Over the years I've experimented with some ideas for alternative input devices for music — some for use with the conductor program and some as replacements for existing musical instruments. Here's an index to these and a summary of what I've learned:
|Thirds Guitar, ca. 1975||Concept: Tablature notation has been developed for many instruments; what if you
went the other way and asked: "what instrument is standard notation a tablature for?" The answer I
came up with was a guitar-like instrument (which I never built; the photo at the left is of a
beautiful 11-string guitar by Rodolfo Cucculelli) in which each string is tuned to the note
corresponding to a line on the staff.
What I learned: For keys with few sharps or flats, it would be possible to play contrapuntal music on this instrument much more easily than on a conventional guitar (since there are so many more open strings; it's halfway between a guitar and a harp in this regard), and tight jazz harmonies are easier with the thirds-spaced treble strings.
Future directions: Get one built, try it for real.
|Tapper Keyboard, 1988||Concept: A keyboard player's expressive control comes from the timing and velocity
of key presses; if a computer is responsible for pitches and tone generation, expressive control can be
maintained while reducing difficulty.
What I learned: It works, is really fun, and can be used to make wonderful renditions (beyond what I could do playing the piece fully myself; for example, check out this rendition of Claire de lune). Some pieces work better than others. A weighted, velocity-sensing keyboard is the best. The two-track version (essentially two instances running in parallel) is more difficult to learn to use, but worth the effort for some pieces (e.g. Chopin nocturnes, where the two hands need to move out of sync).
Future directions: To be a "killer app," we need better controllers.
|Cranker, ca. 1991||Concept: The Tapper approach requires that the performer know the rhythm perfectly
(since every element in the rhythmic skeleton of the piece must be triggered); this requirement could be
eliminated if the performer controlled the tempo; tapping isn't an adequate way of doing that because there's
no control between taps; a continuous circular controller, mapped to time so that one turn corresponds to
one measure (or a similar appropriate length) might work better.
What I learned: I don't like it. It's really hard to turn it so that linear velocity corresponds to time.
Future directions: It needs more resistance. If the resistance were variable (so that you could feel the oncoming rhythmic events), it might be really good.
|Lizard Trampoline, ca. 1991||Concept: A possible "better controller" for the conductor program would add
aftertouch (pressure); keys are not necessary, but different regions of control are.
What I learned: I like it!
Future directions: The main problem to solve is: how to incorporate the pressure sensor. This device has an aspect that's valuable: when you increase pressure, you increase displacement by a large amount; this makes it easier to conceptualize and remember the amount of pressure you're using, something that's usually not present in polyphonic controllers. So, combining pressure sensors with the "trampoline" action may be more satisfying than conventional aftertouch.
|Tablet Bow, 1996||Concept: A "mod wheel" is good, but the number of axes of control (typically
only one or two) is a problem. You can get up to three by using a pressure-sensitive control surface,
and if the control surface is also a graphical output device, you can create different control mappings
and let the user see what they are. In my implementation, pitch was controlled with one hand on a
conventional piano-style keyboard and dynamics were controlled by the tablet, using a bowing metaphor.
What I learned: It works, and felt pretty natural after only a short amount of practice.
Future directions: To be really effective, motion in X/Y/Z spaces need to map to dynamics and timbre (and perhaps pitch inflection); for this, a good modeled string sound is necessary.
|Violin Keyboard, 1998||Concept: Composers don't take as much advantage of string instruments as they
could, because they don't understand the instrument's polyphonic capabilities. If you built a keyboard
that was laid out like strings of a violin, it would be easier to tell what's feasible.
What I learned: If you put something like this on the Internet, you get the weirdest email.
Future directions: Let somebody else build it.
|Bass Violin, ca. 2000||Concept: A violin is portable, but a 'cello can play lower notes. How low
can a violin go? What if you built a viola with really low resonant frequencies and put really
fat strings on it?
What I learned: It's usable but not great.
Future directions: Probably makes more sense to do this electronically, by analyzing the output of a real violin and then synthesizing a 'cello sound.