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Essays

New Technology Helps DJs See the Light

No more checking e-mail onstage

Reactable With the advent of inexpensive software, just about anyone can make decent-sounding music on a computer. Performing one’s electronic opus, however, is another matter. Watching producers working laptops or triggering samplers on stage is as exciting as staring at an electronic simulation of paint drying.

Until recently, computer wizards have had two ways to shake up their performances: video projection (which works best if you have a huge budget like Kraftwerk) or hiring people to play “real” instruments and/or sing. Tomorrow night, at Montreal’s Society for Arts and Technology, a group of electronic music producers will be presenting a third alternative: the use of new musical instruments which look as appealing as they sound.

The producers, among them Germany’s Pole and Toronto’s I Am Robot and Proud, will be helping to launch Yamaha’s Tenori-on, a shiny metal box with a grid of light-emitting buttons. It enables its users to perform and create music simultaneously while audiences appreciate the significance of their every move, much as they would when watching, say, a violinist or a drummer.

The Tenori-on’s creator, Toshio Iwai, is one of a number of left-field thinkers whose visions of leaving mice and keyboards behind are turning to nuts-and-bolts reality. As a university student in Japan in the early 1980s, he was inspired by the short films of Canadian animator Norman McLaren, who playfully synchronized bouncing circles and flashing lines of colour with electronic music. Iwai’s Tenori-on enables its users to create a similarly synchronized sound and music environment.

The Tenori-on is like a cross between a touch screen and a button accordion. The 16×16 grid’s horizontal axis represents time, its vertical axis, pitch. The performer sets a sequence in motion, and each button he or she presses triggers both a musical event and a visual one; both reoccur as the sequence repeats itself. As the performer adds instruments and tracks, the music and the light show become more complex. The illuminated grid is duplicated on the back of the machine, so that the audience can see what the performer is doing.

There’s nothing like the Tenori-on among either old-fashioned analog instruments or digital ones, which tend to be, as Iwai puts it, “designed as the replacement of the traditional instruments.” Devices such as electronic keyboards and drums, or even the Guitar Hero game controller, lack the fine control offered by their “real” peers while offering little innovation other than the ability to play new sounds. For the Tenori-on, Iwai adopted the concept of “time-based interactivity” from his own work with video games, but he wanted to provide a “creative” rather than “passive” experience.

According to Stefan Betke (a.k.a. Pole), who produces forward-thinking dubby and minimal techno, the Tenori-on’s great innovation is that it’s “100% hands-on. It features an intuitive way of playing with a little ‘toy’ which makes music. There is no interface between me and the instrument. It’s not like a computer, or sequencer software where you have to have a keyboard and a mouse, and you always have to face the monitor. It’s very fast, and a little bit random as well. You can never know if you push the right button.”

Betke is fascinated by the “little accidents” which occur as he creates music, and which humanize what can sometimes be a rather cold genre; he’s a fan of the Tenori-on’s “Random” and “Bounce” modes, which send dots careening around the grid in unpredictable ways. His characterization of the instrument as a “toy” reveals both its playful possibilities and its limitations — for instance, one can’t directly manipulate sounds on the Tenori-on as one would with a synthesizer. On the other hand, with a suggested retail price of $1200, the Tenori-on is designed to be accessible to home users. Those with less limited budgets and more ambition can turn to experimental alternatives, such as the reacTable.

The instrument has been played live at Björk’s concerts since last year by Damian Taylor, an engineer and producer who was born in Halifax and now lives in B.C. Fans attending Björk’s concerts may have wondered at the big-screen projections of a circular tabletop surface on which someone was fiddling with plastic chips as if playing poker in time to the music. Taylor recalls his own first reaction to the instrument: “I thought, ‘Woah — this is still something out of Buck Rogers. It mustn’t actually exist yet.’”

The reacTable is a cylinder, 90 cm deep and 90 cm in diameter, with a tabletop surface on which players place plastic blocks encoded with digital patterns. The patterns can trigger sounds, sequences, and effects, and can be synchronized with a “metronome” block. A camera under the tabletop reads the patterns and tracks the movements of the blocks and the players’ fingers. In response, it transmits information to a computer, which then creates sounds and projects animations on the tabletop surface, visually representing what’s happening in the music. Performers thus get not only sonic and haptic (or touch) feedback, as with a traditional instrument, but also visual feedback that can encourage them to manipulate the sounds in new ways.

The reacTable isn’t the first tabletop musical interface – Iwai, for instance, worked in the medium in the late ‘90s. Every year, at the NIME (New Interfaces for Musical Expression) conference, says the reacTable’s head designer Sergi Jordà, one can see “dozens of interfaces. Most of them don’t arrive on the stage – [they] remain in the labs.”

The reacTable team, based at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, leapfrogged over their competition not just with a versatile and aesthetically pleasing design, but also through video sharing. When the team put demos on YouTube in November 2006, “they suddenly became very popular, and it was a snowball,” says Jordà. “By January, magazines like Electronic Musician and Keyboard were talking about it, and hundreds of thousands of people had seen it.”

Björk saw the videos shortly after they were uploaded, when she and Taylor were mixing her latest album, Volta. When she ordered up a model and asked Taylor to play it, the instrument went overground. Jordà and his team had designed the circular surface to encourage collaboration and free-form improvisation, but Taylor found himself using the reacTable to play wild sounds as part of a 15-piece-band in the freakier moments of Björk’s set, often accompanied by lasers and confetti. Taylor admits, “The subtle nuances that the reacTable guys [in Barcelona] play with, I can’t do so much. It’s like I’m playing power chords in AC/DC, rather than subtle jazz.”

The instrument provided an alluring focal point for Björk’s visual presentation. So successful have the performances been that the reacTable team have been given an investment of capital to make the instrument available commercially by the end of the year. The only snag is the price tag: rumours suggest it may top $20,000 U.S. Jordà demurs, laughing, when asked to name a figure: “We are struggling to make it a bit lower.”

Taylor also uses other new-wave devices on tour with Björk such as the Lemur (a control console with an assignable touch screen that functions like an interactive mixer and effects processor) and a KAOS pad (which triggers effects with the help of a touch screen), and he’s working at integrating the Monome (a grid-based instrument like the Tenori-on which has more capabilities but is far less user-friendly).

According to Jordà, the current production of the new wave of digital instruments represents a potential revolution akin to the one in the mid-1960s, when several inventors were developing analog and modular synthesizers.

“Some of the [ideas] we try have existed in very reduced circles for a long time,” he says. “It’s curious that in 2007-2008, these things are becoming popular. The engineers who invented the Tenori-on have been struggling with Yamaha for years to make it available, and finally Yamaha decides, ‘OK, we will launch it.’ I don’t know if it’s because of YouTube or Web 2.0. You can make market studies much more accurate than before.”

Yamaha is using the web to promote the Tenori-on, with candid videos of electronic-savvy musicians playing with the instrument. Clearly its learning curve isn’t very steep: already a duo of London-based young Japanese women calling themselves The TenoriOns are playing gigs around Europe, using only a pair of Tenori-ons hooked up together.

Their own YouTube videos are somewhat wooden, but watching them is a far cry from zoning out at a club while someone with a laptop on stage may or may not be checking e-mail, or just playing iTunes.

For Taylor, the new wave of performance-based electronic instruments presents “a different way to experience music – you can connect with people immediately. I used to quite enjoy DJs, but now, it’s just, ‘You’re just a dude standing there playing records.’ To me, it’ll hopefully involve a bit of the death of the DJ cult. There’s a whole extra way that we can interface with people.”

— Originally appeared in The National Post, Apr. 10, 2008

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