NIME 2009 on the CMU campus had a really high good-to-sucks ratio. Here's my really brief report on the highlights...
Unlike, say, NYU, the environment in Pittsburgh did not have a lot of culinary or cultural distractions nearby. This was both a bad thing and good. Bad, because after finishing making slides at 02:30, being waken up repeatedly by fire alarms at 04:30 and managing to get about thirty minutes more of decent sleep before getting up an hour before my presentation, I found out there was no source of coffee nearby and had to take a 20 minute speed walk to the local coffeeshop. Good, because every single presenter and performer who felt like tying one on after the last night of the conference ended up at the same joint, the fun and sinister Panther Hollow Inn, pictured above.
David Wessel's performance on his Slabs controllers was one of the highlights of the conference. The Slabs are very sensitive multitouch controlers made from multiple touchpads, custom sensing electronics, and a custom-designed FPGA-based brain that provides 96 streams of control data as audio signals. Read the paper. See the video.
Like the Soundplane, The Slabs are a refined multitouch surface—I much admire the obsessive pursuit of control intimacy evident in the work. Their construction as a multiplicity of discrete elements lends itself to really different performance mappings compared to a homogeneous surface. On the Slabs, you are always sure which element you are on, so they seem to lend themselves better to mapping a collection of different voices predictably. Only one finger at a time can be detected on an individual slab, though. So the Soundboard seems better for mapping distinct touches to voices of a synthesizer that can be moved freely across the surface.
On Thursday morning we were treated to a teleconference with three prominent personalities of electronic music: Roger Linn, John Chowning and Max Mathews. Max ate his breakfast wherever he was and interjected just a few words, but really good ones. Linn said that the most crucial area for expressive control lies "in between silence and whispers." This is welcome support for my opinion that signal-based control is going to be a theme of the next generation of interfaces. Everyone seemed to agree that we are seeing the beginning of a renaissance for electronic music, and furthermore that pressure-sensitive multitouch controllers will be important. This gives me comfort that if I'm wrong about this whole thing, at least I'm wrong in the company of some really smart people.
A lot of people came by my demo table and played with the Soundplane 8x8 DIY project. I saw consistent surprise at the sensitivity to touch of what is, electronically speaking, a pretty primitive device. I know, I was surprised too. At least three people seemed quite serious about making their own. I hope they do, and that I can be of help.
The sheets of reinforced, flexible veneer arrived the Monday before the conference, so I managed to get the look-and-feel prototype of the Soundboard together just in time. I'm glad I took the thing out for a show-and-tell at this stage. People really seemed to like the feel of the surface, and on the "what goes on the blank space" question, "nothing" outvoted the next most popular suggestion, "a knob," by 3 to 1.
I seem to be establishing a pattern of going to every other NIME, having hit 2005 and 2007 and 2009. So maybe I'll see you in 2011 in Oslo.