On hacking instruments

2015, Victor Zappi, Andrew McPherson

Many digital musical instruments (DMIs) are created every year, but very few of them have a long life and a wide diffusion. Even within the relatively small DMI performer community, it is common to see a beautifully crafted design being put aside when a new technology is made available. By contrast, familiar acoustic and electric instruments have acquired their current identity through generations of design revisions and performance practice. Why is it so common that even the best DMIs disappear after a few performances, or at best, are used in the longer term by only a handful of musicians?


We think that one reason for this limited longevity is that many DMIs are closed “black box” designs which too tightly specify the possible use cases. In such cases, no matter how many controls the instrument provides, or how many modules can be patched together, the performer risks being limited to only those sounds and techniques imagined by the designer. As a result, only musicians comfortable with this predefined space of possibilities are likely to engage with the instrument. Furthermore, while acoustic and electric instruments have been historically modified and misused in creative ways (e.g., distorted electric guitar, turntable), most of the attempts on DMIs are more likely to cause crashes than to produce interesting musical results.

The diffusion of this black box phenomenon relates to changes in technology itself: complex and fragile integrated circuits have replaced discrete logic; software in many digital instruments is hard-coded and closed, especially on commercial systems; general-purpose computers are increasingly used instead of self-contained single-purpose hardware. The ways this technology is currently used prove its remarkable flexibility for design purposes, but fail in granting a similar freedom in instrument appropriation.

To find a solution to this imbalance between design and exploration, we propose a new approach to openness in DMI design, inspired by the practice of music hackers and circuit benders. The goal of our work is to define a hackable design, based on the latest digital technologies but retaining the ability to be modified through hacking and bending techniques. A hackable DMI would allow musicians to adapt its features to their personal artistic needs, fostering creativity as well as the diffusion of the instrument on a larger scale.

Hackers and benders carefully select the electronic devices they turn into their idiosyncratic musical instruments. We asked artists active in the field what criteria guide them through this choice, with the aim to understand what elicits and what hinders hacking. Based on their answers, we set down a list of design features for hackable DMIs. According to our interviews, a self-contained instrument, where most of the inner software processes are coupled with and controlled by exposed circuitry, is the ideal environment for experimenting with behavioural and physical modifications. The communication between software and hardware in such a device should be characterised by extremely low latency, so that changes and hacks in the hardware would result into immediate variations in sound. Finally, the resulting system should be resilient to “mistreatment” (e.g., short-circuits, crackups) and produce sound even when its core functionalities are disrupted.

Modern tools can help us build a system that fulfills these challenging requirements. Over the last year, we created BeagleRT, a new embedded Linux platform specifically made to develop and test hackable DMIs. BeagleRT is an ultra-low (< 1 ms) latency hardware and software environment, running on the BeagleBone Black single-board computer. The project is open-source and aims at gathering a community revolving around the development of hackable instruments and real-time DSP applications.

A first hackable DMI has already been built on BeagleRT, an apparently simple, self-contained device called the D-Box. We collaborated with several musicians who were given a copy of the instrument to compose and perform music with it. Most of these artists spontaneously hacked their D-Box, some of them making use of typical circuit bending tools and techniques, and showcasing remarkable examples of personal instrument appropriation. More information about the D-Box project can be found at these places:

Victor Zappi is a Marie Curie Fellow working between the Human Communication Technologies Laboratory (University of British Columbia) and the department of Advanced Robotics (Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia). As an Electronic Engineer and a New Media Artist his research activity explores the usage of technology in artistic contexts, in particular music. He obtained his PhD at IIT in 2012, investigating the usage of Virtual Reality technologies in audio/visual performances. He then joined the Sound Music Movement Interaction group at the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique, working on sound augmentation of real and virtual environments. In 2013, he moved to Queen Mary University of London to work as Postdoctoral Research and Teaching Assistant at the Centre for Digital Music, in the Augmented Instruments Laboratory; here he specialised in Digital Musical Instrument design and Real-Time DSP. His artistic production includes electroacoustic music, interactive performances and audio/visual installations.

Andrew McPherson is a Senior Lecturer in the Centre for Digital Music at Queen Mary University of London. With a background in electrical engineering and music, his research focuses on augmented acoustic instruments, new performance interfaces, and study of performer-instrument interaction. He did his undergraduate and Master’s work at MIT, completing his M.Eng. thesis in Barry Vercoe’s group at the MIT Media Lab. He completed his PhD in music composition in 2009 at the University of Pennsylvania. Before joining Queen Mary in 2011, he spent two years as a post-doctoral researcher in the Music Entertainment Technology Laboratory (MET-lab) at Drexel University. In addition to the D-Box, Andrew is the creator of the magnetic resonator piano, an augmented acoustic piano which has been used in over 20 pieces, and the TouchKeys multi-touch keyboard which launched in a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2013.


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