Carnegie Mellon University

57344/60407: Experimental Sound Synthesis
Spring 2015 Syllabus

Instructor: Professor Jesse Stiles (

TA: Kristian Tchetechko (

Time: M/W 10:30AM-12:20PM

Location: The Media Lab (HLA10A), Hunt Library - Lowest Level

Class website:

Office hours: By appointment

Course Description

Course Calendar



Working in groups


Essential Skills


Working in the Media Lab

Course Fee

Academic Integrity

Attendance & Class Participation


Experimental: using a new way of doing or thinking

Sound: mechanical radiant energy that is transmitted by longitudinal pressure waves in a material medium (such as air) and is the objective cause of hearing

Synthesis: something that is made by combining different things

In this course we will explore a variety of innovative approaches to “sonic artwork” - a broad field which includes experimental music, sound design, sound art, and multimedia art.  Topics will include: composing and mixing in multichannel sound formats, designing electronic performance instruments, electroacoustic music performance, 3D sound recording, reactive sound environments, sonic sculpture, and beyond.  It will be our goal to challenge conventional methods of creating and experiencing sonic art.  To assist in this endeavor we will also develop our skills of critical listening, and will expand our vocabulary for describing our experience of sound.

In this course students from a variety of disciplines will work together to design, prototype, and execute a series of ambitious projects.  The course will culminate with a concert and exhibition featuring works that demonstrate the concepts and skills we have explored throughout the semester.


The course calendar can be viewed online here.  Please note that we will go on a research trip on Saturday, February 7 to the Bayernhof Museum.  This trip will be both awesome and required - please consult with me if you have a schedule conflict that would not allow you to participate in the trip.  Also note that there will be no class meeting on Wednesday, March 18 and Monday, April 6.


There will be four short-term assignments and one final project.  Due dates for each of the assignments are indicated on the course calendar.  Your final project will be featured in a public concert & exhibition that will take place on Wednesday, April 29.

For all of the work that is created in this class it will be our goal to create fully realized sonic artwork.  Fully realized means that the creators have carefully considered every aspect of how the work is created and and how it is experienced by the audience.  You should consider not only the qualities of sound that you create (this of course is extremely important), but every other aspect of the audience experience.  Think about how the seating will be arranged, think about the lighting that will be used, think about how the work will begin and end, how the speakers are arranged, what costumes the performers might wear, etc.  Think about the narrative experience that you are creating with your work. What is the story that this work is telling us?  It is also critical that our work is very well documented (see the role of the Scribe, below). 


The short-term assignments will be presented and critiqued in class on the due dates.  Attendance on critique days is absolutely essential.  The entire class will participate in critiques.  Our goal will be to have productive, supportive, and thoughtful critiques.  Critiques will begin with audience persons describing their experience of the work.  Our considerations will include, but not be limited to the following lines of thought:

• Narrative: What story did this work tell us?  How did the work make us feel?

• Auditory: Describe, as simply as you can, the sounds that you heard.  What is the sense of space that these sounds create?  How did the sounds behave: did they fluctuate in pitch, rhythm, quality, spatial position?  Did the fluctuations fluctuate?  Did these sounds remind you of anything?

• Visual: Perhaps it’s not totally obvious, but our visual experience of sonic artwork is incredibly important.  Listening to a sound in a brightly lit Dentist’s office is a completely different experience than listening to the same sound in a beautifully decorated concert hall, or listening to the same sound in a darkened theater.  Carefully consider the entire audiovisual environment that you create with your work.


All work created in this course will be done in groups, with four students per group.  Each person in the group will have one of four roles:

Experience Director:  in filmmaking it is the job of the director to consider the audience experience.  The director works with the entire filmmaking team to assemble images, sounds, and performances that create a unique and transformative narrative experience.  A good director carefully considers how every aspect of the film will effect the audience - the timing, the sounds, the colors, etc.  The director communicates with the entire team to make sure that every element of the work is contributing to the best audience experience possible.

While we are not making movies in this class, we are making experiences.  The role of the Experience Director (ED) is to carefully consider how the work will be received by the audience.  Throughout the entire creative process the ED shall consider how the individual elements of the work contribute to the narrative journey of our sonic artworks.  The ED will be responsible for work not covered by the other team members, such as lighting, seating arrangements, etc.

The work of the Experience Director will be evaluated by the quality of our experience.

Editor:  The Editor manipulates the evolution of sound over time.  This can be done in a “DAW” such as Audacity, Logic, or Ableton Live.  These are all powerful pieces of the software that allow you to sculpt the timing, pitch, and sound quality of sounds over time.  For the most part these DAWs function in a linear manner - your sound structure is fixed over time, every time you hit “Play” you get the exact same result.  This is traditional sound editing.

The Editor can also choose to be a Software editor, creating custom software in environments like Max, PD, Nyquist, etc.  This approach frees the Editor to create wildly experimental systems, such as generative sound works - in which the behaviour of sounds is constantly changing and never-repeating.  This approach is heartily encouraged!  Of course the editor may combine techniques from sound editing and software editing to achieve the desired results.

The Editor will be evaluated by the technical and artistic skill demonstrated in the organizational use of sound.

Sound Designer:  The Sound Designer creates the sounds that the Editor works with.  These sounds can be produced in many different ways.  They can be field recordings produced with a portable sound recorder.  They can be synthesized using software synthesizers, samplers, or effects machines.  They can be acoustic sounds produced by a musical instrument.  With proper attribution, you may also use “found sounds” - i.e. historical sounds downloaded from, sounds from online videos, or open-source sound recordings from  The Sound Designer should not just hand off sounds to the Editor “as-is” - each sound should be polished and crafted into a unique sonic object.  Try combining sounds together to create something new.  Try changing the pitch, or the duration, or both.  Try filtering the sounds, or adding reverberations to change the sense of space.

Like the Editor, the Sound Designer may choose to use a traditional DAW to design sounds, or they may choose to create custom software to create totally new methods of sound synthesis.  Creating custom software is very much encouraged!  Hybrid approaches are also great.  The Editor and Sound Designer may choose to work together in creating custom software, or on working with a DAW.

The Sound Designer’s work will be evaluated by the technical and artistic skill demonstrated in crafting the sounds that we hear.

Scribe:  Gallery exhibitions are mounted and dismounted in the course of a few weeks.  Concerts begin and end in the course of a few hours.  For our work to have any kind of long-term life it must have excellent audio, video, photographic, and written documentation.  Great documentation is also important in the context of our course as it will allow us to learn from one another.  

The documentation for every project will be created by the person whose role is Scribe.  It is the job of the Scribe to document the entire process of creation, from preliminary sketches and discussion, to project development, to the finished work.  The Scribe will create written documentation that describes the entire process of the work, supplemented with photographs, screen-shots, sound recordings, video, and code.

The documentation for each project will be published on the class website in the form a beautifully formatted WordPress post.  WordPress is a free and open-source blogging tool and CMS.  Using WordPress is pretty intuitive, but if you encounter difficulty there is a lot of support available online.

The work of the Scribe will be evaluated based on the quality of documentation that is presented on the course website.

These roles are not rigid - your group may choose to share certain tasks and overlap in many different ways.  The Scribe could assist in software programming, the Experience Director could assist in the sound design work, etc.  If desired, you may switch roles during the course of an assignment.  Please explain any role sharing or switching that took place during your critique.  

The exact nature of each role will be different in each assignment and we will discuss this on a case-by-case basis.  Over the course of the four short-term assignments we will attempt for everyone to have a chance in each of the four roles.  The groups for the short-term assignments will be created by the instructor, with the goal of assembling well balanced teams.  For the final project you may choose your own groups.


Your projects are expected to be fully realized and complete on the due dates indicated on the course calendar.  They will be presented in-class on the due dates for class critique.  If we are running low on time, presentations may occur over the course of two class days rather than one.  You will only have 10 minutes to set up the work for presentation, so do as much pre-staging as possible so that you can set up quickly.

The Scribe will have an additional week beyond the due date to complete the documentation that is posted on the class website.  This allows the Scribe to include documentation from the in-class presentation or performance, and to include any last-minute changes that might have happened.  The post must be online exactly one week after the due date.  Posting late will result in a reduction of the score by 1 point for every day of lateness.

Your work will be evaluated based on your specific role in the project.  For example, a project with excellent sound editing but poor documentation would result in an excellent grade for the Sound Editor, but a poor grade for the Scribe.

Each of the four short-term assignment is worth a maximum of 2 points.  The points are awarded accordingly:

0:  Incomplete.  For example: the code does not work, the work does neet address the goal of the assignment, the work was not delivered on-time.

1:  Satisfactory.  The work was delivered on time and addresses the goal of the assignment.

2:  Excellent.  The work demonstrates an outstanding concept or execution.  The work demonstrates great insight.

The final project will be worth a maximum of 8 points.  The points will be awarded with the same criteria as above, but then multiplied by four.

You class participation will account for another 4 points towards your final grade.

Your final grade will be determined by your total score out of the maximum score of 20.

Your grades will be made available to you via Blackboard, within 2 weeks of presenting the work.  This will allow you to monitor your grade in realtime - there is no reason for you to be surprised by your grade at the end of the semester as long as you are monitoring your performance via Blackboard.


Throughout the semester there will be demonstrations on essential skills for the work that we are doing.  This course, however, is not about learning specific technical skills.  There are so many different techniques used in creating sonic artwork that it would be impossible to cover everything in one semester.  

The most important essential skill is the ability to learn new skills independently and to teach them to others. The course website will offer guidelines and tutorials for essential skills.  These will be posted throughout the semester and you may request lessons on topics of interest as the semester proceeds.

The tutorials presented throughout the course are provided only as a starting point: throughout the course of the semester, you are expected to build upon these references by finding more references, finding better references, and creating your own video and photo teaching material.  There is a great wealth of online information, documentation, and instruction on many different techniques for working with sound.

You should use the social commenting features of the website to share new and better references for essential skills. This contribution accounts towards the participation portion of your final grade.


There is a wide variety of sound, video, and photo equipment available to you from the IDeATe storage room.  The Media Lab is also packed to the gills with powerful audio/video equipment.  Your participation in the course makes all of this equipment available to you throughout the semester (and in the future, if you pay a minimal “Membership Fee.”)

We are able to afford these many fine instruments because we are a large community, working together.  To be a part of this community you must respect communally used equipment, and take excellent care of it.  If you damage equipment due to careless behavior the cost of repairs will be charged to your student account.

For your computer work you have three options:

You may work on the Mac Pro that is permanently installed in the Media Lab.  Select the “Media Lab User” user account.  When you are using this account create a folder with your Andrew ID and store all your files in this folder.  It is very important that you back up your work every time you work on the computer.  It is entirely possible that files on a communally used machine can be unexpectedly moved, erased, or modified.  Get an external hard drive or USB thumb drive and back up your work constantly.

You may also work on any of the 40 MacBook Pro laptops that are available to you in the IDeATe storage room.  Similarly, you must be diligent in backing up your work when using these machines.  The laptops and the Mac Pro all have Max 7, Logic Pro, Audacity, Arduino, Final Cut, Photoshop, Illustrator, and many other useful pieces of software.

Thirdly, you may work on your own computer.  If you work on your own computer you will be responsible for acquiring and maintaining any of the software you choose to use.  Your instructor and TA cannot provide technical support on your computer for you.  


You will have access to the Media Lab outside of class hours - it is an excellent environment for you to work on your projects.  To use the Media Lab outside of class time you must make a reservation using the online reservation system.  When using the Media Lab outside of class you must comply with the policies indicated on the class website.


There will be a course fee of $75.  This fee assists us in acquiring and maintaining the equipment that is used in the class, pays for consumable materials that will be made available to you in your projects, and will help to subsidize the research trip to the Bayernhof Museum.

The course fee will be automatically charged to your Student Account on January 24, the day following the add/drop deadline.  Please consult with the instructor privately if the course fee will place an undue burden upon your participation in the course.


When we are designing new software it is perfectly acceptable to use sections of code from examples found on the web, in help files, in tutorials, etc.  Indeed, this is not only acceptable but is totally necessary if one wants to work efficiently.

Furthermore, when we are creating new works of electronic art is perfectly acceptable to make use of found materials (video files, sound files, images, etc.) to use as raw material in creating new works of art/music/design.

When using found code/images/sounds in your own work there are two requirements:

Attribution.  You must clearly identify where the code/images/sound came from.

Transformation.  You must significantly transform the materials you are using.  You should extend the material, modify it into something new, offer new insight into the concepts underlying the material, etc.  Work that uses borrowed code or other materials without significantly transforming those materials will result in a low grade.

More information on CMU’s Academic Integrity policy can be found at:


Attendance:  Unexcused absences are disruptive and disrespectful - especially when we are working on group projects.  How is your group supposed to advance the work without you?

If you are unable to attend class for any reason you must email me, and the other members of your group, in advance.  Failure to contact myself and your group members before the start of class will result in an unexcused absence.  Three or more unexcused absences will result in the drop of one letter grade per absence.  This means that if you have three unexcused absences and would otherwise receive an A in the class, you will receive a B.  If you have four unexcused absences and would otherwise receive an A, you will receive a C, etc.

Absences: You are responsible for what happens in class whether you’re here or not. Organize with your classmates to get class information and material that you have missed.  We cannot repeat course material in class just for you.

Participation: You are invited, encouraged, and expected to engage actively in discussion, reflection and activities. Our class time is precious and limited. Please refrain from texting, facebooking, tweeting, etc., during class time - this behaviour during class is distracting, disruptive, and disrespectful. Failure to follow this request will negatively affect your grade for class participation.  Your contributions towards the class website will also count towards your class participation.