The Music Never Stopped

Kit developer

David Jaffe's music has been performed in major halls and festivals all over the world, but the NeXT computer's 1988 debut at San Francisco's Davies Symphony Hall was the greatest performance of his career.

"As I sat there listening to Daniel Kobialka perform the Bach A-minor violin concerto accompanied by a Music Kit orchestra of crystalline-plucked strings being synthesized in real time by the NeXT DSP (digital signal processor), I felt that this was why we had made the NeXT computer. The whirring and humming of the new technology seemed to fade away, leaving us to close our eyes and experience the music," Jaffe recalls.

It was Jaffe's backstage work on the Music Kit, a radical approach to music programming that put object-oriented building blocks in the hands of programmers and musicians alike, that made the duet possible. Before, music applications were coded in procedural languages like C, while academics used specialized languages to code each composition from scratch. The kit was unique in combining the ability to design instruments in software with the real-time interactivity afforded by the use of MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface). Never before had a computer company taken music so seriously.

Along with Julius Smith, Jaffe had been plucked from the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics at Stanford University two years earlier, where they had been working on new techniques for the physical modeling of acoustic instruments, essentially crafting new instruments in software. Steve Jobs had already decided that his new computer would have CD-quality sound; it was Smith who convinced him that including a DSP was the best way to get it. Smith and Jaffe at first planned a monolithic demo application designed to show off the capabilities of the included DSP, but they quickly decided that a kit was a more flexible approach that would result in a wider variety of applications.

That decision was based on Jaffe's musical expertise. Before pursuing his doctorate in computer music, Jaffe had been a folk musician, playing a variety of stringed instruments, including mandolin, violin, and banjo, in a bluegrass band called Bottle Hill. An early run-in with Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, which he blames on "bad violin technique," turned him from a player into a composer. As a former ham-radio operator who's been tinkering with machines since he was a kid, he was immediately attracted to electronic music. "I like the hands-on aspect of it," explains Jaffe. "In traditional music, there are three different roles: The composer writes the music, the instrument builder constructs the instrument, and the player plays the instrument. Rarely is that the same person."

Jaffe's own background as musician, composer, and programmer makes him uniquely qualified in making sure that computer music is something other than the soulless sound of a new machine. Jaffe is currently shepherding the continued development of the Music Kit in his new role as a software consultant to Stanford. His newest challenge will be to bring the expressive capabilities of the Music Kit to industry-standard Intel-based computers.

But the music community need not worry. If anybody can make a PC sing, it's David Jaffe.

by Lee Sherman