Future Instruments

Since 2005, I have been fascinated with the performance interfaces of the future. The laptop (computer) is the instrument of the early 21st century and while it has a sonic power unmatched in the known history of music, it was never designed to create a dynamic, compelling performance. The laptop is the first widely used instrument whose sound production capacity is completely separated from the physical form of the instrument. For example, the shape of a violin, oud, conga, trumpet, berimbau – essentially any acoustic instrument – is often largely influenced by the sound producing capability of the form and material. Even electrified instruments, such as electric guitars and basses, are built around how the strings and the wood create a sound which is then amplified by pick-ups. The laptop, on the other hand, makes the sound of any instrument from a body that was not meant to be expressive or ergonomic to a musician. Therefore, the challenge of the present is to create interfaces which are dynamic, expressive and ergonomic to perform on a laptop.

Another hurdle which makes the creation of performance interfaces for a laptop complex is that a computer essentially uses four instruments to create and playback electronic music live. These are: Instruments, Sequencers, Samplers and Audio Effects Processing. For this reason, it is very difficult to do electronic music performance with an interface which was designed only for acoustic performance and apply it to controlling a laptop. An example is a keyboard. A keyboard by itself is simply not enough to perform an electronic set. Most MIDI controllers these days provide knobs and faders in order to control the Sequencers, Samplers and Audio Effects processors that are used as well.

Yet, the challenges of designing new interfaces for electronic music live performance are also opportunities for great creativity. From the beginnings of synthesized instruments over a century ago, the detachment of the physical form of the instruments from its sound producing oscillator meant that new forms of performance could be devised – most famously, Leon Theremin’s Theremin instrument which became the first musical instrument in history to be played without actually physically touching it. Today’s laptops allow for the creation of music through aspects that are impossible in traditional acoustic instruments such as bodily motion and movement, heat, light and even brain waves.

Since 2018, I have been prototyping ‘Blinky’ which is essentially an Instrument, Sequencer, Sampler and Audio Effects Processor that can be played as a single instrument. I don’t believe that ‘Blinky’ is the instrument of the future – there are various fascinating interfaces which I discuss in this longer article here. The idea is that ‘Blinky’ can simply serve as an inspiration for artists, musicians and technologists to create their own interfaces and workflows to push the limits on what may be done with future instruments. For an in depth discussion on how ‘Blinky’ works, please go here and for various videos of ‘Blinky’ in action, please go here.