The father of computer music, pioneering researcher Max Mathews
programmed the first-ever computer-generated sounds, setting into motion a technological and creative revolution that continues to this day. A telecommunications engineer and amateur violinist working in Bell Telephone Laboratories' acoustic and behavioral research department during the mid-'50s, Mathews
was originally assigned to explore the digital transmission and recording of speech patterns, a process he realized could be easily adapted to the composition and playback of music as well. In 1957, he created the first music-synthesizing program, MUSIC 1, effectively transforming the computer into a new kind of instrument, one theoretically capable of generating any sound transmitted through a loudspeaker.
The development of the MUSIC II program -- run on an IBM 704 and written in assembler code -- quickly followed, and in 1959 Mathews developed MUSIC III, designed for a new wave of IBM transistorized 7094 machines that were much faster and easier to use than their antecedents. Where these first three experimental programs were all written in assembly language, MUSIC 4, developed by Mathews in conjuction with fellow Bell researcher Joan Miller, was the first widespread computer sound synthesis program to be written in Fortran. The rapid evolution of his work inspired Mathews to publish a visionary 1963 Science magazine piece confidently predicting that the computer would soon emerge as the ultimate musical instrument: "There are no theoretical limits," he wrote, "to the performance of the computer as a source of musical sounds."
Work on MUSIC V, running on IBM 360 machines, was completed in 1968, improving upon its predecessor by including re-entrant instruments (i.e., an instrument being reactivated in a piece in which it's already active), allowing sounds to be called upon as many times as necessary. Two years later, Mathews pioneered GROOVE (Generated Real-time Output Operations on Voltage-controlled Equipment). The first fully developed hybrid music synthesis system, it allowed the composer/conductor to manipulate sound in real time. Developed on a Honeywell DDP-224 computer with a simple cathode ray tube display and disc and tape storage devices, GROOVE produced sound via an interface for analog devices and two 12-bit digital-to-analog converters, its input devices consisting of a 24-note keyboard, four rotary knobs, and a rotary joystick.
Mathews next teamed with inventor Robert Boie to develop the Radio Baton, a hyperinstrument allowing the user to conduct a computer orchestra with a simple wave of the wand over an electromagnetic field. In 1987, he left the research and develop field to accept a position as professor of music in the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics at Stanford University in California; in later years he also regularly toured the lecture circuit, typically demonstrating the Radio Baton in action. Mathews also pioneered another computer music program called Conductor; another interactive real-time graphic multimedia program was dubbed "MAX" in his honor. Remaining active in computer-generated music into the 1990s, Mathews predicted that by 2010, "almost all music will be made electronically, by digital circuits." Mathews received a Qwartz lifetime achievement award (Qwartz d'Honneur) in 2008. He died in San Francisco on April 21, 2011 due to complications from pneumonia; Max Mathews was 84 years of age.