With the power that even a cheap laptop can provide, the computer has gained widespread acceptance as musical tool. More and more musicians are using computers as an instrument for live performance, with many tools such as Pd performance patches, Reaktor[rea()], or Ableton Live[abl()] designed just for this purpose. Though these tools can provide an engaging performance environment, the actual performance leaves something to be desired. The audience may be unable to tell whether the performer is actually controlling the music in real time, or just clicking a start button and reading their email. Such performance also lacks physicality in the interaction and is quite limited in the range of possible gestures.

Digital synthesis has freed instrument design from being tied to the physical method of generating sound. Thus any arbitrary interface can be mapped to any given synthesis algorithm. This allows musical instrument designers to design their physical interface without being constrained by how the sound is actually being generated. A multitude of means of getting physical input from the human body are readily available. These, in combination with the high level, rapid programming environment of Pd, allow a broad range of people to make their own computer-based physical musical instruments. A new model of instrument design is emerging from this, shifting from devices that are designed for a broad user base, to general building blocks that allow the individual musician to create their own instrument. The New Interfaces for Musical Expression (NIME)[nim()] conference is representative of such work, formed largely by musicians who are creating and playing their own instruments.

Pd is an fertile platform for such work, providing a high level, rapid programming environment that is accessible to a wide range of people with varying background. It is a unified platform for a broad range of activities, combining realtime audio, video synthesis and manipulation, physical modelling, and more with many options for data input and output including MIDI, HIDs, and general serial communications. Since Pd is free software that runs on most operating systems, musicians with even very limited budgets can build their own computer music instruments. Up until recently, computer music has been out of reach to all but a select few, it is now possible to build an instrument using Pd that costs less than most traditional musical instruments, including the cost of the computer.

Figure 1: Michel Waisvisz with The Hands; Max Mathews with The Radio Drum
Image Laurie_Michel
Image mathews260

Hans-Christoph Steiner 2005-04-25