Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Instrument / Device / Sensor: A Continuum

segnoWhen one thinks of traditional music, the first image that comes to mind would be that of a person playing an instrument. In this case the music is produced by a number of physical means (fingers flexing, mouth blowing, arm moving, foot tapping) directly coupled to a tool (string on fretboard, reed in mouthpiece, bow on string, pedal on kick-drum). When one thinks of electronic music, the image that comes to mind is often of a person sitting behind a laptop. In this case the tool coupling the performer to the music production is a computer keyboard.

But there are other possibilities for creative technically-inclined musicians. This article ruminates on such as an extended introduction to my look at environmental sensors. Along the way I will footnote the best of the many online references on this topic.

First I should make it clear that the spectrum of "instrument" to "device" to "sensor" is a continuum. This is most clearly seen from the axis of adoption and tradition. Instruments are highly standardised in construction and use. The playing of an instrument is strongly shaped by history and cultural context. And of course (most) instruments are not bound to electrical representations of their output. Though they are highly technical, they are grounded in a context that hides the fact they are machines1.

A device, on the other hand, is perceived in terms of an explicit technological decision.

Think of the various input devices available for computer music production. These start with common accessories like mice, touchpads, joysticks and game controllers, then range to esoteric goodies like eye trackers, touch screens, VR gloves and speech recognition2. An entire gamut of specialised MIDI controllers also exist, everything from fader boxes to tape transport controls to knob arrays3.

These are generally too new to be integrated into a widespread cultural or historical perspective. Often they are quite experimental and take a while to gain adoption (for example, the data glove). But sometimes an otherwise novel input device quickly gains popular acceptance, generally through massive publicity. A current example is the Wiimote, born as a game controller via VR research, it has now been converted for use in music creation and control4.

Yet even "devices" may be considered restrictive, since they generally provide a familiar analog interface to a digital world. Also, they are mass produced and so might not fit with an individualistic performer's modus operandi.

But as the references show, there are a myriad ways of using input transducers to convert between the physical world and electrical signals5. Each type of transducer is tuned to sense a particular change in the environment; thus they are also sensors.

Contemporary experimental musicians are using an ever-increasing variety of transducers to create sound. It is not only that they have more choice than with off-the-shelf devices, and not only that they can customise a solution to the artistic or performative problem at hand. Beyond this, the mere fact of building a singular instrument attunes one to its characteristics, in a way similar to how a traditional musician might achieve synergy with a particular instrument after years of use.

In my next article I will give a handy overview of sensors, with references to sources. Then, I will look at micro-controllers that allow you to kit together your own novel instrumental interfaces.

Notes
1 The Durutti Column has an album entitled The Guitar And Other Machines that I find illuminating on this point.

2 Brooke Clarke has an insane list of sensors, some quite esoteric.

3 Bill Buxton's "Directory Of Sources For Input Technologies" covers these thoroughly..

4 A Wiimote library is available for SuperCollider. Wiimote DJing has been accomplished with Traktor. And so on.

5 Transducers also convert the other way around, between electrical signals and physical effects. In the realm of sound, a loudspeaker is the canonical example.

I thank the Arts Council for their support in this research.

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