Live Electronic Musical Interfaces:
Techniques of Body Compatibility

Dave Krooshof

Dull dials

The problem with the use of synthesizer on stage, is that it is hard to improvise as free on them as you would expect from those multifunctional boxes. especially from the sound point of view. This is mainly a result of the controllers: they typically feel either technical or office-like.
With technical, I do not mean it's too electronic or not acoustic enough, I mean the fact that buttons and dials control technical parameters rather then musical parameters. I can express this more pointingly in an example: One of the knobs that control a lowpass filter, controls the cut-off-frequency, and only the frequency. None of the other dials (like those for Q and gain) have any influence on the cut-off-frequency. This is more technical then musical. To a techie it may feel like a very open system, capably of doing anything you want with the filter, but this is why -in my opinion- the tekno style of using filterdials is dull.
On a guitar, as another example (I do not like guitars over synths, on the contrary, nowadays) you can't control pitch, volume and timbre apart, it's interconnected, both right and left hand fingers control all parameters more or less. That's very musical, it allows each guitarist to get a personal sound, a personal expression.
With the office-like interfaces, I mean those software synths and samplers, that have an interface that is more close to a text editor, then to a physical musical instrument. Here you might feel to be more a sound designer, working hours on a minute of sound, then a realtime musician. Immediacy is lost.
I consider the midi keyboard to be a bunch of switches and dials that needs an update fast. There are loads of designs for more intuitive controllers for electronic instruments, but few of them seem to survive the market. It's up to us to program more interesting behavior of our knobs in programs like Max (on the Mac) or Generator (for PC).

Walk the mountaintops

The Techy or Office interfaces need the musical to sit behind the desk, to find good parameter sets. One of the problems of machines with endless possibilities (as the salesmen led us to believe) is that the percentage of cool settings is small. You could express this in a 3D graph, where x&y (horizontally) represent the settings of 2 knobs, while the z is some measurement of interestingness (whatever that is). The graph looks somewhat like a mountain landscape: 

While playing music, you want walk on the highest points, on the top of the hill. This is impossible, unless you are very skilled in turning pots, or you own a better controller then two separate knobs. But wouldn't it be better to map this rim, these tops to one knob, controlling both variables, that let's you safely walk the mountains?
Note that the solution to the over-techy design of controllers lies in using more technical stuff, used in a more clever way.

Body compatible

The next step in a more intuitive interface is making more body compatible hardware. Knobs that just turn over some 300 degrees are not to accessible. It's nice to set the recording level on your recording equipment and to dim your lights, but that's about it. When you want to change it's setting constantly as in music, they're a drag.
Considering the above, the software synth that use dragging of the mouse on a picture of a knob, are a real step backward in computer music. Computers became a tool capable of reading out interesting interfaces and of making complex visual representations, and now the techies program virtual dials.

Body compatibility would be a controller that measures your movements and the force you use, your gestures and feed them to your instrument. You can think of anything from finger bending to head position, form strength of voice to strength of biceps. You'll need to train physical skills. This will make you a musician more then a sounddesigner. It will make your music *live*.

The Hague, 28-10-'00

Dave <email Dave Krooshof>   See Also: 'An Electric Tuba'
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