Side Project Satisfaction

Cartoon of a coder surrounded by idea light bulbs

Today I finished up a coding project, which was to make a simple synthesiser written in Java. I noted though, as I dashed off a quick readme file and uploaded the repository for the last time, a distinct sense of anticlimax, even disappointment. The app didn’t work out that well. Instead of writing an account of what I was trying to make and how I set about it, then, this evening I want to reflect on ways to avoid that letdown, specifically with side projects where you have total creative freedom.

This is about accepting and optimising for the way my brain works. Which is: it creates lots and lots of ideas at the start of a creative process. Here are some of the ideas I had for my synth:

  • adding harmonics by wave-folding
  • only using fixed-point arithmetic (inspired by early trackers and my general interest in retrocomputing)
  • using fast sine approximations
  • using sine lookup tables
  • stretched harmonics
  • harmonics detuned to simulate string mass
  • using Bezier curves as volume envelopes
  • doing additive synthesis by mixing together multiple instances of my basic instrument
  • doing additive synthesis by creating custom waveforms containing the desired harmonics
  • generating just intonated and 5-limit tunings
  • generating tunings from two overlapped harmonic series
  • generating 12-tone equal temperament and quarter-tone (24-tone) tunings mathematically
  • using the stuttering/echoing sound of buffer underruns as a musical effect
  • adding frequency modulation synthesis
  • having the synth be about a limited subset of sounds like bells, marimbas and bass
  • avoiding certain assumptions from the MIDI standard, e.g. removing note duration in favour of focusing on note onsets only (an idea influenced by my study of African-derived musics which have this emphasis)
  • using the synth in some kind of persistent, low-key online game as a way for players to leave melodies for each other to find
  • using rules to generate different melodies from the same basic info (say an array of integers), for example with different tunings or in different modes and scales
  • generating scales, chords and perhaps melodic cells or fragments geometrically, using relations I know from my study of music theory back in the day (e.g. a chord is every odd member of a scale is an approximation to 7 stacked fifths in a chromatic space generated using the twelfth root of two)
  • making an interface to expose these options interactively

And so on. The obvious common factor among all of these, I would say, is that there is no common factor. They are an extremely heterogenous bunch suggesting a whole lot of varied perspectives. Some are from a coder’s perspective (fixed-point calculation), some are about synthesising technique, some reflect my own limitations of ability, some are more like observations about the nature of music. Many have a distinctly contrarian flavour.

You can probably see the problem. There is no way to ever succeed at a project “defined by” such a list. And I’m not talking about success defined externally, but even just personal satisfaction. There are far too many requirements, many of which are contradictory.

The ideas there which are more rooted and achievable have another issue: they are technical challenges only, which makes them arbitrary. There’s no way to know if the solution arrived at is good, because there’s no agreed-upon way to measure performance. Should my bezier curve envelope allow two values for a given x input (which an unconstrained quadratic bezier can easily have), or forbid such curves? There’s no right answer because I haven’t defined what I’m trying to do.

This is in stark contrast to the school projects I’ve done for my higher diploma course: making a banking app, or an e-commerce website. Even if the work could get boring with those, the remit is clear and it’s satisfying when such a system comes together.

How did I manage to put a few weeks into my synth without realising that I hadn’t fixed upon a goal?

Or do I even need a goal? There’s nothing wrong with just fiddling about with stuff for fun, there’s even a fancy phrase to make it sound more official: “stochastic tinkering“. However, I know that I get my fun as a programmer in quite a specific way – by turning stuff that doesn’t work into stuff that does. When definitions are too loose, there’s no way to decide whether something works.

I’ve come up with a few pointers on how I might avoid this looseness in future.

The first is to design something conventional with a fictional, “normal” user in mind. This was how my school projects got done. This is good because convention (shopping carts in an e-commerce site, account selection in a banking site) guides you. This leverages the part of my mind that can’t stand to be wrong, and that likes tidying up: as long as the project fails to meet conventional expectations, I’ll be nettled into improving it.

However, finding the motivation to develop without the ego boost of originality would be hard for me. I know from the experience of finishing up my synth that work done just for the sake of appearing competent to strangers who come across my Github profile, isn’t very sustaining. The school projects had the virtue of being compulsory.

The second solution is to design something I’d like to use. This is… hard actually. It requires some self-awareness and honesty. I made a synth because I thought it’d be cool… or so I thought. Yet if I truly believed synths are cool, I’d probably have used one in the last few months; I haven’t done any synth-based music-making though in that time (despite having dozens of software synths installed on my computer). My conclusion is that I find synths to be a pleasantly intricate subject for mental distraction, but that I don’t actually have much desire to use them.

And similarly with the pixel art app I made before the synth. I like thinking about pixel patterns and generating them, yet if I liked making pixel art I’d be making some.

So, thinking honestly about one’s interests and requirements isn’t all that easy.

A third approach is to make something new, but very small. This worked well with something I made last year, an interactive sine wave visualiser. I actually made use of it, just for a second, while working on my synth to help me think about differentiating sines.

I’ve read advice to programmers about making tools that do one thing very well, and I can see the sense of it.

A fourth thing that has worked well for me is collaborating. When I’m working closely with others, my desire to appear right is a strong motivator. The hard part though for a side project is putting the energy into finding collaborators and the contradictory twin fears of not being good enough versus working with someone I feel is holding me back.

Those are actually familiar negative thoughts from my musician days.

Well, that’s what I wanted to write. Conclusion: even though my brain likes nothing better than lashing out idea after idea, finding the right one takes courage and deliberation. And it seems likely that good project ideas will combine a couple of the following: doing one thing only; being conventional; solving a real problem I have; being collaborations.

Author: drumchant

I'm a student software developer in Dublin, Ireland. Until November 2019 I was a full-time bass player. My old posts were about black music, plus some cultural and tech criticism; now I mostly write about programming. Thank you for visiting Drum Chant!

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