You may recently have heard about the Stanford Mobile Phone Orchestra, or MoPhO, a six person orchestra that uses iPhones to play improvisational pieces and chamber music. The group's Ocarina app has been downloaded 600,000 times, which means that many people now have a 12,000-year-old clay wind instrument at their fingertips.
The creation and control of music is already democratized through cheap production software. Now, gesture-based computing is opening the door further with a new breed of music applications available on mainstream devices such as the iPhone and Wii.
Still, there are also intriguing music controllers and interfaces on the market that are relatively obscure. I contacted Kurt Biederwolf, who holds the Music Synthesis chair at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA, for his take on the state of music technology and key examples.
"So far, traditional MIDI interfaces have been limited to traditional instrument groups: keyboard, percussion, wind, string, etc. But now we're seeing a crop of really fresh alternatives," said Biederwolf. "We are seeing the acceptance of a new type of music aesthetic. Artists are approaching sound in a gestural way with an evocative quality."
In no particular order, here are the coolest instruments, controllers and interfaces that are available on the market:
Designed by staunch environmentalists Brian Crabtree and Kelli Cain, the simple device has a reconfigurable grid of backlit buttons that can be programmed to trigger a variety of audio and video functions or scripts. It connects to a computer and the interaction between the keys and lights is determined by the application running. The minimal device has no hard-wired functionality, but is rather an open ended performance interface designed for customization. It uses the Open Sound Control protocol.
"All of these devices can use MIDI commands, but there is a newer protocol called Open Sound Control (OSC) which is essentially a high-res version of MIDI that is more flexible and offers no preconceived notion of what it is supposed to be for. It's for deep shaping of audio rather than just triggering musical notes and basic controller events," said Biederwolf. (Video)
The Lemur, from Jazzmutant, has a multi-touch-sensitive surface that can track multiple fingers simultaneously. The controller allows for users to design and assemble the interfaces themselves with sets of generic control objects such as faders, switches, and pads. Biederwolf explains: "With the Lemur, you can build your own interface on the touch screen and create anything you might need to interact with software in a performance setting or in compositional work."
"There's a bit of emulated physics involved. For example, you can create a ball that will follow the movement of your finger on the screen, and its movement can be set to affect a number of sonic and/or visual parameters. You can even create one for each finger and "throw" them around so that as they move about or bounce off the screen's boundaries they affect multiple sounds and effects. You even have control over the amount of friction as they travel," he said. (Video)
Haken Audio manufactures this performance controller and instrument that allows for real-time musical control by tracking and updating data values for the x, y, and z position of one to sixteen fingers continuously. "The Continuum Fingerboard loosely resembles a traditional keyboard but it allows you to dig into the device with more planes of control," said Biederwolf.
The company says that the instrument picks up the immediate variances within a performer’s playing technique and translates it into "sonic expression, creating a human-instrument feedback loop that responds startlingly like an actual acoustic instrument. Every surface interaction, no matter how dramatic or subtle, shapes the sound." (Video)
The Reactable has been around in prototype form for awhile, but is now available for 25k Euros. It's a novel electronic musical instrument that combines physical objects (pucks) with a surface computer. Performers turn the pucks and interact them with each other to combine different elements like synthesizers, effects, sample loops or control elements in order to create a unique and flexible composition.
Performers can also change the behavior of the objects by touching and interacting with the table surface, and because the technology is multi-touch, there is no limit to the number of fingers that can be used simultaneously, allowing for multiple users and new collaborative expressions. (Video)
Also physical objects, AudioCubes are a modular live performance instrument that let you shape sound, create music and perform live through hands-on interaction with wireless intelligent objects. The form factor allows for possibilities that go beyond classic knob boxes and trigger pads. According to the company's site, they can be used for simple filter sweeps as well as infinitely complex setups in which the musical information they generate will depend on how the objects interact with each other and with their user. They are manufactured by Percussa. (Video)
If this shortlist included one-off, or noncommercial devices, it would undoubtedly look much different considering all the hardware hacks and DIY projects out there that are as unique as the artists devising them.
"Circuit bending is also a growing trend. Musicians are modifying electronics to suit their own needs, then customizing software to work with it," Biederwolf said. "We are seeing what was once considered the realm of Avant-garde quickly spread into the mainstream."
Thanks to Kurt for his time and to Berklee College of Music for putting me in touch with him. If you think some other device should've been in this top 5 list then please share in the comments below.