Alex Borwick

Adaptive Resonance

In search of new musical interactions

Alex Borwick

Auckland, New Zealand

Supervisor: Stephen Roddy

This project explores the possibility of whether a digital resonator can adapt intuitively to an audio input. While modern music production processes have benefited from digital technology, the technology itself can become a barrier in the creative process, providing too many options and impeding spontaneous creativity. The aim of this research is to implement a digital resonator that overcomes some of these hurdles. In turn this may allow users to focus more on being creative, eliminating the need for the user to specify the variables of the resonator.


The digital resonator has been in existence since the 1980s. It functions similarly to the sympathetic strings on a musical instrument such as the sitar, which resonate depending on the notes that are played on the instrument.

Digital resonators today take the form of audio plug-ins, which are used primarily in Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs), in music composition and production processes. Digital resonators have three main properties: centre frequency, amplitude and decay scale. These values are defined by the user via a Graphical User Interface (GUI).

The central focus of this research is two-fold. Firstly, it is an attempt to devise a prototype of an adaptive resonator, whose properties intuitively change in response to any given audio input. What if a bank of resonators could adapt to match the prominent features of a violin, for example? And then for these properties to change to fit each successive note that the violinist plays? An adaptive resonator removes the need for a user to determine the specific properties of the resonator.

Secondly, this prototype aimed to meet some of the requirements and preferences that typical users of audio plug-ins have. As more barriers to creativity are removed, the more beneficial a tool becomes in a creative environment. The intention of this approach is to create a new tool that allows users to be more creative, instead of restricting the creative workflow by burdening the user with too much technical control.


To uncover information about the opinions and attitudes of typical users of audio plug-ins, a Participatory Design (PD) approach was used. This approach aims to identify the needs and requirements of the end-user, in order to obtain more effective and innovative results. The prototype was developed in the Max MSP environment.

Methods such as card-sorting, informal interviews, and online surveys were used. The aim of this research was to find out specific information about how these participants use audio plug-ins, why they use them, and what their attitudes are towards plug-ins. The data helped to determine the efficacy of an adaptive resonator, and whether it was of benefit to the end-user. All the participants are professional musicians based in Ireland, who use audio plug-ins in their creative process.

These PD methods were married with an iterative design process. This involved implementing multiple iterations of the prototype, presenting each prototype to the participants, and then using their feedback to develop the next iteration.


By the end of this research, a robust prototype of an adaptive resonator was successfully implemented. The resonator effectively adapts to the spectral profile of incoming audio, and gives the user broad control over the behaviour of the plug-in, while remaining as simple as possible to use.

The plug-in convincingly meets the priorities that were identified in the PD research, and the data analysis supports these findings. The participants agreed that this prototype is a useful and novel tool that would add a new element to their existing toolbox.

One of the primary motivators of this research was to implement a novel music tool which avoids some of the hurdles that might hinder creativity. Digital Signal Processing (DSP) techniques are becoming increasingly more powerful, giving us ever more choices for sculpting audio. Although new technology may intend to simplify tasks for us, it counterintuitively runs the risk of complexifying a process. Too many options may slow down the creative process for artists, inhibiting their flow. The relatively simple interface and minimal amount of controls on the GUI allows for users to focus on the creative process, without being hindered by the technicalities of the plug-in.

Project Gallery

Prototype #1
Prototype #2
Early Mock-up of the Graphical User Interface
Max MSP Patch