Music 420: Digital Audio Composition
Fall 2016, University of San Diego Department of Music
Monday/Wednesday 4:00-5:20
Electronic Music Studio (Camino Hall 142)

Dr. Chris Warren (
office hours Monday 5:30-6:30 and by appointment

This course explores electronic music composition in the digital medium. While the information presented in class will often be highly technical in nature, the primary focus will be on the creation of works of musical art. Diversity of style and approach is encouraged.

Ideas presented in the lectures and discussions will be explored in weekly composition projects. The final project for this course will be a complete work, which may be developed from one or more of the composition projects. This composition will be performed in the Class Concert.

Topics covered will include:

  • Digital audio and MIDI as creative media
  • Contemporary electronic musicianship
  • Composition and mixing using Ableton Live
  • Classic and contemporary electro-acoustic literature in many styles

All readings can be downloaded from the class website.

The Menace of Mechanical Music – John Philip Sousa (1906)
The Art of Noises – Luigi Russolo (1913)
Ways of Listening, from Deep Listening – Pauline Oliveros (2003)
An Earientation Session, from Mastering Audio – Bob Katz (2007)
Letter to the Orchestra – Helen Keller (1924)
Plunderphonics, or Audio Piracy as a Compositional Prerogative – John Oswald (1985)
Time Scales of Music, from Microsound – Curtis Roads (2001)
Ableton Live Manual – Ableton (2001-2016)

Suggested Resources
Tape-Op: The Creative Music Recording Magazine
The Computer Music Tutorial – Curtis Roads (1996)
Electric Sound: The Past and Promise of Electronic Music – Joel Chadabe (1997)
Theory and Technique of Electronic Music – Miller Puckette (2007)
The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century – Alex Ross (2007)
The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook – Bobby Owsinski (2013)

Composition Assignments
Each week a new concept, either aesthetic or technical in nature, will be presented in class. Compositions based on these ideas will be assigned each Wednesday and will be due the following Wednesday before class via Blackboard. Students will play their creations for each other in class each week and offer positive criticism. Emphasis is placed on nurturing an inclusive, supportive environment.

Over the course of the semester, each student will have the opportunity to demonstrate to the class a specific technique that is useful in their own composition practice. At the end of a successful presentation and the class discussion surrounding it, every student should be able to replicate this technique and incorporate it into their own artistic practice.

Concert Reports
Students will observe at least three performances of electronic music chosen from the class concert calendar and submit a concert report for each. Performances may be added to the concert calendar with prior permission. Concert reports should briefly answer the following questions:

  • Discuss a specific memorable moment in the performance. What effect did it have on you? What musical techniques contributed to the creation of this effect?
  • Discuss a moment or an aspect to the performance where you believe the composer’s intent was not effectively communicated to the audience. How might they have better communicated their intent?
  • What specific takeaway from this performance can you incorporate into your own artistic practice? What effects do you anticipate this will have on your own practice?

Final Project
The culmination of the course will be a final composition project, to be presented at the Class Concert on Wednesday, December 14, 2016, 5-7pm. This presentation of works will comprise the final exam for the course. Attendance is mandatory and the public will be invited. In addition, each student must volunteer for one of the many jobs necessary for professional presentation of a public event. Missing concert or failure to participate in production will result in class failure.

Required Resources

  • Headphones
  • Earplugs
  • Hard drive for studio projects
  • Spotify account (free or paid)

40% composition assignments
10% presentation
10% concert reports
10% attendance and participation
10% final project proposal
20% final project (Class Concert, Wednesday, December 14, 2016, 5-7pm)
Missing Class Concert or failure to participate in production will result in class failure.

Scheduling details and other aspects of this syllabus may be changed or modified by the instructor at any time. Email announcements will be sent out announcing changes and it is your responsibility to keep up to date.

week | topic

  1. Introductions
    Definition and historical overview of electronic music
    Visualizations of Sound
  2. Sound objects (browser-based instruments)
    Ways of listening
    Historical overview of sound recording media
    Studio tour, access, and etiquette
  3. MIDI and digital audio as media
    Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs)
  4. Harmonic series
    Frequency vs. pitch
    Classical waveforms
  5. Time Scales of Music
  6. MIDI instruments
    Drum machines
  7. Equalization
    Transducers: microphones and speakers
  8. Dynamic processing
    Sonic search engines
    MIDI effects
  9. Synthesis
  10. Spatialization
    Time stretching and looping
  11. Reverberation
  12. Freezing and flattening
    Envelopes, ADSR, Automation
  13. – 15. Final Projects and Class Concert (Wednesday, December 14, 2016, 5-7pm)