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Bill Buxton

In 1975 I returned to Canada from Holland, where I had been teaching, studying, and generally working as a composer and performer, at the Institute of Sonology in Utrecht.  I came to the University of Toronto at the invitation of Leslie Mezei as an informal "Artist in Residence" in the Dynamic Graphics Lab which he co-directed.  I came with virtually no technical background, other than some basic electronics, and elementary programming skills.  However, I did have a pretty strong background in electronic and computer music, and because of that, a  very clear idea of what I thought it could and should be (in contrast to what it was at the time).

Mezei, along with his co-director, Ron Baecker, and the chair of the Department of Electrical Engineering, K.C.Smith, for some strange but wonderful reason, listened to my ideas, and took them seriously.  They coached me in writing a research proposal to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, which was submitted under their name (after all, who the hell was I?), which was actually accepted.

At the same time, they figured out a way that I could become a graduate student in Computer Science at the University of Toronto (no small thing since I didn't meet the entrance requirements for 1st year undergraduate), which brought with it student support.  The reality is that I went to graduate school for:  the money.  It beat working in a bar or restaurant. I never had any intention of becoming a researcher.  I just wanted to make my instrument, and then go back to becoming a full-time musician.  Hah!

Anyhow, with the help of the above three mentors, and a lot of fellow students (whose names appear in the publications cited below),  came the Structured Sound Synthesis Project (SSSP).  Now a word about the name.  The project was based in the Computer Systems Research Institute, and was receiving research funding. Consequently, I had to hide the fact that it was really motivated by music and artistic objectives.  So, I figured that music was structured sound, and that was a far more scientific sounding description, so the SSSP it became.  As long as I got my system, I didn't care what it was called.

The project received funding from around 1976-7, and continued to exist until about 1984.

During that time, we built one of the first digital syntesizers, certainly one of the first portable (if you had a van) digital live performance systems (at a time when tape music dominated computer music performances), and developed a lot of the graphical user interfaces for music, which are now common place.

This project laid the foundation for the rest of my career, such as it is.

I have to say, looking back, it was pretty cool.  We designed a built a 16 voice digital synthesizer to make the sounds.  We controlled it in real time via a dedicated DEC LSI-11 microcomputer.  Tom Duff and Rob Pike wrote a real-time package that let it run as a slave to our PDP-11/45 minicomputer, which was running an early version of  UNIX.  The real-time LSI-11 communicated with the time-shared UNIX machine via some dual-port memory using a modification to UNIX written by Bill Reeves.  For composition, and "studio" related things, we made heavy use of interactive computer graphics, employing a graphs package written by Bill Reeves (without whom I would never have been able to get the data structures right).

For concerts, we decoupled the LSI-11 from the 'mothership', and used it as a stand-alone microcomputer.  While it no longer had the fancy graphics, nevertheless, even using only a 24-line x 80-column terminal, we were able to used graphical interaction.  What we did is lay the control panel out on the screen like a spreadsheet (we didn't call it that at the time, since the spreadsheet had not been invented yet, but see the video of Conduct, below), and control the cells with a tablet and other graphical controllers.  We actually had 8 RS-232 ports on the device (remember, this was years before MIDI) for control.  The whole thing ran unbelievbly fast since Tom Duff and Rob Pike had written a tiny kernel for the machine that let us run compied C code native on it, without any operating system.  This included support for all of the input devices, the display, the synthesizer, and even two huge (by today's standards) floppy disk drives.

Except for the last one, the videos below shows the system circa 1980-81. This final clip shows some follow-on work by John Kitamura.   The articles directly relating to the individual clips are cited in the adjoining text.  Additional publications are cited directly below.  Almost all of them are on-line and can be accessed by clicking on thier titles.

Interaction is all about dynamics, and video and cinematic form in general, are critical to helping foster better communication and literacy.  Hence, you are encouraged to copy and share any of this material for non-commercial, educational, and research purposes.  Please just cite the source.

As usual, comments and suggestions are always welcome.

Buxton, W., Fogels, A., Fedorkow, G., Sasaki, L., & Smith, K. C. (1978). An Introduction to the SSSP Digital Synthesizer. Computer Music Journal (4), 28-38.

Buxton, W., Reeves, W., Baecker, R., & Mezei, L. (1978). The Use of Hierarchy and Instance in a Data Structure for Computer Music. Computer Music Journal 2(4), 10-20.

Fedorkow, G., Buxton, W. & Smith, K. C. (1978). A Computer Controlled Sound Distribution System for the Performance of Electroacoustic Music. Computer Music Journal 2(3), 33-42.

Kitamura, J., Buxton, W., Snelgrove, M. & Smith, K.C. (1985). Music Synthesis by Simulation Using a General-Purpose Signal Processing System, Proceedings of the 1985 International Computer Music Conference (ICMC), Vancouver, 155-158

Note:  To play any of the videos, just click on the associated thumbnail.   I am in the process of uploading full-resolution copies of these videos onto YouTube.  If the video that you want to play is still in low-res Flash, contact me and I will attempt to upload it ASAP.  For your information, all of the videos that I have uploaded onto YouTube appear in the channel: wasbuxton.
Overview / Introduction
(2 min. 18 sec.)
University of Toronto
This clip provides a brief overview of the system, the project, and its objectives.  The system broke down into 3 components, each supporting a different phase of the musical "pipeline", composition, orchestration and live performance.  The next three clips demonstrate one of the tools used for each of these three phases.

Buxton, W. (1978). Design Issues in the Foundation of a Computer- Based Tool for Music Composition. Technical Report CSRG-97. Toronto: University of Toronto.

Buxton, W. & Fedorkow, G. (1978). The Structured Sound Synthesis Project (SSSP): an Introduction. Technical Report CSRG-92, Toronto: University of Toronto.

Scriva:  A Graphical Score Editor
(4 min. 47 sec.)
University of Toronto
Scriva was the main tool that we used for composing scores.  It enabled a range of different styles of graphical music notation.  Remember the date.  This was several years before the Macintosh came out, and even more years prior to MIDI.

Buxton, W., Sniderman, R., Reeves, W., Patel, S. & Baecker, R. (1979). The Evolution of the SSSP Score Editing Tools.Computer Music Journal 3(4), 14-25. [PDF]

Buxton, W., Patel, S., Reeves, W., & Baecker, R. (1981). Scope in Interactive Score Editors. Computer Music Journal 5(3), 50-56.

Objed: A Graphical Instrument, or "Sound Object" Editior
(4 min. 40 sec.)
University of Toronto
In more modern time, Objed would be called a "voicing program".  We didn't call it that, for the same reason that the invetors of television didn't use that term to describe what they had built either.  The interesting thing here is that the entier SSSP system was object oriented, and had pretty interesting inheritance properties, that even today are not common in music systems.

Buxton, W., Patel, S., Reeves, W. & Baecker, R. (1982). Objed and the Design of Timbral Resources. Computer Music Journal 6(2), 323-44

Conduct: An Interactive Performance Instrument 
(4 min. 50 sec.)
University of Toronto
For me, first and foremost, music is about performance.  I wanted to play instruments, and be able to improvise, adapt performances to the hall, the audience, other players, etc.  These were all things that tape-playback, the norm a the time, simply would not permit. As I describe above in the introduction, this part of the system was one of the most wonderful parts of all.

Buxton, W., Reeves, W., Fedorkow, G., Smith, K. C., & Baecker, R. (1980). A Microcomputer-Based Conducting System. Computer Music Journal 4(1), 8-21.

(57 sec.)
University of Toronto
For me, this brief conclusion is interesting even today in that it identifed issues that are still relevant.  The bad part is, I'm not sure how much younger I was then, and yet, how much the things that I am working on are the same.
In Performance 
(1 min. 34 sec.)
Music Gallery
circa 1982
This is a short clip of a performance that we did at the Music Gallery in Toronto, shot by The New Music, a program that morphed into CITY TV's Much Music.  It is a fragment of a piece that I wrote for dance, accordion and synthesizer.  The accordionist is Eugene Laskewick.
The Katosizer
(1 min. 40 sec.)
University of Toronto
This was a microprogrammable synthesizer that could be controlled using MIDI devices, such as a keyboard.  One of the most interesting aspects was that a user could program the synthesizer using an interactive graphical dataflow language, where nodes represented  physical devices and software signal processing modules, and arcs represented signal and control connections.

Kitamura, J., Buxton, W., Snelgrove, M. & Smith, K.C. (1985). Music Synthesis by Simulation Using a General-Purpose Signal Processing System, Proceedings of the 1985 International Computer Music Conference (ICMC), Vancouver, 155-158