Bespoke Beats and the Rise of the Musical Hacker

On February 8, 2016

The music hacker landscape used to be one of underground tinkering, populated by shed-dwellers recycling and repurposing bits of technology, often experimenting to find interesting sounds rather than looking to solve any particular problem. Today, however, there is a growing market of creators looking for more bespoke methods of music production; this market is starting to look away from big brand tools to find their signature sound.

Graham Massey (808 State) performing at MTFCentral, Ljubljana, Slovenia. Photo Credit: Filip Koludrovic

For over a year, I have been involved with one of the driving forces behind this exploration: Music Tech Fest (http://musictechfest.net). Lead by Founder Michela Magas and Director Andrew Dubber, the organisation prides itself on being “the festival of music ideas” – a playground where musical creativity and technological innovation take centre stage. The travelling three-day festival brings together inventors, media, artists, academia, industry and a wide variety of cultural performances.

Andrew Dubber: “The main aim of Music Tech Fest is to create collaborations, products, performances and projects that go on to have a life beyond the festival. Through our #MusicBricks project, which puts exclusive technologies from top research institutions into the hands of hackers, we have seeded 11 new startup projects with interest and mentorship from the likes of Abbey Road and Warner Music. But the key to Music Tech Fest is its interdisciplinarity. We bring together musicians and neuroscientists, inventors and dancers, record industry and cryptographers. The interesting stuff – the genuinely disruptive innovation – happens at the intersections.”

Over the four-day event, the main stage hosts dozens of examples of new technology, home-brew experiments, performance collaborations and startup businesses. The event has seen everything from the weird to the wonderful – from musical Tesla-coils, brainwave synthesisers and giant inflatable MIDI cubes, to performances by beatbox world champion Reeps One and electronic music legend Graham Massey (808 state). The festival showcases how far we have come in exploring the boundaries and the relationships between musical creativity and technology.

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The Music Tech Fest Hack Camp in full swing. Photo Credit: Filip Koludrovic

One of the key events is the 24-hour hack camp. Lead by hacker and musician Adam John Williams, the focus is on music-related hacks, especially those with a slant on performance and interactions with tangible objects. It encourages collaborations between those with the code and those with the chords, allowing artists to work with tech enthusiasts to find new methods of musical interaction. The environment isn’t focused on problem solving or profit margins, but instead provides the freedom to consider what interactions are possible and where these new ideas and inventions can be positively disruptive to both industry and music creation. Through experimentation without a strict objective, these events often lead to unexpected and unintended outcomes.

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Hack Camp Leader Adam John Williams presents his Laser Turntable hack at MTFScandi, Umeå, Sweden. Photo Credit: Andrew Dubber

Adam John Williams: “Music Tech Fest’s 24-hour Hack Camp was not the first music hacking event, in fact music-related hackathons have been around in some form since 2009, when Music Hack Day first launched. What makes our hack camp different is that it focuses not only on software tools for music, such as the novel music recommendation methods and means of presenting music industry data that have always been so popular at other music hacking events, but instead having challenge categories based largely around creating tools for musical performance, often using hardware as well as software. It’s this dedication to encouraging new developments in the very way that music is performed that has led to the creation of amazing new instruments, controllers, performances and even works of art by our Hack Camp participants all around the world.”

Create a Niche

Examples of these experiments and bespoke instruments are increasingly finding their way onto the main stage, with a growing demand for artists to include new and interesting performance elements. Projects like Imogen Heap and her “Mi.Mu” gloves, Beardyman with the “Beardytron 5000” and Tim Exile’s “Flow Machine” all allow for live interaction, though each has their own method of execution, keeping audience members fascinated by not just the sounds but the way they are being produced.

These events contribute to a growing scene that is also seeing the emergence of more local hackspaces and a progressive startup culture that is pushing innovation and disruption. There is an increased emphasis on diversity and outreach, especially towards women and young people. For example, Music Tech Fest Paris hosted a Ghack (Girls Hack) run by a ‘women in tech’ hacker group, intended to give new female hackers a chance to hone their skills. At Music Tech Fest events in London, Ljubljana and Umeå, a kids hack was hosted for  8-12 year olds, giving many their first experience with both code and hardware construction.

 

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Founder Michela Magas on stage with participants of the Kids Hack at MTFCentral, Ljubljana, Slovenia. Photo Credit: Filip Koludrovic

Dubber: “We’ve run Music Tech Fest events all over the world – from New Zealand to Boston, Slovenia to the north of Sweden. Berlin is our natural home – the perfect place for us to run and to expand what we do. It’s the city of Native Instruments, Ableton, Soundcloud and so many more great music tech companies. It also has a fantastic FabLab who are partnering with us for the element14 hack camp at #MTFBerlin – where 50 top hackers will be provided with all the components and tools they need to invent the future of music in 24 hours – and then perform with it on the main festival stage in the largest recording studio on the planet.”

The next Music Tech Fest will be returning to Berlin and setting up in the amazing Funkhaus venue (http://funkhausberlin.blogspot.co.uk/) from 27 to 29 May. The Funkhaus was East Germany’s premier recording and broadcast facility and has recently come under new ownership with an aim to restore it to its former glory. The venue is part of Berlin’s plan to become the music tech capital of the world, and will be a spectacular venue for the festival.

Here are several ways to get involved in the music hacking community, but the best way is to go along to the next Music Tech Fest.


Ways to get into music hacking this year

Find a hackspace

The hack community is growing fast and there are hackspaces springing up across the world. Some are open to all kinds of hacks and some are more focused on music, such as the Music Hackspace (http://musichackspace.org/) in London. UK folks should check out the UK Hackspace Foundation (http://www.hackspace.org.uk) for more information.

Make a Pure Data patch

Pure Data is a free, community driven graphical programming environment that allows you to make a range of different music patches including controllers, synthesisers, visualisers and pretty much anything else you’re used to seeing in your DAW. Check out http://puredata.info/ for the software and Floss Manuals (https://flossmanuals.net/pure-data/) for some great tutorials.

Build your own synthesiser

Synthesisers are as cool as ever, so more companies have been releasing fun units to get you started with DIY building. Some are simpler pre-made boards you click together, like the Korg/littleBits – Synth Kit and the Patchblocks Programmable Mini Synths system. If you’d rather go from scratch, try some of the tutorials on http://www.instructables.com/ or look at some of the awesome kits over at http://groovesizer.com/ and what’s being discussed on the Arduino community boards (http://playground.arduino.cc/Main/ArduinoSynth).

Find a jam session

Don’t just keep your projects to yourself. The community is often filled with musicians who get together to play music and put their creations to good use. Keep an eye on the hackspaces, community boards and places like http://www.meetup.com. Or come to Music Tech Fest and jam with us!


This article has also been feature in the February edition of Audio Media International. You’ll find it on page 14 in the awesome digital reader.

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