ForumsNews ← Where are all the fantastic new software instruments?

There are a bunch of software environments in which you can make instruments. Max/MSP, Kyma, AudioMulch, Reaktor, Vaz Modular, Tassman, Plogue Bidule ... and that's just the graphical ones I can think of, leaving out SuperCollider, ChucK and so on. How many times have you read that with tool X you are "limited only by your own imagination?" But not everyone has the ability, or the time, to think up a new instrument and then spend a year working out the details. For players and composers, limitations are essential. So where are the instruments themselves?

With computer audio, there are so many possibilities available that I think the idea of an instrument is getting neglected. A traditional musical instrument usually has a small number of controls that lead to many possibilities, because you can physically interact with it in different and subtle ways. Take a single string and stretch it over a box with a hole in it. You just made an instrument that you could spend years practicing and getting better at. There aren't many parts, but the variety of physical interactions they offer gives you lots of sonic possibilities.

Contrast that with a computer, which has billions of parts that can go into more states than the universe has particles, most of which make no sounds at all. It's hard to configure these systems to make sound dependably---recall only ten years or so ago, when just a handful of brave musicians were willing to rely on computers for live performance, and crashes were pretty common.

Once you do make sound with a computer, you have entered an exciting world where it's arguably possible to make any sound we are capable of hearing. Where to begin? It's natural that the environments people have built for harnessing all this power look like the technology they are based on: component-based systems where simple building blocks are connected to make larger components, and so on. This kind of approach has been used by every music synthesis language or environment that has ever been made, as far as I am aware. It makes sense when you don't have much computing power, or you do want to express musical ideas in terms of algorithms.

But physical instruments are not algorithms. We don't send commands to them, we play them, using vibrating surfaces to exchange information with them more subtly than symbols can. With the amount of computing power available today, it's possible to make fantastic new computer instruments that are more like physical objects than programs, expressive enough to be worth learning.

This has been a Madrona Labs mini-essay. Thanks to M-Goldie on for asking the question.

This is a really good point.

I have two monomes, believe it or not. Fantastic thing, the monome.

By its very nature, endless possibilities. In fact, built into the design of the thing is the challenge "Look at it! It's just a box of lights and buttons! Make it DO something!"

This is cool --- I'm not dissing the monome, it's brilliant --- but it's not the same thing as a guitar. It's not at all the same thing. A guitar has intrinsic boundaries, but everyone addresses those boundaries differently. Despite (because of?) how functionally limited it is, the personality and the intent of the user comes shining through.

I do think the future of music technology is going to be in the direction suggested by this essay and it may prove visionary. People will value things that do only one thing and you have to kind of wrestle with it. Wrestling is fun.

I think the crest of this wave is beginning already. People are yearning for specificity and limitations and intractable eccentricities instead of the spiritual agoraphobia brought on by "limited by your own imagination!"

  • c

in my opinion MozArt, Beethoven Bach would use synthesizer today. Not to play presets but to create the perfect sound to emphasize the intention of the melody. Sounds always influenced Musicians and composers equally. Bolero was written to explore the variations of instruments and what impact it has when the instruments change. Viola 'd'amour inspired Vivaldi to write special compositions to expose the uniques of this instrument.

If it is modular or not does to some existent not really matter. The source of what is been modulated ...the Oscillators...are the key to it all....and the quality of filters etc...
only if you are experienced enough...most of the time through trial and error and the openness to will find sources of sounds that are more close to you then others...Because you hear them and you are influenced in your way to use them to write and play music.

and then it does not matter which instrument you choose is the way you are resonating with it ...the way you correspond with it...and then it can be something like a completely strange sound or the beautiful sound of an open chord played on an acoustic guitar.

The slogan "limited only by your own imagination" has it's pitfalls, as it is not true to the matter that my imagination goes way beyond the choice any sound creating "THING" could offer me. The freedom is limited by the fact that I can not choose between what I want to choose from.