The two principal human senses are vision and hearing. Correspondingly, much of DSP is related to image and audio processing. People listen to both music and speech. DSP has made revolutionary changes in both these areas.
The path leading from the musician's microphone to the audiophile's speaker is remarkably long. Digital data representation is important to prevent the degradation commonly associated with analog storage and manipulation. This is very familiar to anyone who has compared the musical quality of cassette tapes with compact disks. In a typical scenario, a musical piece is recorded in a sound studio on multiple channels or tracks. In some cases, this even involves recording individual instruments and singers separately. This is done to give the sound engineer greater flexibility in creating the final product. The complex process of combining the individual tracks into a final product is called mix down. DSP can provide several important functions during mix down, including: filtering, signal addition and subtraction, signal editing, etc.
One of the most interesting DSP applications in music preparation is artificial reverberation. If the individual channels are simply added together, the resulting piece sounds frail and diluted, much as if the musicians were playing outdoors. This is because listeners are greatly influenced by the echo or reverberation content of the music, which is usually minimized in the sound studio. DSP allows artificial echoes and reverberation to be added during mix down to simulate various ideal listening environments. Echoes with delays of a few hundred milliseconds give the impression of cathedral like locations. Adding echoes with delays of 10-20 milliseconds provide the perception of more modest size listening rooms.
Speech generation and recognition are used to communicate between humans and machines. Rather than using your hands and eyes, you use your mouth and ears. This is very convenient when your hands and eyes should be doing something else, such as: driving a car, performing surgery, or (unfortunately) firing your weapons at the enemy. Two approaches are used for computer generated speech: digital recording and vocal tract simulation. In digital recording, the voice of a human speaker is digitized and stored, usually in a compressed form. During playback, the stored data are uncompressed and converted back into an analog signal. An entire hour of recorded speech requires only about three megabytes of storage, well within the capabilities of even small computer systems. This is the most common method of digital speech generation used today.
Vocal tract simulators are more complicated, trying to mimic the physical mechanisms by which humans create speech. The human vocal tract is an acoustic cavity with resonate frequencies determined by the size and shape of the chambers. Sound originates in the vocal tract in one of two basic ways, called voiced and fricative sounds. With voiced sounds, vocal cord vibration produces near periodic pulses of air into the vocal cavities. In comparison, fricative sounds originate from the noisy air turbulence at narrow constrictions, such as the teeth and lips. Vocal tract simulators operate by generating digital signals that resemble these two types of excitation. The characteristics of the resonate chamber are simulated by passing the excitation signal through a digital filter with similar resonances. This approach was used in one of the very early DSP success stories, the Speak & Spell, a widely sold electronic learning aid for children.
The automated recognition of human speech is immensely more difficult than speech generation. Speech recognition is a classic example of things that the human brain does well, but digital computers do poorly. Digital computers can store and recall vast amounts of data, perform mathematical calculations at blazing speeds, and do repetitive tasks without becoming bored or inefficient. Unfortunately, present day computers perform very poorly when faced with raw sensory data. Teaching a computer to send you a monthly electric bill is easy. Teaching the same computer to understand your voice is a major undertaking.
Digital Signal Processing generally approaches the problem of voice recognition in two steps: feature extraction followed by feature matching. Each word in the incoming audio signal is isolated and then analyzed to identify the type of excitation and resonate frequencies. These parameters are then compared with previous examples of spoken words to identify the closest match. Often, these systems are limited to only a few hundred words; can only accept speech with distinct pauses between words; and must be retrained for each individual speaker. While this is adequate for many commercial applications, these limitations are humbling when compared to the abilities of human hearing. There is a great deal of work to be done in this area, with tremendous financial rewards for those that produce successful commercial products.