A SURVEY OF UNCONVENTIONAL MUSICAL INPUT DEVICES. - EMusician

A SURVEY OF UNCONVENTIONAL MUSICAL INPUT DEVICES.

Over the years, innovative approaches to using physical gestures in electronic music have been highlighted in the pages of EM. Although some of the technologies
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Over the years, innovative approaches to using physical gestures in electronic music have been highlighted in the pages of EM. Although some of the technologies we've covered have had mainstream commercial success, many technologies have remained-either by design or by accident-on the fringes.

However, like artistic and musical works, the commercial success of a new controller shouldn't be the sole criterion for judging its worth. Like hammers and chisels, controllers are merely tools-albeit, in some cases, rather sophisticated tools that may require a major paradigm shift in order to understand their full potential. Ultimately, these new tools are only a means to a musical end; a controller's effectiveness at getting across musical ideas will be the greatest factor in its success.

David Wessel, esteemed researcher of gestural controllers and director of the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies (CNMAT) at the University of California at Berkeley, put it best when he recently noted, "We're on the verge of a controller renaissance." This is primarily due to the growing number of musicians and engineers fighting to keep electronic music a unique medium of expression rather than a means of mimicking established forms. Many composers and musicians are using input devices that retain elements of traditional instruments, while others are tracking gestures in new ways by measuring motion, light, gravity, temperature, air pressure, proximity, and anything else you can imagine. Rarely in the history of music has there been so much work-and such varied results-in instrument development.

One of the most popular commercially available software applications for sound artists who need flexibility in mapping physical gestures to MIDI is an object-oriented programming language called Max (Mac; $395) available from Cycling '74 (www .cycling74.com). Created in 1987 by Miller Puckette at IRCAM and later developed into a commercial product by David Zicarelli, Max provides a graphical user interface for combining the basic building blocks used in an object-oriented environment. A Windows version is on the horizon.

Cycling '74's MSP lets you create, analyze, and process audio and is designed for use with Max. The full version of MSP ($295) requires Max 3.5.8 or higher. A free runtime version of MSP, which comes with the free MaxPlay application, allows you to play, but not create, MSP patches.

A number of converters are available for translating analog signals to digital ones.

The SensorLab (www.steim.nl/sensor.html) is a voltage-to-MIDI converter developed at STEIM for use with any type of interactive controller. Although popular with many artists, the SensorLab is currently out of production. Keep an eye on the developer's Web site for further details.

The ADB I/O ($199) by Beehive Technologies (www.bzzzzzz.com) allows you to use up to eight input sensors with a Mac. You can connect up to four units, for a total of 32 I/O channels. The device accepts sensors from Internal Devices and Infusion Systems and can work with Hypercard, Supercard, AppleScript, Macromedia Director, Symantec C/C++, and Cycling '74's Max. A beta version of a Max object created by David Zicaretti for the ADB I/O can be downloaded for free from the Beehive downloads page.

To accommodate different types of sensors (both gestural and environmental), IRCAM has begun marketing its AtoMIC Pro ($665). The AtoMIC Pro translates sensor information (electrical voltages) into MIDI data. The device was designed to be open-ended, so it can work with any type of controller or signal it has 32 analog inputs (using two multipin connectors), eight digital inputs and output on multipin connectors, one MIDI input, and four MIDI outputs.

CNMAT has developed a low-latency, high-quality multichannel interface for use with laptop computers in live performance situations. Code-named the Rimas Box (after its primary developer, researcher Rimas Avizienis), the interface uses the 100BaseT Ethernet port to communicate with the computer, allowing the device to simultaneously handle 64 channels of sample-synchronous control-rate gesture data, 10 time-stamped MIDI I/O streams, and up to 10 channels of 24-bit audio. "Latency measurements show that we can get signals into and back out of Max/MSP in less than 7 milliseconds," says CNMAT director David Wessel. "One of the most important features of our interface is that data from sensors is treated as signals that are synchronized at the sample level with the audio. This provides the user with a very high degree of control intimacy."

The Rimas Box, which is designed to sit nearly under a laptop computer, is currently being manufactured in a limited quantity for final beta testing.