Designing Professional Instruments For Computer Music .

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Designing Professional Instruments forComputer Music PerformanceJustin MullinDecember 4, 2010

IntroductionComputer Music PerformanceWhat IS computer music performance?live performance of computermusic by a human performer(this excludes human compositionsplayed by a computer)

IntroductionProfessional Computer Music InstrumentsI am investigating the ideal of a professional instrument:an instrument which could become a respectable entitywithin the music world. could develop a following of musicianswho identify as players of the instrument. could be functionally competitivealongside typical traditional instruments.

IntroductionOutline§ DESIRABLE CHARACTERISTICSWhat are the primary characteristics aprofessional instrument should possess?§ DESIGN PRINCIPLESWhat are the important factors to considerwhen designing professional instruments?§ INSTRUMENT ANALYSISHow do real world instruments hold upagainst these criteria?

Characteristics of Professional InstrumentsOverviewThe literature suggests three primary desirablecharacteristics:§ VIRTUOSITY§ EXPRESSIVITY§ FLEXIBILITY

Characteristics of Professional InstrumentsVirtuosityVIRTUOSO:an individual who possesses outstanding technicalability at singing or playing a musical instrument(Wikipedia)A virtuosic instrument is an instrumentwhich can support virtuosic players.

Characteristics of Professional InstrumentsVirtuosityAn instrument which possesses(a) a high ceiling for technical play (depth)and (b) broad technical potential (complexity)will tend to promote virtuosity.

Characteristics of Professional InstrumentsVirtuosity- NOTE Difficulty does NOT imply depth.(Obfuscation virtuosity)Depth is derived from relevant difficulty:difficulty which is productivelyemployed in musical output

Characteristics of Professional InstrumentsExpressivity(musical)EXPRESSION:that element of musical performancewhich is something more than mere notes(Brittanica)An expressive instrument is an instrumentwhich can facilitate this type of expression.

Characteristics of Professional InstrumentsExpressivityTypical modes of musicalexpression include Dynamics – variation of softness/loudnessArticulation – variation in ‘connectedness’ of notesVibrato – rapid and subtle change in pitchTremolo – rapid and subtle change in volume

Characteristics of Professional InstrumentsExpressivityAn instrument which possesses(a) varied methods of altering sound textureand (b) fine control over these methodswill tend to promote expressivity.

Characteristics of Professional InstrumentsExpressivityExpressivity is a challenge for computer music instruments.Creating interfaces which allow fornuanced input is challenging task.Traditional instruments tend to havevery multi-dimensional inputs electronic interfaces tend to bevery one-dimensional.

Characteristics of Professional InstrumentsFlexibilityFLEXIBILITY:a ready capability to adapt to new,different, or changing requirements(Merriam-Webster)A flexible instrument is an instrument which canbe adapted on-the-fly with minimal effort.

Characteristics of Professional InstrumentsFlexibilityComputer music instruments have thepotential to be uniquely flexible.Software allows for radical and rapid changesin an instrument’s behavior during aperformance for example:§ The type of sound can be changed.§ The instrument can be ‘retuned.’§ The method of input can be altered.

Characteristics of Professional InstrumentsFlexibilityAccessing this flexibilitybecomes a question ofinterface:A feature which cannot be easily usedduring play does not contributemeaningful flexibility.

Characteristics of Professional InstrumentsSummarySo, let’s recap – we are searching for instrumentswhich are:§ VIRTUOSIC(technically deep and complex)§ EXPRESSIVE (allowing for nuanced control of sound)§ FLEXIBILE(adaptable mid-performance)

DesignPrincipleOverviewsNext, we’ll discuss two important principles for thedesign of computer music instruments:§ MAPPING§ BODY/GESTURE

DesignPrincipleMappings(natural)MAPPING:taking advantage of physical analogiesand cultural standards(Design of Everyday Things)Mapping is the correspondence between actionand reaction in an interactive object.

DesignPrincipleMappingsGood mapping in the context of acomputer music instrument meansinteractions correspond to changes insound:§ Displacement of a hand may be mapped to pitch.§ Velocity of struck key may be mapped to volume.§ The location of a key press may be mapped to timbre.

DesignPrincipleMappingsNatural mapping requires not only thatactions are mapped to reactions, but thatthey are mapped in a reasonable manner.Faster key presses should equate to alouder sound, not a softer one.

DesignPrincipleBody and Gestures(natural)Gesture:a movement usually of the body orlimbs that expresses or emphasizes anidea, sentiment, or attitude(Merriam-Webster)The body-instrument connection, sometimesreferred to as gesture, is the incorporation of theplayer’s physical actions into the sound produced.

DesignPrincipleBody and GesturesTraditional instruments make thisconnection necessary – the physicalaction is literally what produces thesound by contrast, electronic interfacesmake this connection hard – thecausal chain between body andsound is tenuous and incidental.

DesignPrincipleBody and GesturesWe can emulate the body-instrumentconnection, and provide strong gesture by building interfaces which are astangible as possible. allowing the movement or positioningof the performer’s body to influence thesound. adding more depth to physicalinteractions.

DesignPrincipleSummarysWe now have an established set of characteristicsand design principles we can apply to a computermusic instrument.Desirable CharacteristicsDesign eFlexibility

Analysis of Existing InstrumentsOverviewThe characteristics and principleswe’ve established should serve asuseful criteria for analysis of realinstruments.Let’s turn to this analysis now, to seehow the criteria interact in practice.

Analysis of Existing InstrumentsOverviewI will briefly discuss and analyze twoelectronic instruments:§ The Theremin§ The Eigenharp

Analysis of Existing InstrumentsThe ThereminThe Theremin wascreated in 1920 byLéon Theremin, andwas the result ofresearch in proximitysensing technology.

Analysis of Existing InstrumentsThe ThereminThe Theremin operates bymeasuring the distancefrom two antennae toeach of the performer’shands.

Analysis of Existing InstrumentsThe ThereminOne hand controlsthe instrument’spitch: the other controlsthe instrument’s volume.

Analysis of Existing InstrumentsThe ThereminA violin virtuosa from a youngage, Clara Rockmoretransitioned to the Thereminafter bone problems left herunable to play violin.Rockmore became a universallyestablished Theremin virtuosa so what makes the Theremin avirtuosic instrument?

Analysis of Existing InstrumentsThe ThereminVirtuosityPlaying even a single noteon the Theremin is anextremely technicalevent playing a run ofnotes is exponentiallymore challenging.Each successive note isconceptually located atan unmarked position inthe air and each mustbe hit with precision.The technique involved in playing the Theremin isenormous, creating great potential for virtuosity

Analysis of Existing InstrumentsThe ThereminExpressivityOn the Theremin, pitch and volumeare totally free, on a continuous level.This allows for great expressivefreedom – altering the shape of thesound is natural and powerful.

Analysis of Existing InstrumentsThe ThereminFlexibilityAlthough pitch and volume are totallyfree, the Theremin constrains theplayer’s actions to these two inputs.With the exception of additional footpedals, there is no license for on-thefly adaptation in the Theremin’sinterface, so flexibility is limited.

Analysis of Existing InstrumentsThe ThereminMappingThe Theremin’s action-reaction connectionsare strong and straightforward: the distanceof one hand maps to pitch, and the distanceof the other maps to volume mapping is not necessarily natural, though;does moving the pitch hand closer raise orlower the pitch?

Analysis of Existing InstrumentsThe ThereminBody/GestureEvaluating the body-instrument connectionof the Theremin is interesting.On the one hand, there is no tangibleinteraction between the Theremin and itsperformer on the other hand, the player’s body reallydoes become the instrument.In the long run, gesture is a strong part of theTheremin’s design.

Analysis of Existing InstrumentsThe EigenharpThe Eigenharp was released in2009 by UK company Eigenlabs.Its creators tout it as “the mostrevolutionary new musicalinstrument of the last 60years,” and “the mostexpressive electronicinstrument ever made.”

Analysis of Existing InstrumentsThe EigenharpThe interface is a huge array ofinputs:§ 120 keys, which detect howfar they are depressed, as wellas their tilt on two axes§ A wind controller for breathcontrol§ Two touch strips along bothsides of the instrument§ 12 large keys at the bottomfor percussion

Analysis of Existing InstrumentsThe EigenharpIt’s difficult to succinctlyexplain how one plays theEigenharp, since there aremany ways to do so We will analyze theinstrument with respect toits typical configurations,as in the video.

Analysis of Existing InstrumentsThe EigenharpVirtuosityTechnique abounds with theEigenharp – the depth andcomplexity of the instrumentguarantee a high skill ceiling.The instrument is still fairlyyoung, but it seems likelyvirtuosos could develop intime.

Analysis of Existing InstrumentsThe EigenharpExpressivityExpression is a key focus of theEigenharp’s design. The instrument’swide range of inputs and high level ofprecision allows for extensive controlover the sound, and each input is builtto be very precise and accurate.Managing all of the different modes ofinteraction may prove difficult, but thepotential for expressivity is great.

Analysis of Existing InstrumentsThe EigenharpFlexibilityThe greatest strength of the Eigenharp isits flexibility.As we’ve seen the challenge of flexibility, as we’vebeen using the term, is in providing an interfacewhich allows the performer to adapt withoutsignificantly interrupting the performance.

Analysis of Existing InstrumentsThe EigenharpFlexibilityThe Eigenharp addresses this difficulty with asystem which utilizes the instrument’s primarykeys, called Belcanto .After entering a special mode with a buttonpress, a short sequence of keys are pressed,issuing a command to the Eigenharp.This allows the performer to quickly andunobtrusively issue commands while playing.

Analysis of Existing InstrumentsThe EigenharpMappingMapping is difficult to assess on theEigenharp, because the inputs are usedfor many different things.At default, however, most mappings arefairly natural and direct:§ Successive notes are laid out linearlydown the instrument, much like a guitar.§ Each axis of each key is mapped to oneeffect (pitch bend, modulation)§ The wind controller is often mapped tonote volume

Analysis of Existing InstrumentsThe EigenharpBody/GestureThe body-instrument connection isstrong when playing the Eigenharp.Each interaction with a key is veryinvolved, since effectively the angle andforce of the key press factor heavily intothe resulting sound.The interface is very tangible, andencourages many forms of physicalinteraction.

ConclusionsWe’ve now evaluated two real-worldexamples against our criteria forprofessional computer musicinstruments.These analyses should provide an ideaof how the desirable characteristics anddesign principles come into play ininstrument design.


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