James Madison University

Psychology Professor Wins Award for Innovation

By: Sydney Palese
Posted: February 19, 2014

PHOTO: Michael HallFor Dr. Michael Hall, psychology is all about the process.

Hall, a professor in the Department of Psychology and director of the Psychological Sciences M.A. program, is cultivating his innate curiosity with his appreciation for music to research perception of sounds, and applying this research to practical purposes.

Working with a team of undergraduate and graduate students, Hall is leading an effort to discover how humans recognize a sound source—a musical instrument, another person’s voice, or an environmental noise—and how we perceive these sounds in complex listening environments.  If you’ve ever wondered why your voice sounds much more pleasing instantly than when played back on a recorder, or how we know a violin or guitar when we hear its music played on a city sidewalk, then you’ve thought about sound perception. Hall’s research falls under the study of “timbre”, or sound quality. Timbre is a branch within the field of psychoacoustics and psychophysics, which Hall referred to as “the psychology before there was [something called] psychology.”

Much of the research involves observing and isolating properties of sound and seeing what effect they have on the whole. Hall said there are several parameters involved in the research, including looking at the spectral envelope shape. This parameter depicts which frequencies are particularly intense relative to other regions, and reflects natural resonances of the sound-producing object (the vocal tract in speech, or an acoustic instrument’s body in music). 

Michael Hall received an award from James Madison Innovations, Inc. (JMI)to “produce, market and electronically distribute unique software-based musical instruments, audio effects and other audio devices for use both in academic research and in musical production.”  The award recognizes innovations that developed from a three-year-long series of research projects in the lab, completed in collaboration with JMU students Christopher Becker and Thomas Redpath.  The projects developed technology to improve the control of computerized synthesis of sounds for research.  JMI’s mission is “to promote innovation, enhance research by connecting inventors and industry, and foster economic development through protecting and commercializing intellectual property.” Hall’s invention is being recognized as one of JMU’s top inventions this year. As part of this project, Hall’s lab is developing software programs to “to permit the re-synthesis of simplified forms of natural sound sources – speech, music, and environmental sounds.” A few of these developments include Formant Function, a virtual synthesizer and musical instrument, which “[mimics] the spectrum of common musical instruments or voiced phonemes in speech.” Function initially began as a collaboration between Hall and an undergraduate Physics student working on his honors thesis, and has since grown to contribute regularly to ongoing research in the lab.

Another device is Source Builder, which can generate waves with complete control over the frequencies, intensities, and phases of individual harmonics. The results can then be imported “as a starting point for sound synthesis” within Formant Function.

Related devices have also been used for research beyond JMU, leading to partnerships, including with a researcher studying animal communication who was seeking to reproduce dolphin vocalizations, as well as sub-contract work for the Army Research Laboratory concerning the production and perception of military-relevant sounds.

Hall hopes that this technology will be especially useful for researchers and musicians. “My interest lies in getting this technology out there for someone to make use of,” Hall said. A website is currently being created to make existing software devices available, and Hall hopes to continue to develop these and other devices in the future. He added that he plans on putting profits from the technology back into the lab to make it more self-sustaining. “100% of the proceeds would support student travel for research presentations on the devices in the lab, and [to] support software upgrades. We’re not doing this for big profit, but doing it for little money put in exactly the right place.”

Hall indicated that a lot of effort from the entire laboratory is required to do this kind of work, stating that really “you’re living for fifteen minutes when you do research – the five minutes when you get an idea you know you can test, the five minutes when you get a result you know you can interpret, and the five minutes when you get the result finalized and can share that information.” Thankfully, this JMU-supported project is frequently making all three of these rewards possible.