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Tech Page: DIY Resurgence

May 1, 2008
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FIG. 1: The Stribe has eight high-precision, touch-sensitive strips flanked by rows of 64 LEDs. The device connects to a computer via USB, and the strips can be mapped to any software parameters. The LEDs are controlled by the software and can indicate anything you wish.

FIG. 1: The Stribe has eight high-precision, touch-sensitive strips flanked by rows of 64 LEDs. The device connects to a computer via USB, and the strips can be mapped to any software parameters. The LEDs are controlled by the software and can indicate anything you wish.

EM's first issues were published in 1985, but for ten years before that, the magazine was called Polyphony. Published by PAiA (paia.com), Polyphony presented a variety of articles for electronic musicians and home-studio owners, but it was best known for its do-it-yourself (DIY) electronics projects. That's not surprising, considering that PAiA manufactures numerous interesting musical-electronics kits to keep inveterate solderers busy.

These days, music-technology products have become so sophisticated and affordable that DIY seems to be a lost art. But I recently discovered a thriving DIY community that has grown up around something called the monome (monome.org). This simple array of illuminated buttons connects to a computer via USB and can be programmed to control any parameter of music software, such as Max/MSP from Cycling '74. It also has hooks for other applications, such as Ableton Live and Native Instruments Reaktor 5, via Open Sound Control — a music-control protocol originally developed at the Center for New Music and Audio Technology at the University of California, Berkeley.

The illumination of each button is controlled by the software; there is no hardwired connection between each button and its light. Columns of lights might indicate steps in a sequencer, with each light representing a different sound that is added to the sequence when you press its corresponding button.

The central tenet of the monome's creator, Brian Crabtree, is aligned with the so-called open-source movement. All designs and source code for the system are freely available on the monome Web site, and anyone can modify them in any way they wish. You can buy the device in completed or kit form and let your creative side have at it.

Josh Boughey, a member of the monome community, felt that there was something missing — specifically, that the monome offers no continuous control. So he designed a new general-purpose interface he calls the Stribe (soundwidgets.com/stribe). Like the monome, the Stribe is a completely open-source device that you can buy in either kit or finished form. It's based on the Arduino prototyping platform (arduino.cc), which lets you write and compile your own firmware and burn it into the microcontroller.

The Stribe consists of eight high-precision, touch-sensitive strips that were originally designed for medical-control applications. (Stribe is Danish for stripe, and the word has the added advantage of acting as both a noun and a verb.) Each strip is flanked by two rows of 64 LEDs (see Fig. 1). The Stribe connects to a computer via USB, the strips can be mapped to any parameter, and the LEDs can be programmed to illuminate independently of where you're touching the strips. For example, the lights might indicate stereo volume levels or sections of a sample to play back when you touch the strip in a particular area.

When paired, the monome and Stribe form a unique and powerful musical instrument. Boughey likens it to a stringed instrument, such as a cello: the left hand might control the monome, selecting discrete things such as pitches or loop fragments, while the right hand might control the Stribe, adding continuous gestural nuance much the way a cellist does with a bow.

The idea of a minimalist controller has not escaped the big companies; Yamaha recently introduced a device that is similar to the monome. Called the Tenori-on (global.yamaha.com/tenori-on/index.html), it has a 16 × 16 array of illuminated buttons. Unlike the monome, though, it is preprogrammed and self-contained. Still, the ideas drawn from the monome and the Stribe clearly point the way toward ever more creative musical interfaces, and I applaud Crabtree and Boughey for their ingenuity.

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