An important change has taken place in the field of music-making. Until about ten years ago, software was king, but today, microcontrollers and processors appear to be the way to go, both for fans creating home automation systems as a hobby and also for professional music Makers inventing ingenious new solutions for their work.
In the field of music and sound, the nineties were dominated by software, from paid audio programs like Cubase to open source challengers such as Rosegarden. The trouble was, the software was often too complicated, and the complexity of some programs was not grasped by many users.
This was an issue for many professional musicians, who were often not familiar with the technical side of things and didn’t know how to use an equalizer or sound effects. On the one hand, software made it possible to work independently without a recording studio, which completely changed the way in which music was being produced.
However, on the other hand, a large proportion of the music being produced sounded remarkably similar, because the available software was not designed around the user and musicians often relied entirely on generic program presets.
The era of small/big hardware
In recent years, the needs of audio professionals have changed. They are now trying to “get their hands dirty” by creating their own electronic instruments. The use of development boards that are compatible with Arduino and based on Intel architecture, such as the Intel Galileo and the even more recent Intel Edison, along with the new family of NUC Mini PCs, is really just the beginning of a whole new era.
These products offer the ultimate in creative freedom. The future of professional musicians, who in recent years have learned to use computers to record their instruments, lies in this new hardware.
We have now entered a DIY or Maker era, where it’s possible to build, invent and test whatever you feel like. Plus, all this is now possible with a remarkably low outlay. An Intel Edison or Intel Galileo board costs between £40 and £60, while the Intel NUC, a Mini PC complete with the whole gamut of features, can be snapped up for less than £250.
Freedom at modest prices
You would be forgiven for thinking that these developments only interest a very small niche of geeks and professionals, and this is partly true. But as I have already mentioned, this is only just the beginning — the potential of this technology is so vast that we can’t fully comprehend what it will be used for in the future.
One thing is for certain. Collaboration between professionals working in various fields (such as engineers and musicians) is crucial. Just take a look at the number of online tutorials that exist for the Intel Edison, specifically revolving around sound and music. The works produced are often simple, but they serve as inspiration and a useful basis upon which to build.
Playing the Super Mario Bros soundtrack on an Intel Edison or using it with a sound card and a MIDI keyboard and changing the SoundFonts, are perfect starting points. For example, we could create an original soundtrack to play on the Intel Quark SoC and perhaps use a sensor to operate the play command.
The future of music is centred on the invention of new instruments, an ever-changing craft inspired by tradition. It’s a craft which is born of our primitive need to develop new sounds and bring about new physical interactions — interactions that are typical of a musical instrument, which you rest against your body and which feels like an extension of yourself. The machinery we use will merely become an extension of our creative thinking — our arms, our feet, our longest finger.
In some respects, these new developments are based on a similar concept in early electronic music, dating back to the beginning of the twentieth century. Instruments like the Theremin or the Ondes Martenot, reimagined in an entirely contemporary setting thanks to these “small boxes” that we fill however we like. Watch how Thud Rumble is reinventing the turntable with Intel Edison below.
The road ahead is yet to be discovered
The path begins here, from the last few years. Creating and sharing, so that our ideas can grow, evolve and be transformed in the hands or thoughts of someone else.
In recent years, I have coined the expression “primitive electronica” to define my new musical instruments. I am convinced that the course of action that we must follow is very similar to the approach taken by the pioneers of electronica — the only difference being that, with today’s means, everything becomes much more intuitive.
It’s almost as if the entire history of electronic music can start over, evolving in so many directions outside of academic research, workshops and the market which drives the development of a given product. Electronic music begins in a small box and develops within the four walls of our house, in our own fab lab. It gets various people talking and invokes curiosity, even among traditionalists.
All we need is a photocell and two lines of code. So little is needed to renew and transform the way we produce new music material and new electronic instruments. I say, brace yourselves: This is only the beginning! — Antonio Mainenti