Why We Need New Musical Instruments
23 Jul 2016

Why We Need New Musical Instruments

23 Jul 2016

Real Instruments Are Expressive

On a guitar, you can play the same note a hundred different ways. You can tell that it’s Jimi Hendrix or Eddie Van Halen just after a couple notes. Every guitarist vibratos their notes, but BB King is famous for his vibrato. This is possible because a guitar, like most physical instruments has potential for rich dynamic expression.

And this expression is connected to your energy. If you want to make your sound have more “attitude”, you just play with more attitude. If you want a softer tone, you simply play more gently. You don’t say “I want more attitude so I’ll add high frequency content by increasing the velocity of my pick attack by 30%”.  This is precisely what you have to do with the current tools for playing electronic instruments. This thought process creates hesitation which disconnects you from your creative flow.

Modern synths have dozens of dimensions of tweakability. It’s always frustrated me that there weren’t better methods for taking advantage of this sonic versatility.

The synths, samplers and other sounds in the studio arsenal have been evolving steadily since the early 80s yet the tools we use to interface with them haven’t changed fundamentally in those 35 years. These tools boil down almost entirely to buttons, knobs and faders. Even a keyboard is really a glorified set of buttons. These are fine for certain purposes but they don’t capture that subtle feel like a guitar does. It doesn’t matter whether you turn a knob with a lot of attitude or really gently, it will sound the same. Moreover, if you are playing the keyboard with your right hand, then you have one hand free to control a mere one other parameters. Modern synths have dozens of dimensions of tweakability. It’s always frustrated me that there weren’t better methods for taking advantage of this sonic versatility.

Harnessing Motion Sensors to Add Sensuality, Rawness

When Apple enhanced the quality of the motion sensors in the iPhone4’s I saw an opportunity to bring this dynamic richness and spontaneity into the digital studio. I originally thought it’d be something you used while playing the keyboard – you’d have the phone in your other hand to augment the notes you were playing with the free hand. Then I began modelling different ways of articulating notes other than just button pressing.

They key here is that the way you play a note, rather than just the note itself, affects the output and this expressiveness becomes part of your signature sound

That’s the other thing – real instruments have lots of ways playing notes: striking,  blowing, bowing, plucking. I ended up with the AC Sabre which is based on a “plucking” concept. The notes surround you in space in a semi-circle, like a harp warped around you. You “pluck” them as you move your device through this space and this sends MIDI notes through your WiFi/Bluetooth connection to the synth/sampler/DAW on your computer or iPad. The angles of the phone and the way you move all tweak the sound in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.  It turned out that having the note play mechanism combined with the motion sensor expressiveness was a magic formula:  The result ranges from strikingly sensual, to powerfully raw in a way probably never even intended by the patch creator. They key here is that the way you play a note, rather than just the note itself, affects the output and this expressiveness becomes part of your signature sound, like BB’s vibrato.

The Lost Art of Showmanship

Another issue in the modern music space is as DJs have emerged from the corner shadows to centre stage, their performance instruments have gone the opposite direction, towards introversion.  In the words of the Ian Williams from the digital, live hybrid group Battles:

“We all know the problem; you go see cool-sounding, innovative music and you saw a guy on a laptop and then you’re like…maybe I should have stayed at home and listened to it on my stereo” – Ian Williams, Battles

This is partly because the gestures involved with the current tools are very distant, in a sense, from the sound they control. In other words, the same gesture – turning a knob – may make the sound, bigger, smaller, wobblier, distorted, move up, move left. You are looking at an array of buttons and controls that all look the same yet everyone does something different. This abstraction requires a great deal of mental focus and concentration to maintain in one’s head. No time to look at, feel and interact with the audience…

We want to introduce into electronic music performance that spontaneity of, say, the improvising jazz musician. I learned to improvise on the guitar early on – I know that feeling. It’s one of the greatest pleasures of life. I wanted to experience that feeling with the amazing sounds created by synthesisers and digital instruments. The AC Sabre gives you this ability and it doesn’t take years of 6 hours daily practice. Note, I’m not just talking about synth-based jam bands (though why not?) – there are ways of having this spontaneity while still abiding by the structure of beat-synced EDM and tightly structured pop music…

The other issue with existing tools is that they are static – physically your are stuck to one place with little margin for error. If your finger misses by an inch you could train-wreck your whole performance. Miss by an inch on a violin? You’ll play a duff note, but quickly move on. Plus body gesturing is a key part of creating the sound with an instrument. Just ask Eddie… Like a guitar, AC Sabre is mobile. You can sauce up your performance with a some visual style and in a way that’s fused with the sound you are creating.

Download AC Sabre on the iTunes Store »
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