Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Design of Interactions with Music - Portable Devices

Continuing on the topic of designing interactions with music, here are a some examples of lo-tech hacks and and innovative new designs that enable people to interact with music in cool ways. The consistent thread that runs through all of these examples is that these instruments are all portable but are not mobile devices, such as cell phones and mobile gaming units.

The "Ghetto" Talkbox
In my recent post regarding music interactions on mobile devices I shared an example of a Nintendo DS Lite that had been hacked into a talkbox. Here is a lo-tech way to create a talkbox, taught by Moot BooXLe. Before watching this video I had not clue how musicians play with a talkbox. It's pretty interesting: the talk box has a long tube that is placed in the musicians mouth, it is also hooked up to another instrument (usually a keyboard). Therefore, the musician modulates the music that is played from the instruments by talking or blowing air into the tube.

All you need to create your own "ghetto" talkbox is a plastic tube, a PVC end cap, a cheap powered speaker, a box, and some duct tape. Add to this one to two hours of labor and you've got yourself a talk box. It's pretty cool how you interact with the talk box.

Lo-Tech Drums
I know that this is an extremely lo-tech solution; it is by far the most lo-tech feature on this post. All that said, I think it is worth sharing because, though it uses no electronic components, it is a well designed little system. Notice how even though the drummer only interacts directly with the books while the sounds are created as a result of the interaction between the books and the other objects placed on top of the books as well.

Beat Blocks
This is the first electronic music interface from the bunch. Beat blocks is a physical computing interface that enables users to control four different 4/4 loops. Each loop contains a drum track that can be modified on-the-fly by placing or removing blocks of wood into one of 16 different slots that are arranged in a 4/4 formation on a square plank of wood. There are several different types of block. Each block features from 1 to 4 stripes; each stripe denotes the existence and timing of a beat. The pattern of each loop is determined by the presence of these blocks on the 4 consecutive slots that make up that loop.

What I like about this interface is the way it integrates virtual attributes into physical objects. However, this system has limited capabilities and my interest in it is more related to its experimental nature. Most interfaces that use today to interact with music software on computers is derived from physical equipment (guitar, mixers, etc). That is not to say that a different interaction paradigm that is enabled by technology cannot be created. Hence the importance of experimenting beyond our accepted modes of interactions.

Beat Bearing Demo
This interface offers a similar mode of interaction to the beat blocks via a prototype that has a considerably better finished and some improvements. This tool supports interaction based on a physical computing interface that enables users to control four different 8 beat loops. Each loop contains a drum track that can be modified on-the-fly by placing or removing metal bearings into one of 32 slots that are arranged in a 4/8 formation on a rectangular plastic casing. Each row of 8 slots represents one 8-beat loop, while each slot on this casing represents a single beat.

The one-to-one relationship between bearing/slot/beat makes this interface easier to understand and use than beat blocks. It also provides the user with greater freedom to manipulate sounds. The one area where the beat blocks outperforms beat bearing is in regards to the length of the loop itself - beat blocks supports four 16-beat loops, as opposed to four 8-beat loops. Similar to beat blocks, the beat bearing interface is a mere prototype that is not commercially available (unlike the Tenori ON, which I will discuss next).

The Tenori-on is a unique electronic music instrument designed by Toshio Iwai and Yu Nishibori. This device was originally created in 2005 but it was only released in 2007 after Toshio Iwai held live performances in clubs in several European cities. In his own words, here is the inspiration behind this creation:

"In days gone by, a musical instrument had to have a beauty, of shape as well as of sound, and had to fit the player almost organically. [...] Modern electronic instruments don't have this inevitable relationship between the shape, the sound, and the player. What I have done is to try to bring back these [...] elements and build them in to a true musical instrument for the digital age." [taken from wikipedia]

It is a pretty powerful tool, check out the video below of a Hot Chip cover performed with a Tenori-on. This device is consists of a screen that features a 16x16 grid of LED switches. Each switch is multi-purpose and can be activated in various ways to create music. The device also has a frame that contains a small LED monitor, two built-in speakers located and a dial and buttons that control other functionality such as the type of sound and beats per minute produced.

Drum Buddy Demo
The Drum Buddy is an analog-chic electronic instrument that, unlike the three previous examples, is obviously not a digital device. This instrument was invented by an eccentric artist from New Orleans named Quintron. The Drum Buddy has an innovative design that is described as a light-activated oscillating drum machine.

Here is my attempt at describing how it works: light, which is emitted by a light bulb mounted on the device, is captured by photo-sensors that activate oscillators, which generate sounds. These oscillators can be turned on and off, and controlled via switches. They can also be modulated by controlling the presence and amount of light. Check out the video below to see it in action, or check out the wikipedia entry.

This instrument is for true musicians (or very wealthy music lovers). There are extremely few of these in existence though they are still being produced in small batches. They occasionally go on sale on ebay with a $5000 starting bid. During my investigation about this instrument I came across an interesting quote from Quintron about why he created this analog electronic instrument:

"I believe that the digital revolution has cut short the development of new analog electronic instruments - this is a mistake. Analog instruments are presently regarded as charming primitive antiques. Though the DRUM BUDDY and its older analog siblings can create far fewer "types" of sounds than a contemporary digital sampling keyboard, if you analyzed the waveforms of both you would find the DRUM BUDDY sounds to be in a constant state of subtle fluctuation, whereas the digital sounds - since they are really composed of little uniform building blocks - will be rigid and unchanging unless some parameter on the instrument is changed. The analog sounds of the DRUM BUDDY, however, are constantly changing themselves - shimmering with a living complexity which even the 24 bit digital signal could never truly possess." [from Drum Budy site]

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