Emerging Talents: Michael Wilson of Stanford CCRMA

August 22, 2012
by Gina Collecchia

What’s on in the mind of someone with years of experience on the keyboard and a computer science degree from CalTech under his belt? Musical software, of course! We had the opportunity to sit down with Michael Wilson, a graduate student at Stanford University’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) and learn about his creative process. Be sure to visit Michael's music page to hear what we're so excited about!

We caught your performance at CellSpace in San Francisco in April. Can you tell us more about what we heard?

That performance was part of a student concert called “Modulations,” a showcase for music produced by students of Stanford CCRMA. I played two pieces entitled “Machine Triumphant" and “Efficiency.” Both featured software that I wrote myself and were performed by me on my keyboard, the Akai MPK61.


What kind of software?

It’s a standalone piece of software written in C++ that seeks to encapsulate my Masters education at CCRMA, especially one class on digital audio effects and another on real-time audio systems development taught by my adviser Ge Wang. It contains a compressor, delay lines, distortion—basic effects that you can find in any digital audio workstation, but I wanted to gain an intimate understanding of what they do on the computing end of the spectrum. None of the sounds were really new, because that wasn’t the goal for me.


Your music was relatively accessible in presentation and composition compared to the other quite experimental music at the show. It evoked Dream Theater and prog rock, and even vintage video games. What’s your history in terms of composition?

I never had any formal training in composition, but I began to take piano lessons when I was three years old. My teacher, Keiko Kobayashi, remains a huge influence on my music. She encouraged me to write songs without imposing on my ideas or style, and entered me in this competitive composition program called “I Can Compose, Too!” I remember arguing with her over a specific chord in one piece; she let me make the final call, but at the competition the judge said something like, “Why did you use this chord?” But that was the way I wanted to do it. Besides the keyboard, the computer has always been a great outlet for my creativity. The sounds and music in the video games I played on my Nintendo NES as a child heavily influenced my electronic composition. I started making sounds with an electronic keyboard and a computer in grade school, and used MIDI as early as the sixth grade.


What was your first computer?

I was very lucky—I had computers around the house for as long as I can remember. My first machine was the Commodore 64. Later, I used an IBM-compatible PC. My sister had an electronic keyboard, the Yamaha PSR-300, and my dad had MIDI scoring software called Rhapsody. It wasn’t perfect scoring, especially when there was heavy syncopation, but I could create, store, and access multiple voices with it on the computer's sound card.


Your first keyboard composition?

I composed a piece for piano called "Arrowhead," part of the composition competition program that I participated in under the guidance of my teacher Miss Keiko. I was four years old. My first electronic piece was called “The Cat’s Meow.” I had a bunch of animal sounds in my MIDI library, and that one is all cats.


A cat study...interesting. It seems like learning is a trend in your songwriting career.

That couldn’t be more true of the compositions I did for Modulations. I could have done everything higher-level than I did, but I wanted the challenge of making the software myself. I wanted to have total control over the audio buffer and also enable real-time playability. The only thing I didn’t write is the sequencer. I used Rosegarden, an open-source Linux MIDI sequencer, to cue all of the other instruments during my live performance.

Where does one even begin with music software development in C++?

I used the RtAudio and RtMidi libraries for C++. These handle the real-time audio processing functionality. Plugins are great because it’s easy to share your stuff---they’re compatible with any DAW so it’s a great way to get exposure in the music software engineering community. But when you write an audio plugin, it necessarily restricts the way that you handle your data. A standalone gives you complete access to it.


What other gear is in your bag?

Besides the Akai, I own a Yamaha YDP-223 which is a great digital piano to practice on. I still have my first keyboard from college, the Yamaha PSR-500M. I also have the Yamaha Motif Rack ES and the Akai LPK25, which I bring everywhere.


Any new additions on the horizon?

If I could have one more keyboard … that's a tough one. There are a lot of great products out there. My motivation for getting the Akai ’board was that I wanted something without built-in sounds, mostly to encourage me to develop my own system, but also for cost and size considerations since I'd have to carry it around in my small car. It hit a nice balance of controllers, size, and price for me. I'm a big Yamaha fan. If I could have someone follow me around carrying dozens to hundreds of pounds of gear, I'd like to have any of their top-end synths or digital pianos. I think the ideal keyboard for me might have to be something I piece together myself...we'll see if I ever get around to that. 

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