Chuck Stephen is a maker, musician and self described, “very lazy writer” living in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa, Florida. He’s also an awesome LI4E volunteer, sharing his many and varied DIY inventive skills at a events and programs throughout Tampa Bay, most recently at the USF Engineering EXPO, where he showcased some of his own personal musical aesthetic. Here he shares a nuanced look at the influence of makers in music.
Planning for the Gulf Coast MakerCon got us thinking about music and more specifically, what constitutes ‘maker music’. Of course we’ve seen talented instrument makers, circuit benders and guys playing the Mario Bros. theme on floppy drives at various maker events, but what else is there? Is there a maker sound or musical aesthetic? Do makers approach music differently?
With the traditional music industry losing ground to digital music distribution and the explosion of innovation and openness fostered by the internet and demonstrated by the maker scene, we are at a crossroads of musical possibilities. This trend has roots going back to the sixties and earlier as musicians began to explore the intersection of technology and sound. With technological innovations and new ideas about the role of musicians and producers, this exploration quickly grew into many varied forms of electronic music and new, intuitive interfaces for the creation of music. The basic concepts of the new musical forms, that music can be created from snippets of other audio sources and arranged like a collage, that technology once frowned on by ‘real musicians’ could open a whole new sonic pallette and that existing, accepted technologies could be re-imagined in new ways, initiated changes that are still being felt in music today. These new forms of electronic music and unique musical interfaces and controls go hand in hand with the ideals of the maker movement.
Modulating with Electricity
The idea of creating music with electricity was popularized in the twenties by Leon Theremin’s eponymous invention. Not only was the Theremin‘s sound unique, it was controlled by waving the performers hands in the air above the instrument to affect the electrical field it generated. It was a finicky machine that took a long time to master, but it’s eerie ‘WoooWoooo’ sound became the go-to spooky sound effect for Hollywood for years to come.
The shift toward new musical forms and interfaces really got under way in the sixties with early pioneers like the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and American psychedelic rock band Silver Apples. Both used industrial test equipment and oscillators to create sounds that where impossible to create with traditional instruments. Suddenly music was being created by turning knobs, pushing buttons and flipping switches. These sounds became popular for scifi movie soundtracks and influenced the prog rock movement of the late sixties and the new wave of the late seventies.
Enter the Disc Jockey
The seventies saw the emergence of disco and the popularity of the DJ. In the night clubs the songs themselves became less important than how the DJ presented them. This culminated with a young DJ from Jamaica named Kool Herc developing the basics of what became hip hop and break beat music in a basement in the Bronx. When he noticed how people on the dance floor got excited during the accents called breaks on certain records, he started using two turntables with two copies of the same song to juggle the break in a loop over and over again making the dance floor go wild. This is the origin of the term break dancing. By using records and turntables in a new way to remix and customize music, a new generation of musical creativity was born and attitudes toward intellectual property and copyright law began to change, foreshadowing the open source movement and creative commons movements.
Another important development in the seventies was the emergence of punk rock, with it’s reliance on a DIY approach and its stripped down musical aesthetic. Punk, in direct reaction to the excesses of the sixties rock scene, put message and attitude ahead of musicality to create a new, accessible music that spoke to the disillusioned youth of the time. Punk dissolved the psychological barriers between the bands and the fans, insisting that any kid with a cheap pawn shop guitar and something to be angry about could start a band and be a part of the scene. Punk democratized music and paved the way for many new genres to come.
At this time people began to look at music technologies in a new way. Roland’s 808 drum machine and 303 bass line synthesizer were popular with the Holiday Inn lounge singer set. Used as directed they had a distinctively cheesy sound that serious musicians laughed at. Soon some enterprising producers realized that if you purposely adjusted these units to not sound like traditional instruments at all some really cool sounds could be produced. Soon these producers teamed up with DJs to create the game changing sounds of hip hop and house music.
Get Your Groove On
The next big evolution in how we think of music came with 1985’s must-have music toy the Casio SK1. Besides having some cool sounds and beats programmed in, it also had the ability to record a short sample of audio from a built in microphone and play it back through the keyboard as separate notes. What had been an expensive studio technology was now available to anyone. Soon every ten year old was burping their way through Mary Had a Little Lamb to a disco beat. As William Gibson wrote ‘The street will find it’s own uses for things’. Soon hip hop artists were adding this technology to their arsenals with the wall of sound noise carpets of Public Enemy, the snarky pop culture references of the Beastie Boys or the poppy bounce of De La Soul. Taken to the extreme, one six second drum solo sample from an obscure 1968 funk single, dubbed ‘the Amen Break’, became the basis of the entire genre of drum and bass music.
As the nineties rolled around we saw an influx of multifunction production boxes like Roland’s Groovebox or Korg’s Electribe. These devices allowed the user to program both rhythm and melody parts on multiple tracks with multiple parts and various effects. Aspiring musicians, producers and performers could create professional sounding, complex back up tracks with very little formal musical experience. Along with advances in computer software this removed the economic barriers to music production. The growth of the internet provided a fertile ground to distribute self produced music all over the world. Suddenly a kid in his bedroom in London could collaborate with a singer in New York to have a club hit in Ibiza without ever performing live or even leaving the house.
The late nineties brought us another innovative bit of equipment- Korg’s Kaoss pad. This new effects processor allowed musicians to control two different effects simultaneously by tapping or dragging their finger across a touch sensitive pad. Instead of setting the levels on a traditional effect pedal and playing your instrument, the Kaoss pad allowed you to dynamically change multiple settings in real time as you played. This was soon followed by the Kaossilator which removed the instrument from the equation all together and allowed you to control the pitch and effect level of built in instrument samples and sound effects. Users could easily set a scale and key for the chosen instrument so that any notes played will sound ‘in tune’. This allows even non-musicians to create basic melodies, bass lines and rhythms. This device also allowed you to record loops and layer multiple sounds on top of each other, creating beats and grooves. Soon many other companies, as well as the DIY community, latched onto the idea. The advent of touch screen tablet devices in the 2000’s gave rise to many apps using multi-axis touch to control sounds and musical events.
2010 brought Korg’s next big step- the Monotron series. These simple, pocket sized analog synthesizers had ribbon controllers rather than keyboards, keeping the production cost low and lending to cool, bendy sounds. Not only did Korg make a fun little analog sound effects machine that was very affordable, they also marked the outputs for pitch, cutoff, control voltage and other settings on the circuit board of the device and released the full schematics online with a reminder that, while modifications would void the warranty, you were free to do whatever you want to your Monotron with their blessings. This created a cult following of hackers and modders who fell in love with the simple machine and made it the center of many cool projects.
Mixing it up with Makers
The early years of the twentieth century also saw the full emergence of the maker movement. Fueled by the internet, geeks and makers all over the world were suddenly sharing tips on everything from circuit bending to DIY synthesizers and noise circuits. From simple circuits like the Atari Punk Console or short circuited Speak and Spell toys to more complex sound generators like Lunetta synths or DIY digital interfaces like the Monome, the DIY electronic music scene has exploded. This has lead to musical devices using all kinds of physical interfaces, from light sensitive circuits to Kinect enabled full body dance controllers.
All of these musical innovations have lead, not just to new forms of musical expression, but to a new democratization of music production. Punk’s ‘come as you are’ inclusiveness has melded with hip hop’s embracing and re-imagining of technology to create a new way of thinking about music’s role in our lives. Music no longer requires years of practice, rote memorization and training. Anyone who can turn a knob, press a button, click a mouse or drag a finger can create music. Any kid with a laptop and an internet connection can distribute and promote their music worldwide.
With a handful of components from Ebay, some schematics from various hobby sites and a little soldering experience anyone can build their own analog synthesizers, sequencers, drum machines and experimental musical devices. Like revolutionaries of the past we have stormed the ramparts, seized the means of production and thrown the money changers from the temple. Artists can now make and share whatever their creative drive dictates, free of economic concerns. Music fans no longer have to rely on the accountants at the record labels for their listening material- everything is available right now. While the music industry produces more derivative, sterile ‘product’, the bedroom studios and laptops of the world are creating the soundtrack of tomorrow.
The Sound of the Future
The exciting thing is that this time of great musical innovation and possibility coincides with a major cultural shift. The youth of today are the first generation to grow up without preconceived notions of traditional interfaces. Today’s young people control video games with gestures or full body movements. They have grown up with any number of physical devices replaced with phone or tablet apps. They drive RC cars and fly quadcopters via Bluetooth connections with their smart phones. They have had access to Arduino, Raspberry Pi, 3D printing and robots their entire lives. They spend large amounts of time in virtual environments like Minecraft. They have grown up with a level of technological integration only dreamed of by the futurists of the past and it’s still changing. These kids seem far less likely to gravitate towards the limitations and learning curve of traditional instruments outside of a retro affectation or nostalgia.
What kind of music will they be making in ten years and how will they be making it? One thing’s for certain- it’s being incubated in the open source, DIY world of the maker scene.
Come on out to the Gulf Coast MakerCon to see some of the Bay Area’s music makers in action. In the meantime, take a look at – and have a listen to – some of these unique sounds:
- Silver Apples consisted of drummer Danny Taylor and Simeon, who played an unconventional homemade synthesizer. Their work was groundbreaking-
- The BBC Radiophonic Workshop, best known for creating the Dr. Who theme, made sound effects and theme music for BBC affiliates around the world using very innovative sounds and techniques
- Grimes is a one-woman musical force from Vancouver who uses production boxes, samplers, and keyboards layered with ethereal vocals to create dreamy, haunting pop
- The Petebox uses his voice and a Kaoss Pad sampler to arrange loops like legos to build complex songs-
- Brett Domino is a geek superstar who uses odd electronic instruments to cover pop songs in a unique way-
- Lunetta synths are DIY sound generating devices that use CMOS logic chips in simple circuits connected by patch cords to create complex, self generating musical patterns
And here’s the project that got many people started in sound circuits- the Atari Punk Console from Forrest M. Mims-
And of course- circuit bending. This gets real weird around the 3:00 mark.
Have fun, and keep your ears open for some awesome sounds at Gulf Coast MakerCon!