Please Share Your Experience of Rewarding / Engaging Interactions with Music Devices

I’m a Masters student in the Music & Technology program at CMU. This year I’ll be researching my thesis.

I’m interested in expression, musical control surfaces and interfaces, and networking / communication between musical devices. With the proliferation of expressive controllers in recent years I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the details that amount to an engaging and rewarding interaction between a performer and their instrument (loosely defined).

As the title suggests, I’m hoping to solicit personal experiences of rewarding and engaging interactions with music devices. It could be an acoustic guitar, a modular synthesizer, or perhaps a circuit bent radio; I’m not drawing any lines here (pun intended).

Now, to get the ball rolling … Stringed instruments have a special place in my heart. Two of the earliest instruments I played were the violin and the guitar. There’s something supremely tactile about the experience of playing a stringed instrument; even the subtlest movements of the hands navigate a vast landscape of timbral possibility.

Earlier this year when I had the opportunity to play a beautiful Warwick bass, the thought “now THIS is an instrument” popped into my head. I was surprised; I couldn’t remember having had a similar thought in all the years I’ve spent discovering and playing new instruments. The connection with the guitar was palpable. Even though I’m a poor excuse for a bassist, it was immediately clear to me that I could express myself with this instrument.

It will come as no surprise that the Linnstrument is my current favorite among recent commercial offerings in expressive controllers. Though the guitar-like layout of the Linnstrument is familiar, I find that the music I make with it is distinctly “out of the box” compared to what I might jam out on the guitar or piano. The design of the instrument and the experience of playing it make me think about melody and harmony in radically different ways. I’ve yet to even tap into the true “expressive” features of the Linnstrument, but the way that it pushes me to think differently about music and performance is powerfully rewarding in itself.

Anyways, now I invite you to share! Anything you feel may be relevant to the discussion at hand is welcome. I look forward to reading your response.

In the event that discussion here sparks a thesis project, I will be sure to keep the community apprised of my work and any interesting outcomes.

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The Linnstrument is the most expressive instrument I’ve ever played. I’m very curious about the Haken Continuum and the upcoming Osmose, but I imagine the Linnstrument will remain in my studio for some time to come.

AUM is the digital mixer/DAW/plugin host that gets out of the way fastest for me. It “just works” and I never have WTF or “how in the hell” moments with it.

The RME UCX audio interface is another piece of gear that makes music possible by just working and never getting in the way. I can’t say how many magical moments were ruined by substandard audio interfaces before I acquired the RME.

NINJAM taught me that it is possible to play very specialized types of music live with other people over the internet. I wish it were easier to make schedules line up, and I wish those with an ear for looping/cell/minimalist music improvisation were more common.

The monome grid and arc taught me that we can make up our own rules for how music should work. Norns continues the tradition.

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I started with guitar, traditional recording. My first foray into electronic music was cutting up samples in a DAW timeline, copy/pasting everything where I wanted it to go.

I took a break from music for a while but then purchased Maschine. I knew what sampling was and heard about samplers but I just didn’t understand why they were a thing. But I loved Four Tet and I wanted to get into electronic music and Maschine seemed pretty affordable with all the software that comes with it.

When I realized that you could load up a longer sample, add some midi notes to trigger it, and then move the sample start around and pitch the sample up/down as it was being triggered, I was overwhelmed with excitement. Nothing new to the world but it was a thrilling discovery for me. Been sampling/looping ever since.

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With electronic-based devices, I’ve had two specific moments that were very satisfying. Both were very short and casual, but still transformative for me. Both of these are also related to playing with digital instruments with extremely low latency.

First experience when I was in college playing around with my monome 64. I had built a simple instrument that was like a keyboard; hit a button, get a boop. That sort of deal. Because it was so simple, I experimented with lowering the audio buffer sizes to insanely small amounts that I wouldn’t have normally been able to use. Somewhere around 32-64 block size, something in my lizard brain clicked. Suddenly, it felt like sounds were coming from the monome grid itself, if that makes sense. It was no longer some peripheral that was causing stuff to come out of a computer speaker. For the first time, the monome turned into something that was an instrument like a piano, not something that was used to control an instrument on my computer. It was a really fascinating sensation.

Second time something like this happened was a few years later when I was working on what would eventually become the Daisy by Electrosmith. The Daisy prototype I had a single encoder knob, and I had programmed it to control the frequency of a digital sine oscillator I had made. The first time I turned it was a real revelation. Because of things like hardware interrupts and the nature of tight embedded systems, the Daisy can get sub-millisecond latency times for inputs like an encoder. I had turned knobs like this countless times before on a computer, so I had an idea what to expect. But it was just a whole different game. Immediate responsiveness with no smoothing filters at the other end. And no audible zipper effect either! It was a stupid simple test program, but I got that same feeling again of it being an instrument, not just a controller to an instrument. Does that distinction make sense?

I was traditionally trained as classical bass player, which is a very physical instrument. One thing that always used to feel rewarding was playing my bass after my teacher had played it. The way she bowed it always had a way of physically opening up the instrument. I swear it was like magic. In our lessons, I would hand her my bass so she could show me how to play something. When I got it back, playing it felt different. The sound projected better, and the thing physically vibrated more. A since playing the bass is essentially like giving it a hug from behind, it really was a full-body experience.

Oh! There’s also the madrona soundplane. I got to play one at NAMM a few years back. It felt awesome. Probably the best-feeling instrument I ever played in that breed of musical interface. Wish I had one of those…

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having a microkorg as my only keyboard / synthesizer for years and learning every nuance has always been my favorite interaction with a musical device. I always try to keep that long-term interaction in mind, techniques > products.

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Interesting … I honestly haven’t thought much about the voice as an instrument in this context. But I think it’s a fascinating consideration.

Besides perhaps making rhythm with our hands and feet, I suppose voice may be our only “built in” musical outlet.

Could you speak to what it is about the experience of singing that you find inspiring?

I think your point about AUM and the UCX is an important one. Sometimes the best thing a piece of gear can do is “dissapear”.

When system level components and utilities “just work”, where is your attention and energy free to go?

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The excitement of discovery in music has always been a major inspiration to me. I think that’s a large part of what I find so rewarding about experimenting with and using all sorts of gear / software / instruments / technique.

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Beautiful anecdotes!

Have you had the opportunity to play a Haken Continuum? I myself have not, but from what I understand it has really fast readout / low latency.

Nowadays latency is so low in most audio tech that I have to imagine many people don’t think of it often. Still, from time to time I’ll feel something is off about my music work / performance, and it will trace back to system latency.

I think about this all the time in designing instruments and interfaces for myself. Touch and tactility are vital to my experience as a performer. I have yet to play a Linnstrument, but I have no doubt that I would love it. I grew up playing trombone, percussion, electric bass, and singing. Playing electronic instruments has nearly always left me wanting for expressiveness, so part of my interest in electronic music is trying to find ways of facilitating it.
I studied electronic music with a focus on improvisation in grad school, and one of my teachers (a prepared guitarist) pointed out that immediacy is very difficult with computers and improvisation. I constructed a feedback instrument out of a few guitar pedals and began researching how to get immediate results out of it, and it’s informed a lot of my experiments in building ways to make my own digital instruments performative.
My first experience with touch and electronics was the Buchla touch keyboard on the rig at Mills College. I found it to be almost a hair-trigger, requiring a lot of nuance and care if I was going to be able to use it for expression as opposed to simple preset-triggering. I decided to try and build my own touch controller, which uses an arduino and 6 voltage divider circuits, and it works fine. For me expression is linked directly to mapping which is something that few people seem to talk about when discussing interfaces… we have the opportunity to control any sound that a computer can reproduce, so how we control that sound is really vital – particularly mapping multiple parameters to a single control to allow for complex expression. MPE seems to be a very promising format for this as well.
In direct answer to your question, the Moog 3P at my undergrad really got me into live performance of electronic sounds. Of course that is 1:1 mapping so it was a challenge to be really expressive, but a couple of friends and I did a number of improvisations on it and the format size (5u 1/4" jacks) was really tactile. It also helped to crank the speakers up so we could feel the sounds in our bodies.
The other controller that still blows my mind is Peter Blasser’s barre controller innovation. I played a Tetrazzi in grad school and had the same realization you did: This is an instrument. Now I have a Sidrax and while it has its limitations, I can coax many different kinds of music out of it, and the sensitivity and response feels very organic and immediate. The semi-modular aspect of the Ciat-Lonbarde instruments allow for more complex mapping as well. I’m wild about the barre controllers and the Tocate/Mocante/Mr Grazzi as well, though I’ve only borrowed them from others, never owned them myself.
I haven’t used it yet, but Sarah Belle-Reid has some videos using the Buchla Thunder layout on the Sensel Morph and she rips it up.

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This! It’s too easy today to have surface-level interactions with something and decide you’re ready to move onto the next.

Sometimes there’s an immediate connection with a device / instrument / technique, but I think the only reliable way these connections develop is through hours of attention, consideration, and practice.

Yes. It gave me rug burn on my fingers.

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As, I’m sad to hear that. It’s one of the reasons the Seaboard didn’t work for me. The Continuum’s Hall effect sensors seem like a very sensitive approach to detecting expression, and I’ve rarely heard negative feedback about the controller. Usually the ire is reserved for Eigenmatrix lack of usability (though I believe Haken has work in progress to address that).

A memorable experience for me was interacting with a collection of Harry Bertoia’s sound sculptures at an exhibit of his Sonambient work They don’t lend themselves to controlling tempo or melody because of the chaotic collisions between the vertical metal rods but with practice you could play with swells, crashes, and gradual decay of the sounds. The scale of the sculptures and the lack of control that you would find in a traditional musical instrument made interacting with them feel visceral.

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Warwick basses really are something else. The materials are part of that, but I also wonder if their scale makes notes easier to fret?

One of the most rewarding musical instruments for me is the ukulele. I love the way they make it easy to play expressive chords. The difference between trying to play ‘Creep’ on a guitar or a ukulele is really stark.

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one of the coolest musical instruments…
monome grid and monolase

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ye olde crackle box by michel waisvisz

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yeah, my 2yo reaches for it before anything else

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i’m a synthesist in much of my thought/musical approach (melodic rhythmic side) and i have a deep long love relationship with sh101, moog the source and dx7 instruments. each has a completely different interface/feel and sound but are ceasingly profound to me. couple those with a guitar (g+l asat custom)… i couldn’t ask for a better palette of tools, flexibility. but they are old and only network is tactile by me, some midi or cv communication. i’m old fashioned regarding frets and piano style key for data entry. the permutation changes appear in malleable software (via ableton live 9.6 w/push v1 2012mac ), this feel is limitless but in such an inviting way. just like home.

Having multiple samplers and be able to process sample material over and over is real bliss for me. Even resamplings songs that are “finished”

my current setup consists of a octatrack/asr10/morphagene/blackbox and I got a Norns shield otw.

It can easily turn into a mushy drone but I find the octatrack can turn a lot of the craziness into something musical.

With the asr I can even get it to serve as sort of a granular sampler and make synth patches from pretty much any sound.

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