When music and technology merge

Combined major in music and computer science draws rave reviews from students and instructors

by Maria Lironi

Student Ben Rancourt (pictured here in a recording studio, with his mandolin) is taking a combined major in music and computer science.

Aspiring video game creators, recording engineers and foley artists take note—UVic is the only university in Western Canada, and the second in Canada, to blend training in music and computer science into one degree-granting program.

"Today, pretty much the whole process of recording, distributing and producing music is done through computers," explains Dr. George Tzanetakis (computer science) who teaches music information retrieval, the practice of analysing large collections of music in digital format.

Computers are used to create digital audio (recorded and computer-generated), which is used for musical activities such as producing music recordings, music for film and video games, and delivering music in the form of CDs, DVDs, Internet broadcasts and MP3 files for download.

In addition, many live music performances involve computer technology, ranging from sound synthesizers and samplers to three-dimensional controllers for manipulating sound.

The marriage between the two disciplines isn't as odd as it seems. Many computer science students already have an interest in music—many play instruments and some are DJs in clubs. This program is a way of attracting those who might be more intimidated by traditional computer science courses.

During the four years of study, students take the essential courses for both a music and computer science degree, omitting private lessons in voice or an instrument. Courses include: music, science, and computers; recording techniques; acoustics of music; a computer music seminar; audio signal processing; and music information retrieval.

The students learn from experienced faculty, including the program's newest hire, audio specialist and recording engineer Kirk McNally, who provides technical support for the program and teaches two courses in digital audio. McNally has worked with major international artists—including R.E.M., Bryan Adams and Matthew Good—as a recording engineer.

Although the program has only been running since September 2004, it has a long history. "Back in the 1990s, I worked with the then-dean of fine arts to create a lab for extended media, and it had a presence on the web," recalls instructor Dr. Andrew Schloss (music). "Students asked if they could study it even though we didn't have a program then. This is the culmination of 15 years of work."

Both instructors are excited about the "obvious need" for this program and the student enthusiasm. A good example of the latter is 23-year-old Ben Rancourt, who decided at the last minute to forgo his UVic degree in computer science to enter the combined program.

"I was just about to graduate," recalls Rancourt, who plays the guitar and mandolin. "But then this program came up and I thought it was worth a couple of extra years to see what happens. Music has always been a main passion, while computer science has been a large interest too. What I'm enjoying the most right now is studying sound recording and computer music. I'm learning very practical stuff.

"It'll be an extra two years until I get my first bachelor degree," he adds. "But if you have a very strong interest in technology and music, this is definitely worth taking."

While Rancourt is just starting his career in the field, Ajay Kapur is already winning awards.

Kapur is an interdisciplinary doctoral student in electrical and computer engineering, music, computer science and psychology. His multimedia presentation, "Digitizing Traditional North Indian Performance," won two awards in 2004—the Distinguished Best Paper Award from the Journal of New Music Research, and the Thelma Adamson Prize for the best student paper from the northwest chapter of the Society for Ethnomusicology.

Kapur took traditional Indian instruments and embedded computers inside them to capture gestures while he's performing. He also wrote a graphic program that projects different colours onto a screen, depending where the drum is hit. And he did "some crazy experiments" with one drum at McGill University and another at Princeton and then performed a concert over the Internet.

In addition to the joint degree in computer science and music, there's a computer music option in electrical engineering. A total of 43 students are already involved in the two programs. For more information visit finearts.uvic.ca/music/ and www.mistic.ece.uvic.ca/.

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