60-Second Science

Computer Takes Clarinet Lessons

Detailed analysis of how a clarinetist plays the instrument is a first step toward incredibly natural sounding synthesizer music. Christopher Intagliata reports.

Podcast Transcript: Benny Goodman earned his title “The King of Swing” as a virtuoso of the clarinet.  But now a computer in upstate New York has learned to rip him off. Researchers at the University of Rochester recently unveiled their computerized clarinet, which you’re hearing.  It listens to a clarinet solo and figures out how hard the player was blowing, his lip pressure on the mouthpiece and his finger position. The virtual clarinet player uses this information to reproduce the solo on its virtual clarinet, a synthesizer based on the physics of the clarinet.
To design this synthesizer, the team played a real clarinet while measuring physical changes like the reed’s vibration and the pressure of the air column inside. They modeled these measurements with equations to create the virtual clarinet. An audio file of the solo reproduced by the virtual player is 1000 times smaller than the original as an mp3.  But it still doesn’t sound as good as Benny. The simulation doesn’t swing as well as the king would have.  But future music could come from various synthetic instruments, modeled on performances of the masters.

—Christopher Intagliata

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