But Boy-Bands Will Be With Us Always

2005-02-01 22:24:36

My friend Cliff recently asked "Have you ever wondered about the future of musical instruments?"

I think about this sometimes. I think it's pretty obvious that 100 years from now, the violin will have been replaced by the space-violin, the piano will be eschewed in favor of the space-piano, and orchestral musicians will play instruments like the space-oboe, the space-kettle drum, and the space-tuba . . .

Okay, not really.

But I really do think about this kind of thing. Musical instruments really do 'evolve'. One thing I've noticed is that old musical instruments take a long time to fade out of the scene -- seems like no matter how ancient and seemingly unknown the instrument, you can find someone who specializes in playing it. Try Googling on 'lute players' sometime.

For a new musical instrument to catch on is more than a little bit like the QWERTY keyboard problem: it takes a significant investment of time and energy for someone to learn the instrument's interface. For the most part, the new instruments that have the best shot at 'making it' tend to have interfaces not too terribly different from older, established instruments. Ex: the synthesizer uses the good old familiar piano-style keyboard, and I believe the saxophone isn't too far off from woodwind instruments like the clarinet.

Warr guitar for sale There's no shortage of new instruments out there; the trick is building up a critical mass of players to sustain an industry around it. Of late, the only new instrument I know of that I think has a shot of Making It is the Touchstyle Guitar: it has hundreds, if not thousands of players worldwide, and there are at least two major manufacturers (Chapman and Warr) plus every so often I hear of an upstart.

There are certain one-off instruments, such as Craig Huxley's Blaster Beam that gain some notoriety, but there's really not a lot of future in an instrument if only one or two of them exist.

When it comes to synthesizers, there are all kinds of 'alternative controllers' out there -- they're one of those perennial favorite topics for a design competition: Jean-Claude and Jean-Michele are out all night drinking absinthe, in the morning they're completely wasted and hung-over but Jean-Claude remembers: "Mon Dieu! We need to select a theme for the design competition today or we'll lose our grant money and have to go back to bussing tables at TGI Friday's!" and Jean-Michele moans and says "Oh, hell, let's just do what we always do. Let's make up some art-speak about music and let the synth geeks design funny synthesizer controllers." And design them they do. And if you surf around the 'net there are a ton of them. Although most never make it past the design or one-off proof of concept stage.

Having said that, below is a short and incomplete survey of the field of alternative controllers. One thing to notice as you look at these things is that a lot of them look like fun. I think that's important and good: we don't take enough time to have fun in our lives. And -- even if you want to dress in a tuxedo and be stiff and formal on the outside -- deep down inside in your heart of hearts, you need to be having fun making your music.

Or else your music is gonna suck.

JazzMutant Lemur Control Surface
"Cycling '74 and the French company JazzMutant SAS today announced the signing of an exclusive U.S. distribution agreement. Under the terms of the agreement, Cycling '74 will distribute JazzMutant's Lemur multitouch control surface within the United States. The Lemur is a sleek portable controller for live performance computer music applications featuring a 12" LCD display and a proprietary touch screen interface that can simultaneously track multiple fingers.
. . .
"Users configure the Lemur using an editor application that runs on Mac OS X, Windows XP, and Linux. Users drag and drop graphical control objects such as faders, buttons, two-dimensional area controllers, and status monitors to create interfaces. After a collection of interfaces is uploaded to the Lemur, the device sends data to parameters in a sound-generating application when a user touches objects in the display. Performers can flip between interfaces on the Lemur using buttons located above the touch screen." I've mentioned this here before, but it's still really cool. I wonder if I can justify buying one of these for the widget programming toolkit . . . ?

The Music Pole
"The MUSICPOLE's design is based on the Circle of Fifths. Music's 12 keys are labeled around the top of the MUSICPOLE. Find the key you want to play in, C Major for instance. The white keys will be under your thumbs. The notes you don't want (in this case the black keys) will be on the other side of the pole.

"The MUSICPOLE is a polyphonic MIDI controller. It hooks up to electronic keyboards, synthesizers, and sound modules via a MIDI cord and triggers the sounds of these devices. MUSICPOLE keys are triggered by special 'Thumbletz' players wear on their thumbs." I've got absolutely zero idea what this would be like to play (and I'm not sure about those 'Thumbletz'), but this wins my vote for Musical Instrument Mostly Likely To Become A Sex Toy.

The Keytar
"NASHVILLE, TN - July 23, 2004 Inventor, engineer, musician and President of Keytar, Inc., Vinson Williams, unveiled the Williams Keyboard Guitar today at the NAMM Summer Session trade show. "It's a new type of guitar," said Williams. "First there was the acoustic guitar, then there was the steel guitar, then there was the electric guitar, now we have the keyboard guitar. It sounds incredible, and it's unbelievably easy to play."

"The Williams Keyboard Guitar, aka the "Keytar is primarily constructed out of high grade pre-coated aluminum. When the model V-1 is complete, it only weighs seven pounds. Its dimensions are 45"x 13" x 4". The V-1 comes with an EMG silver active pickup and has 12 chromatically tuned strings, C3 - B3. The neck of the Keytar is played with full size piano keys in place of frets." The big mean kids in grade school always pushed me aside when it was my turn to play the autoharp, so maybe that's why I think this looks like fun.

The Hand Band
"Any child can compose songs out of thin air simply by moving the fingers of these musical gloves. The soft fabric gloves can be set to guitar, keyboard, or drums; each finger plays a different note (within a two-octave range) or drumbeat, and transmits to the wireless speaker that attaches to a belt loop. A child can play on a surface or in the air, and a fill-in option creates background accompaniment." Sure, they're just a toy -- but it's an interesting concept. I wonder if anyone has ever made a "grown-up" version?

Master Gaita MIDI Bagpipes
Pretty much what it says it is.

Buchla Thunder
"THUNDER is an alternative controller. Making no attempt to emulate the appearance or playing techniques of existing acoustic instruments, THUNDER introduces new concepts for defining musically interesting relationships between performance gesture and modern electronic vocabularies. THUNDER's multi-faceted playing surface is organized to complement the shape and reach of the human hand; its 36 individual elements sense a performer's slightest touch. All of THUNDER's keys respond to pressure; some sense position as well; others incorporate light emitting diodes used to indicate key status or currently selected options." I often wonder why Buchla doesn't come out with a version 2.0 of Thunder; I've seen much wailing and gnashing of teeth from people over the fact that this device is discontinued. Then again, it's easy to wail and gnash -- it's another thing entirely to lay down the cold hard cash to actually buy a device like this. To some extent the JazzMutant Lemur above is a 21st century version of the Thunder, so it'll be interesting to see how it (the Lemur) sells -- especially at the 21st century price of $2495.

Buchla Lightning II
"LIGHTNING II is a specialized MIDI controller that senses the position and movement of handheld wands and transforms this information to MIDI signals for expressive control of electronic musical instrumentation. In addition to functioning as a powerful MIDI controller, LIGHTNING II, with its self contained 32 voice synthesizer, comprises a complete, ready to play instrument." I'll spare you the sex toy jokes, but like the MusicPole, I have no idea what these would be like to play with. I kinda sorta get the idea they grew out of an interest in interpretive dance or something like that.

Sony Block Jam
I posted about this not long ago. I still think they're fun. And I still haven't a clue how they're supposed to work.

"FRONT consists of a knob which can be rotated and moved along a slit and a bendable plastic flap." One of the more "out there" designs. I don't believe this has actually been implemented, but it's a simple concept (and who says a controller has to be complicated, anyway?). Although if it were me, I'd 'enhance' it quite a bit by adding a lot more modulation surfaces.

"Audiopad is a composition and performance instrument for electronic music which tracks the positions of objects on a tabletop surface and converts their motion into music. One can pull sounds from a giant set of samples, juxtapose archived recordings against warm synthetic melodies, cut between drum loops to create new beats, and apply digital processing all at the same time on the same table. Audiopad not only allows for spontaneous reinterpretation of musical compositions, but also creates a visual and tactile dialogue between itself, the performer, and the audience.

"Audiopad has a matrix of antenna elements which track the positions of electronically tagged objects on a tabletop surface. Software translates the position information into music and graphical feedback on the tabletop. Each object represents either a musical track or a microphone." There really does appear to be a trend towards big flat 'multi-finger' touch displays, in mainstream computer science as well as specialized areas such as musical instrument controller design.

Continuum Fingerboard
"The Continuum Fingerboard tracks and updates MIDI values for the x, y, and z position of one to ten fingers every 1.33 milliseconds. These values appear at the MIDI Out as well as the Firewire port.

"The x (side-to-side) position of each finger provides continuous pitch control for a note. This value can vary from a subtle vibrato to dramatic pitch sweeps encompassing the entire length of the playing surface. One inch in the x direction corresponds to a pitch range of 184 cents (73 cents per cm); the total pitch range of the full-size Continuum Fingerboard is nearly 8 octaves. Each finger in contact with the playing surface also outputs a unique y (front-to-back) value as well as a z (pressure) value." Unlike a lot of the controllers, which attempt to try to make life easier for the musician, the Continuum Fingerboard looks like it'd be damn hard to play well. But along with that comes one helluva lot of control -- in a way, this is a real-life version of that 44,000 key piano in The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T. Heady stuff.

Final Words

With synthesizers and technology and all that, it really does seem that the bar has been lowered on making "good" music. I know that Real Musicians will always sneer at anything that relies more on technology than talent, but the simple truth is that nowadays pretty much anyone can noodle around on a synthesizer and sound pretty good without a whole lot of effort. I don't see this as a bad thing, and in fact I personally put the onus back on the Real Musicians and say "okay, now you guys with serious talent should be able to take all this stuff and be two or three times as impressive with it!"