Keeping the Future of Music Tech Exciting and Weird

Kickstarter on 2016-05-24

Five strategies that put creativity before convenience

As Brian Eno noted, “you can’t really imagine music without technology.” From the medieval marvels of pipe organs to the digital bleeps of software synths, collaborations between music makers and instrument builders have taken place for centuries. Earlier this month, I joined the adventurous community of musicians, designers, and thinkers assembled in Durham, North Carolina for Moogfest to explore the future of music and technology, and to talk about what’s next. At Kickstarter, we have the privilege of seeing a constant stream of new ideas, and of hosting dialogues between creators and the community of supporters who help bring these new ideas to life. Many of our favorite projects center on inventions that open up new creative possibilities, and inspired by this, I gave a talk at Moogfest that looked at some of the creators who are defining the future of music tech.

Nick Yulman, Senior Curation Specialist, Design & Tech

Oval, performing live in 1998

Flashback to 1998…

My high school friends and I stood in Philadelphia’s Theatre of the Living Arts, waiting for Tortoise to come on. But before the post-rock hero headliners crowded the stage with an array of guitars, mallet percussion, and vintage synths, Markus Popp, aka Oval, stood almost motionless, staring at his huge CRT monitor as he filled the room with a wash of digital sound. It was the first time I’d seen someone perform with only a computer, and my friends and I cracked the obvious jokes about playing video games or checking email during the show. But I left that concert feeling like I’d seen the future, or at least a compelling version of it.

I’d started using music production software myself a few months earlier and my head was swimming with the possibilities — so many sounds to explore, all at the click of a mouse. As the last surly powerchords of ’90s rock radio rang out, plugging my guitar into a computer instead of an amplifier felt transgressive in its restraint. My buddies and I had also started filling our computers with MP3s, getting our first instantly gratifying taste of wanting to hear something one minute and finding it on the internet the next. And all this, just in time for the millennium!

But as with most thrilling innovations, the shocking newness quickly faded. At this point, the ubiquity of laptops on the stage and digital music in our pockets has become normal — even dreary, prompting the question: where do we go from here?

Making Space for Innovation in the Music Tech Landscape

Certainly the most notable trend in music technology over the last twenty years has been the migration of both music listening and music making to the same trio of devices.

Our laptops, smartphones, and tablets now offer multitrack recording studios, endless effects racks, and more synthesizers, virtual instruments, and samples than we could ever hope to audition—let alone use. These new tools also give us access to huge libraries of recorded music for downloading or streaming and, if we’re not sure what we want, they can recommend infinitely long playlists for us.

With this ability to record, distribute, and listen to a great-sounding album all on the same device, what else could we want? What is the future of music technology if not simply to create further refinements of this very agreeable situation?

The answer largely depends on whether we locate innovation within the nice clean lines of optimized efficiency and convenience, or whether we venture onto the mushy, unstable terrain of inspiration and expression. The seamlessness of our digital devices is hugely impressive, but when it comes to creativity, seams can be where the good stuff happens.

These days, we’re accustomed to thinking about innovation and technological progress as a linear path towards an objectively desirable goal. For example, consider the above timeline of notable hardware and software updates. This computer begat that computer, getting smaller and faster at every turn.

We also have models of exponential growth that see technological development through the same up-and-to-right lens favored by the stock market and venture capital.

But perhaps technological evolution, particularly as it pertains to creative fields, looks less like these tidy progress charts and more like an Anthony Braxton composition.

Anthony Braxton, Composition Number 368m (circa 2007)

The point illustrated in the Braxton composition isn’t directionality or constant upward movement, but rather unpredictability and complexity. Instead of ideas toppling into each other with the satisfying predictability of dominoes, we have a series of tangents and nodes that constantly scatter, go into holding patterns, cross paths, and recombine. It’s exciting.

Left: Tony Martin, Bill Maginnis, Ramon Sender, Morton Subotnick, and Pauline Oliveros at the San Francisco Tape Center. Right: Don Buchla with his 100 Series modular system.

This lively dynamic brings to mind the recent resurgence of interest in modular synthesizers—and not simply because the squiggly lines recall patch cables. Modern sound synthesis came into its own in the mid ’60s with the codevelopment of Bob Moog and Don Buchla’s first modular systems in New York and California respectively. Both reflect efforts of a connected creative community rather than a single inventor toiling in solitude. Buchla famously collaborated with the composers of the San Francisco Tape Center, including Morton Subotnick, Ramon Sender, and Pauline Oliveros, to build an electronic instrument that could create the adventurous, unprecedented musical ideas they wanted to pursue. Similarly, Moog had musicians like Herb Deutsch and Wendy Carlos helping to decide how to shape the voltages passed across wires into musical content, suitable for producing pop confections or performing a Bach prelude.

As synthesizers became smaller and more accessible, wall-sized modular systems faded into the background, largely becoming the domain of academic composition departments or rock stars like Keith Emerson. But in the ’90s the aforementioned migration of music production to computers brought a new type of patchable music making in the form of visual “control flow” programming languages like Max and Pure Data. All of a sudden, music makers with a desire to look beyond presets had incredibly flexible tools for shaping sound on their laptops.

The mid-90s also saw Germany’s Doepfer Musikelektronik introduce Eurorack, a more compact format for modular synths. Crucially, it was also an open standard, meaning that any company could create compatible modules by designing to Doepfer’s specs. The astonishing variety of Eurorack modules on display at Moogfest’s Modular Marketplace reveals just how many independent builders have embraced the format to explore their own creative ideas.

Malekko’s setup at the Moogfest Modular Marketplace

Between the aforementioned digital devices and this renewed interest in analog and modular synths, we have a kaleidoscope of music technologies from which to draw. So, taking these devices as a baseline for music making and listening, how do we build on them? What paths for creating new music technologies are instrument builders and product designers pursuing? Taking a peek at recent Kickstarter campaigns, several notable strategies emerge as we seek a more vibrant, weird, and exciting future for innovations in music tech.

Strategy One: Make the Exotic Accessible

With a whole generation of musicians who’d cut their teeth on digital platforms looking to move beyond laptops and touchscreens, Andrew Kilpatrick, an established synth builder from Toronto, recognized the opportunity to create a user-friendly entry point to the pricey, complicated world of modular synths. His patchable tabletop Phenol synth gives budding synthesists a complete system to start sculpting sounds without having to spend months researching the thousands of available Eurorack modules. Kilpatrick brought Phenol to Kickstarter at the end of 2014 and found a very enthusiastic community of musicians who were eager not only to use the instrument, but also contribute to refining its design.

Strategy Two: Make the Digital Physical

Music making software and apps largely recreate physical instruments or equipment, complete with skeuomorphic interfaces that mimic the look of mixing board sliders, knobs on an amp, or even a vintage drum kit. Using the digital inputs of MIDI controllers and sequencers to control virtual versions of acoustic or analog instruments has become the norm for music production.

Sunhouse’s revolutionary Sensory Percussion system flips this arrangement on its head, using vibration sensors and machine-learning algorithms to let acoustic drums control digital sounds and effects, opening up a world of experimental possibilities. Inventor Tlacael Esparza, himself a professional drummer, was frustrated by the clunkiness of existing drum triggers and created the system to let percussionists translate their technique to the digital realm without giving up the nuance and responsiveness of their acoustic kits.

Like Sensory Percussion, Artiphon aims to give digital music making a more compelling, expressive physical form.

Founder Mike Butera recognized that our phones, computers, and tablets are now sophisticated sound engines that can recreate virtually any instrument, and set out to create an equally flexible and inviting control interface. Artiphon’s INSTRUMENT 1 can be played like a guitar, violin, keyboard, or lap steel and can also be programmed by users to meet their individual creative needs. In the first-impression video created for their wildly successful Kickstarter campaign, a range of people with varying degrees of musical experience try the instrument. While a professional jazz guitarist picks up on the unique affordances of a digital fretboard—marveling at the ability play two notes on the same string—a young musical explorer beams as she has her first taste of strumming a fuzzed-out guitar chord, made accessible through INSTRUMENT 1’s ability to put sonorous sounds immediately under a beginner’s fingertips. It’s equally at home in a recording studio and the living room couch.

Strategy Three: Blur the Line Between Music Making and Listening

Artiphon’s ability to span the worlds of professional and casual music making is hardly a new idea, but it’s one that’s ripe for reinvention. In a way, it takes us back to the pre-sound-recording era when many people’s interactions with popular music involved sitting around a parlor piano and singing as a friend or relative played the latest hits from sheet music.

Many new musical products are exploring the creative territory between passive listening and music making with the goal of creating playful, interactive experiences.

Superficially, this can mean designing a user experience in the digital UX sense. But on a deeper level, it’s about breaking down the hierarchy of performer and audience. The prescient, iconoclastic musical vision of Anthony Braxton comes to mind once again, specifically his use of the term “friendly experiencer” to describe listeners as active participants in creating music.

The Ototo musical invention kit is certainly a product created with friendly experiencers in mind. Growing out of the interactive sound work of artist Yuri Suzuki, the compact device combines capacitive touch sensors with an onboard synthesizer, inviting users to rapidly prototype their own musical interfaces—using vegetables, tin foil, or even their friend’s hands to trigger sounds.

Acquired for MoMA’s Humble Masterpieces collection in 2014, Ototo exemplifies a stream of music tech innovation that, like the 19th century parlor piano, creates a participatory, communal experience of music and looks beyond album sales or rockstar endorsements for validation. The chuckles at the end of this video say it all:

Datagarden’s MIDI Sprout goes even further in disrupting expectations around music making, recognizing that creative collaborators needn’t be human. The Philadelphia collective have long explored the cross pollination of electronic music and nature and came to Kickstarter to create a device that harnesses the biorhythms of plants, converting them into a signal to control synthesizers.

As we think about the convergence of music-making and listening devices, another obvious point of reference is Grandmaster Flash and other hip hop DJs’ use of turntables, traditionally playback devices, as musical instruments. So it makes sense that virtuoso turntablist DJ QBert of the Invisibl Skratch Piklz saw the increasing capabilities of flat paper circuits as an opportunity to turn a record’s packaging into a playable instrument. Collaborating with interactive poster wizards Novalia, he invites listeners to scratch samples and loop beats from his latest album, Extraterrestria, using a cardboard controller inserted alongside the vinyl.

Strategy Four: Invent New Ways of Listening

In the rousing talk she gave on the final day of Moogfest, Laurie Anderson spoke of the need for new types of listening spaces—places beyond traditional concert halls and museums where audiences could come together and hear adventurous sound art and music in the way creators intended. Excitingly, Kickstarter’s music tech community includes people working to open venues for doing just that.

One such example is Envelop, a forthcoming space in San Francisco that will feature a sophisticated ambisonic speaker array, allowing artists to create a highly spatialized surround-sound mix.

The migration of music listening to smart devices means that, more than ever, our experience of music is an individual one. A number of recent projects have taken the familiar form-factor of headphones to create wildly different listening experiences. Not taking for granted the recorded stereo sound that has been the standard for music distribution since the 1950s, these listening products harness the processing power of the computers we now carry in our pockets.

Nura, currently live on Kickstarter, is most simply described as a pair of headphones that listens to you before you listen to it. By measuring the unique frequency response of users’ ears, it creates a personalized mix, giving each listener as full and balanced a sound as possible.

Ossic explores the same spatialized-sonic territory as Envelop, putting an array of four headphone drivers in each ear cup and using head tracking sensors to create an immersive sound environment that simulates the experience of moving through space. While this naturally lends itself to enriching virtual-reality gaming, it’s equally compelling to consider what music made for a platform like this might sound like. If albums could be virtual sonic spaces, what would our most adventurous sound architects build?

Doppler Labs’ Here moves beyond recorded music entirely, offering listeners the ability to apply studio production techniques to their sonic environments in real time. This includes the familiar options for noise cancellation, but also frequency adjustments to override the choices made by a sound person at a live concert, and even effects like flanger and delay to add a psychedelic quality to the sounds of everyday life.

Strategy Five: Embrace Weirdness and Invite Friends

Some of the most interesting projects seem to exist on islands of their own. We’ve become quite accustomed to visuals accompanying electronic music, but rarely do they have as literal a connection as Jerobeam Fenderson’s Oscilloscope Music project.

The results are both mesmerizing and hilarious. But beyond creating a wonderfully playful exploration of sound and image, Fenderson used his Kickstarter campaign as an opportunity to share the process he developed with backers, inviting them to become not just listeners but creative collaborators.

This sampling of projects demonstrates the rich variety of ideas found within Kickstarter’s creative community for shaping the way we make and listen to music. I’m excited to see what new twists and turns emerge from them.

To keep up with fresh developments in music tech, check out the Sound section of our Technology category.

Nick Yulman curates Kickstarter’s Design & Technology categories and has worked with many music technology creators to develop campaigns. His own creative work features musical robots, and he has exhibited his interactive sound work internationally. He’s an alumnus of, and adjunct professor at, NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program.