Doctor Scott : An analogue soap-opera of love, jealousy, betrayal and feedback loops.

This is a "musical" exercise in Max/MSP. My interest in Max was its simulation of analogue music technology. Not so much the musical part itself (analogue modelling is fairly standard in computer music) but the dataflow / "wiring diagram" metaphor in general. I wondered what else it could be used for, and was put in mind of systems theory and cybernetic models of human relationships.

Janet! Brad! Doctor Scott!

A friend of mine used to post a link to this extended-remix of a famous scene from the Rocky Horror Picture Show into online chats whenever the sequence of messages got out of sync. ie. those common moments when person a) replies to person b) but person c) takes it as an answer to one of her comments and confusion ensues. I was reminded of this when I started to picture a model, a kind of soap-opera in miniature, whose characters and their emotions were hooked together by analogue feedback loops. Each character would be represented by a single sample, whose playback parameters (speed, timing, fx) would represent some kind of "emotional state". The playback of the sample itself, the overt behavior, would then feed into and influence the emotional state of other characters and would trigger their response.

This short scene from the Rocky Horror Show contains almost everything you'd want for such high-emotion melodrama : lust, discovery, two lovers betrayed, science fiction (ie. nemesis clobbering hubris), a Frankenstein story, intellectual rivalry, vampires and aliens, blondes and beefcake. Given that people were already remixing and transforming the scene, and my friend's usage of it to comment on breakdowns in communication, it seemed an appropriate source to work with.

In practice, the Max patch is divided into 5 parts : one corresponding to each character in the drama. Four of the characters (Brad, Janet, Dr. Scott and Frank) are sample players, while the silently macho Rocky is represented by a detuning sin wave bass. (In "audience participation" Rocky Horror Show, the audience (allegedly) makes a kind of thuggish UGH! sound at this point.)

There is no overall sequencer, but each sample player fires off a signal to the next after a specific amound of time (itself changing). Janet is also fed through a filter. As well as the feed-forward signal triggering the next sample, various feedback arcs from characters change the parameters of others, generally pitching them up or down, shortening the delay and tweaking Janet's filter.

Listen to a (longish) example of the audio, here. The Max patch (and samples) are here

Further Development

This is really work in progress. There's a lot more that should be done as I've, so far, only had a short time to use Max and barely scratched the surface of possibilities. Currently, the audio just doesn't change very much; so you can enjoy it if you're in the right, trancelike mood, but it's pretty boring. Most attempts I made to add feedback loops tended to just destroy the sounds almost immedietely, so there's a need for far more experimentation to add interesting effects and feedbacks that would transform the samples gradually over time in a more interesting way.

Ideally, each persona would respond to the quality of sound of the other speakers, perhaps the envelope of one could be made to gate or transform another. Or frequencies could be extracted from one character and copied by another.

Taking it even further, perhaps it would be possible to borrow further from the Rocky Horror's culture of audience participation and invite the user to play the roll of one of the characters, shouting their line into the microphone at the appropriate time and then have the patch extracting information from this to pass to the succeeding character.