Other things on this site...

Evolutionary sound
Listen to Flat Four Internet Radio
Learn about
The Molecules of HIV
Make Oddmusic!
Make oddmusic!

New musical instrument design: ownership and hackability

We had an interesting conversation here yesterday about designing new musical instruments. We're interested in new instruments and interfaces, and there's quite a vogue for "user-centred design", "experience design" and the like. But Andrew McPherson pointed out this paper by Johan Redstrom with an interesting critique of this move, essentially describing it as "over-specifying" the user. If we focus too much on design for a particular modelled user experience, we run the risk of creating tools that are tailored for one use but aren't repurposable or don't lend themselves to whole "new" forms of musical expression.

The twentieth century alone is littered wth examples of how it's only by repurposing existing technologies that new music technology practices come about. Here's a quick list:

  • The Hammond organ was meant to be used in churches as a cheap pipe-organ alternative, but it really took off when used in R&B, rock and so on.
  • The mixing desk is widely used as intended, of course, but it unexpectedly became a musical instrument in the hands of dub reggae people like King Tubby and Lee Scratch Perry.
  • The saxophone (I didn't know this) was apparently intended to have a consistent timbre over a wide pitch range - it wasn't intended for the throaty sounds we often recognise it for these days, and which earned it a firm position in jazz. (OOPS the sax was pre-20th century, my mistake - it doesn't strictly belong on this list.)
  • The vinyl turntable famously wasn't designed to be scratched, and we all know what happened with that in hip-hop and beyond.
  • The development of the electric guitar was clearly driven by the desire simply to make a normal guitar, but amplified. Hendrix and others of course took that as a starting point and went a long way from the acoustic sound.
  • The TB-303 was supposed to be a synth that sounded like a bass guitar. Turn its knobs to high-gain and you get those tearing filter sounds that made acid house. (Indeed it was discontinued before it got really famous, showing just how unexpected that was...)
  • The microphone led to a number of changes in vocal performance style (for example, it allowed vocalists to sing quietly to large audiences rather than belting). The most obvious repurposing is the sophisticated set of mic techniques that beatboxers use to recreate drum/bass/etc sounds.
  • 1980s home computers had simple sound-chips only capable of single sounds. But pioneers like Rob Hubbard broke through these constraints by inventing tricks like the "wobbly-chord", and created a rich genre of 8-bit (and 16-bit) music whose influence keeps spreading.
  • AutoTune was supposed to subtly make your voice sound more in-tune. But ever since the Cher effect, T-Pain et al, many vocalists push it to its limits for a deliberately noticeable effect.

The only successful twentieth-century musical instrument I can think of, that was successful through being used as the designer intended, is the Theremin! (Any others? Don't bother with recent things like the ReacTable or the Tenori-On, they're not widespread and might well be forgotten in a few years.)

So, given this rich history of unexpected repurposing (kinda reminiscent of the fact that you can't predict the impact of science) - if we are designing some new music interface/instrument, what can we do? Do we go back to designing intuitively and for ourselves, since all this user-centred stuff is likely to miss the point? Do we just try building and selling things, and seeing what takes off?


One important factor is hackability. There's quite a telling contrast (mentioned in the Redstrom paper) between the "consumer" record player and the "consumer" CD player - in the latter, the mechanisms are quite deliberately hidden away and all you have is a few buttons. The nature and size of vinyl makes that a bit difficult, so most record players have the mechanism exposed, and it's this exposed mechanism that got repurposed by scratch DJs.

(There are people doing weird things with CD players, and hacked CD players are relevant to the glitch aesthetic in digital music. But maybe if the mechanism was more exposed, more people would have come up with more and crazier things to do with them? Who can say.)

But it's not neccessarily a good thing to expose all the mechanism. In digital technology this could end up leading to too-many-sliders and just poor usability.

(Another relevant paper on this topic: Thor Magnusson's "Affordances and constraints" paper, considering how users approach music technologies and their constraints.)

In a paper I wrote with Alex McLean (extended version coming soon, as a book chapter), we argue that the rich composability of grammatical interfaces (such as programming languages) is one way to enable this kind of unbounded hackability without killing usability. Programming languages might not seem like the best example of an approachable musical environment that musicians can fiddle around with, but the basic principle is there, and recent work is making engaging interfaces out of things that we might secretly call programming (e.g. Scratch or the ReacTable).


Another factor which is perhaps more subtle is ownership - people need to take ownership of a technology before they invest creative effort in taking it to new places. There was some interesting discussion around this but I personally haven't quite pinned this idea down, though it's obvious that it's important.

For inventors of instruments/interfaces this is quite a tricky factor. Often new interfaces are associated with their inventor, and the inventor generally likes this... Also it's rare that the instrument gets turned into a form (e.g. a simple commercial product) that people can easily take home, live with, take to gigs, etc etc, all without reference to the original inventor or the process of refining original designs etc.

I don't even think I've really pinpointed the ownership issue in this little description... but I think there is something to it.

Wednesday 1st February 2012 | technology | Permalink
Name: eddi
Website: http://soundcloud.com/all-n4tural
Email: alln4tural art gmx dort net
Date: Wednesday 1st February 2012 06:20
tangent re "successful twentieth-century musical instrument [..] being used as the designer intended":

i've read that the only lasting acoustic instrument inventend in the 20th c is the steel drum. sure, it wasn't a radical departure -- on second thought, maybe it was, actually -- but it has fostered a vibrant, lasting culture.

hang out on any of the Caribbean isles, but Trinidad & Tobago especially, in the months leading up to carnival for empirical evidence.
Name: goto80
Website: http://chipflip.wordpress.com
Email: info art goto80 dort com
Date: Wednesday 1st February 2012 06:30
Perhaps technologies that are designed to be hacked, are not as attractive to hack? When you discover a new aspect of a thing, you're much more happy because, in a way, you own it. You've taken control of it. More hackability -> less potential to ownership.

Hm, sounds ridiculous though :) But alright - just because people like to hack/mod/bend/squeeze, doesn't mean that instruments/interfaces should be designed to promote it. Maybe?

(From a more theoretical perspective, I don't know if all the inventors had particular uses in mind, or if they'd care if it was "misused". The turntable was not designed for scratching - according to who? Seems like an ad hoc explanation to promote humans rather than technologies. The engineer behind the SID-chip for example, doesn't seem to care much about C64-music at all. + Perhaps it's worth separating interface from instrument, after all. I like the thoughts here: http://is.gd/NZPvVi .. in Swedish, though.)
Name: Tim Murray-Browne
Website: http://www.timmb.com
Email: tim dort murraybrowne art eecs dort qmul dort ac dort uk
Date: Wednesday 1st February 2012 06:41
If you're allowing AutoTune onto your list then surely you've got to allow the step sequencer too. And (ahem) the keyboard synthesizer? I have a feeling they're being used as intended a fair bit!

But the point stands. However, in my opinion, the repurposing is a symptom of something rather more fundamental: everything on your list created a sound that was new. Musicians are always seeking out the unique and seem to be prepared to put up with some colossal usability issues to get there. It's the sound that you want ownership of, not the technology. There are plenty of unique sounds available from the laptop, but they're already accessible through off-line generation.
Name: Andrew McPherson
Website: http://andrewmcpherson.org
Email: andrew art andrewmcpherson dort org
Date: Wednesday 1st February 2012 08:19
Tim, I think you're on to something important here. It's interesting that nearly every musical technology to take off, electronic or otherwise, has been a way to make a new sound. What might be counter examples, new ways to make familiar sounds? Is it possible for a digital controller design that doesn't have its own sound set to allow someone to create music that couldn't be made any other way?
Name: Dan
Date: Wednesday 1st February 2012 08:43
Steve pointed out that FM synthesis, once it was discovered and then developed by Yamaha, was essentially used as intended. That was a way to make a new sound. Maybe people were too optimistic at first (assuming it could make almost anything) but FM lead-synth and bell sounds were not really subverted/repurposed...
Name: lodsb
Website: http://lodsb.org
Email: lodsb art lodsb dort org
Date: Wednesday 1st February 2012 11:00
if you look at hacking from a creativity standpoint aren't there two main motivators? endogenous and exogenous motivation, the first being focused towards using the hack to fulfill some aim and the second towards enjoying the act of hacking and potentially be inspired by the results? I'd argue that the tb303, scratching, sax are products of the second; playing around with the artifact until maybe something interesting happens, or just having a lucky accident (afair grandmaster dst said that his vinyl scratching just happened by accident; he liked the sound and tried then to make it rhythmical). I'd put circuit bending, creative sound design etc into the second camp.

regarding controlers: that is mapping some sort of gesture that can be sampled by the controller onto some sort of synthesis method. within the limits of the digital controller i'd argue that the mapping is the central aspect (even for the success of some traditional instruments). I mean as a designer you are basically free to map any N DOF of input to M DOF of synthesis parameters;.while some controllers allow for gestures that may be derived from the human kinesthetic knowlege, i can also see a simple knob -1 DOF- being mapped to those M DOF in some way to make it "expressive"/natural.
Name: Dan
Date: Wednesday 1st February 2012 11:03
Sarah Angliss pointed out (on twitter): the DRUM MACHINE is a really good counter-example to my list. It is pretty much used as intended, and had a massive impact on music.
Name: algoreen
Website: http://https://twitter.com/#!/algoreen
Date: Saturday 10th March 2012 20:10
Apologies for the slight tangential comment but wanted to mention my thesis 'Design Principles for Electronic Musical Instruments' [http://www.algorhythms.co.uk/articles/design_principles_for_electronic_musical-instruments_2010.pdf] because I looked into hackability as an important factor to consider when designing new musical instruments. The following is taken from one of my earlier drafts (before I merged it with adaptability): 'An instrument should be hackable, or at least enable the user to be able to fix, rework and adapt their instrument. This can encourage the development and refinement of the instrument.' I think acoustic instruments tend to be more adaptable because the mapping between input and output is often less rigid. It will be interesting to see how the next generation of musical instruments are used and adapted by musicians. With the popularity of Arduino and raspberry pi perhaps more musical instruments will have one main work-flow by default but they will be easier to modify and configure in different ways.

Add your comments:

I am a:
Everything is optional - and email addresses will be marmalised to protect you
Creative Commons License
Dan's blog articles may be re-used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 License. Click the link to see what that means...