hardware and software for electronic music 
Fri, Jun 12, 2009, 13:21

Why "Soundplane?"

Since making my "Multitouch Prototype 2", I have been waiting for a really good name to come along for these devices. Waiting, because, after naming a few musical projects etc. over the years, I've found that thinking really hard about a name doesn't do much good. What's needed is time...

...because you can't plan those moments when things crystallize and sometimes you just have to get out there and do seemingly unrelated things to have them.

At NIME this year, I had the pleasure of hearing a panel of electronic music luminaries agree that pressure-sensitive multi-touch surfaces are an idea whose time has come. So it's a good time to be coming out with our product. But it also means other people will be coming out with similar things.

I think that there's room for multiple products in this market, especially if they are differentiated by technology, price point and aesthetics. One condition that seems required to sustain all of our projects in the long run, though, is a growing pool of people writing music and musical applications for them. At NIME 2009, David Wessel pointed out the brutal truth that "there are a lot of controllers by the side of the road." Most new musical inventions get used mainly by their creators for a while, after which the creators move on to the next thing. This makes sense, because inventors like to invent. But in order for a new instrument to survive, it needs to get into the hands of a critical mass of players and composers. Composers need players. Players need music to play. Sound designers need a variety of rich mappings to start from. All of this activity is mutually sustaining and obviously, the more instruments out there, the better.

So let's recognize that at least a few of us will be making different kinds of the same thing. The only multi-touch, pressure sensitive controller currently available is Haken Audio's Continuum Fingerboard. Most compositions or sound-making tools written for Fingerboard could be played on our Soundplane A and vice versa. And coming soon will be more and probably cheaper controllers based on projects like the IMPAD designed at NYU. Assuming they're big enough, and have a high enough sampling rate, all these instruments can be used to play the same pieces of music.

At the time of the piano's rise in popularity in the late 1700's, a few manufacturers were competing to improve the action. The resulting improvements led to important pieces, particularly Mozart's Piano Concertos. And of course, these pieces led to more pianos being made.

Touch-sensitive surfaces may well become the piano for the 21st century. Because the computer can map flexibly between gesture and resulting sound, mappings can be designed that work for players at different skill levels from beginner to expert. A huge variety of applications are possible, from Guitar Hero-like games to instruments for the virtuoso to sound design tools for film. No one instrument maker is going to write all of these applications. So there's a potential opportunity here for developers, but to be rewarding, the instruments have to be out there.

So: "soundplane." Generic and descriptive. It's made for making sounds (otherwise we wouldn't need a kilohertz sample rate) and it's flat. I hope that more applications and compositions than we can provide are written for soundplanes, and yes, that other people make soundplanes. Really. Our first one, taking a cue from Steinway, is the Madrona Soundplane (model) A. Following our DIY instructions, you can make your own Soundplane 8x8. And so on.

Probably this modest proposal, my attempt to name this class of instruments, will fail. These things arise organically, and are settled on after a long time. Christofori wouldn't have predicted that his gravicembalo col piano e forte" would become simply the "piano." But I'll be open to changes, and actively supporting the community that will eventually lead to more instruments, more pieces, and more people playing music.