once upon a time I had had a VTech 486SX-25, running DOS and Windows 3.1, and sitting next to it was my old Oberheim OB-8; on them both I had tried some very simple attempts to synthesize my Tonus which all failed quickly. The Oberheim actually had something moderately close in the highs and high-mids, but beyond that, neither. But this smaller thought-self which knows the Tonus intimately, insisted that not the Oberheim, but computer hardware, could be made to do it. And so we tried.

We tried lots, and lots, of things. We tried on the hardware I had, and every generation of PC I replaced it with when they burned out due to lack of air-conditioning then; and we tried on the quad-core I bought (this was when quads were new and rare) expressly for the purpose when the Creator made that possible. We tried many different Linux distributions, and soundfont-players with many different soundfonts, and every software synthesizer I could get running. And we tried on friends' Macs and Windows PCs and my wife's Windows PC (the latter just once or twice!). We tried ZynAddSubFX when it was new, and after it had been developed a lot; we tried Yoshimi a lot; we tried many other methods too. Slowly we developed a method to be able to try methods without too much time between attempts, which eventually became Robust Session Management. But my Tonus Maximus was still not there.

By this time I was heartily convinced that this project was the equivalent of “building a boat in a basement”, i.e., a project whose good is the keeping of hands busy doing something unharmful; you're not going to really dig out your entire backyard and destabilize the whole house, to get that boat out, are you? I was not happy with the diagnosis, but I didn't have any way to proceed, so I set up the box as a generic desktop and used it like that for about two years. I didn't ditch my old code, but I didn't have a reason to use it, so I didn't. Of course I still found myself reading anything I could understand about pipe-organs, to see what I might have missed, if anything. Every once in a while I asked the man upstairs to please stop me from wasting so much time. And after one of those requests, it happened.

A new thought was delivered into the mix. It was a reminder. Not all pipe-organ pipes, are the one-note flutes which are usually remembered. Some of them are basically oddly-shaped one-note harmonicas, which means they have a vibrating reed; and this also means they make a very different sort of tone.

So, thought I, what kind of tone is that really, and how might I get this machine to produce it? And then another thought was given. There was a very significant effort, years before, within the Yoshimi project, to produce a truly excellent clarinet sound. It was an effort of both tone design and Yoshimi development, because such a sound is very complex and difficult to get right. And a clarinet, has a reed.

I circled these two new thoughts, trying to make sure I wasn't just burying myself in more basement…and decided that it had to be tried. So I built something crude on my synth-become-desktop…and it was in there. Closer than I had ever heard before. A bit of static yes, balance was off, not perfect, but it was in there!!! And now I was appalled in the opposite way; the city had flooded, the house was gone, and I had to pile into my boat :-) So I did…

And finally things began growing in a really nice way. My Tonus Maximus is sounding delightfully, and progressing still. I call it the Supermega Rumblic Organ because it is! And it is really quite the joy. I also have Strings to play with, which itself is a Tonus Secondus which was given along the way. Perhaps a Tonus Tertius too…?

onwards_tonus_maximus.txt · Last modified: 2017/08/15 07:42 by jeb