Experimental Civics


Don’t Know What’s Coming in Music Technology? | Learn How to Hack the Future of Sound

December 2nd 2017

You know I’m all about hackathons and the powerful energy that just circulates around them. What’s even cooler about hackathons is that they can have their own theme or vibe to them (you know that I’m all about civic hackathons). I want to take a post to shed light on the innovation that is brewing in music and technology. Music has been shown to help people through trauma to being used in educational platforms to help youth learn, but where is music heading exactly?

Shameless plug: Red Bull Hack the Hits challenges the boundaries of music technology by providing tomorrow’s leaders in engineering and programming the chance to create, collaborate, and learn in a unique 48 hour hackathon.

Courtesy of Red Bull

College students from around the nation to engineer the next buzz-worthy music tech innovations, this year’s event had the the highest female turnout in Red Bull’s history of hackathons, how amazing is that?

This year’s winning team, “The Dream Team,” (pictured below: from left to right, Grant Bouvier, first year grad student at CUNY Brooklyn, Clare Mason, a senior at Seattle University, & Anirudh Mani, a sophomore at Carnegie Mellon), developed The Machine Elf, a gyroscopic synth and MIDI Controller.

The Machine Elf — Courtesy of Red Bull

As you move the hexagon-shaped, analog performance instrument around, it changes it’s sound output (pitch and tone) by sensing tilt and angle in 3D space. It is also able to connect to other musical devices and software over Bluetooth for limitless sonic expression. Pretty neat, huh?

(Winners: Grant, Clare, and Anirudh) —Courtesy of Red Bull

I was lucky enough to follow up with the team to personally ask them a bit more about their vision for the future.

Sarah: There are so many awesome innovations happening at events like this, but how would you recommend to not get left behind. Let’s talk about how you first choose which hackathon you are going to and how you ended up at “RedBull’s Hack The Hits”?

Anirudh: I had been to a couple of Hackathons before “RedBull’s Hack The Hits” happened. There are various factors which I look at — who’s organizing the hackathon, theme and focus of the hackathon, and of course, logistical issues. At the end of the day, I see these events as a great opportunity to work on implementing an interesting idea in a limited amount of time, network and meet other amazing people with similar interests! For example, when I was still back in India packing my stuff up to come to CMU, I got to know about this Monthly Music Hackathon @ Spotify, NYC. I immediately applied, and the day after I landed in the States for the first time ever, I was at the Spotify HQ, meeting and collaborating with all these wonderful folks with shared interests! It was a great experience.

Grant: I am relatively new to hackathons. Though I have known about their existence for many years, this was my first one. My background is primarily in sound art and music technology through an analog medium, so I have always been a bit apprehensive about partaking in hackathons since I’ve perceived them to be more software/code oriented. I am currently subscribed to more newsletters than I know how to keep up with, and I will typically find out about hackathons and similar events through them…never underestimate the knowledge base of random groups of like-minded people on the internet.

Clare: I am lucky that live in Seattle, where there are more tech events and hackathons that I could ever attend. For me, I try to limit events to things I am excited for. It is easy feel like you have to go to things because you are “supposed to” and I was stuck in that mindset for a while and got burnt out. As far not getting left behind, I am lucky to have lots of techie friends that keep me in the loop.

Sarah: Let’s switch to talk a bit about the future of sound. I’m a huge EDM (Electronic Dance Music) fan and I know little to nothing about how it is actually produced, so when we talk about the future of music…where does technology really fit?

Music technology: is the use of any device, mechanism, machine or tool by a musician or composer to make or perform music; to compose, notate, play back or record songs or pieces; or to analyze or edit music.

Anirudh: Well, I think technology is ubiquitous, and much can be learned about the future of technology in music by looking at its presence in other fields as well. Human-to-Computer interaction is more relevant now than ever before because we are moving towards blurring the lines between us humans and the machine. We want to express better and in more ways than ever known before using new technology everyday, in a way outrunning our own physical evolution. I see technology as something which will enable us to express ourselves in more creative and individual ways — creating a new kind of sound, controlling and modulating that sound in new ways, etc. As a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University, I focus on machine learning in the field of music, and I personally want to see a future where smart technology will not just help us explore, discover and listen to some great music, but create it as well, sparking ideas that may have been never possible before.

Grant: I think that we are living in a golden era of music technology. Never before has there been so much gear and software for making music at the consumer’s fingertips. With that being said, my own experience has brought me to firmly reside in the “analog revival” camp when it comes to new music tech. I think that more and more artists and musicians want to get away from backlit screens and experiment with technologies that have intrinsic, aesthetic values beyond emulation or pristine digital signal processing…things like the maker culture and the resurgence of cassette tapes as a viable format and artistic tool are also clear indications, to me at least, that things are moving in a DIY direction.

Courtesy of Red Bull

Sarah: What about access to technology to make the music we’re going to hear in the future? As you created “The Machine Elf,” who did you have in mind?

Anirudh: First, for me personally, the ease of getting into learning a new instrument is really important. Mastery may be far away, but one needs to get started, and for that the instrument should fun, exciting and easy to play. Therefore, it was important that our instrument be a standalone device that one can just pick up and play. Second, humans love to express themselves in 3D space with their body movement, hand gestures, etc. Keeping this in mind, we wanted to control the sound by hand gestures in 3D space as well. During Machine Elf’s (the instrument we built) development, we always had these thoughts governing our design.

Clare: I am not an engineer, by any means, but there are so many resources out there so I can learn how to program a microcontroller in my free time. Similarly, I think people who have never been able to create electronic music before will be able to, and that’s pretty great.

Grant: I am a big believer in open source and the free exchange of useful information. I began building and designing my own modular synthesizer equipment not as a hobby, but out of necessity as I could not afford to buy any of it new. I think that with the internet being what it is, any musician or artist who really wants a piece of gear or really wants a specific sound can go out and build it with cheap components or code it in any number of languages (most of which are free).

The Machine Elf, which was the name of the instrument my team and I built, was very much thought out in a similar manner. It was entirely based on code and electronic circuits that anybody could go out and research by themself to recreate at home. So, in short, I guess we created our product with the DIYer in mind. Its not just an instrument, but a demonstration in what is possible through open source technologies and information.

A few of my takeaways from talking to these amazing hackers:

  1. Get involved and sign up for that next music hackathon. Whether it’s your first or 50th, whether you’re an engineer or not, it doesn’t matter. Anyone can hack. If you enjoy music, then you’re in!
  2. Dream big. What should our relationship with music look like in the future? Do you have ideas? Bring them.
  3. Leverage your open source communities and don’t forget to give back, we need each other to innovate.

Artist shout-out: I’ve always loved Imogen Heap and I remember her showcase of her electronic gloves. To Anirudh’s point, we’re fast-approaching a time where our symbiotic relationship with technology is going to evolve…let’s see what we can build together. It’s certainly an exciting time!

If you don’t want to get left behind in all the innovation that is happening around music and technology, stay tuned to this team’s work and the others who worked tirelessly that weekend. Additionally, keep your eyes (and ears) out for upcoming events. We hope to see you at “Red Bull’s Hack the Hits” next year.

As always readers, if you have questions or comments about what I’ve shared, feel free to contact me via experimentalcivics.io. Want to host your own music hackathon? I’m down, let’s talk.

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