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10 Futuristic Musical Instruments

PSFK investigates a selection of imaginative, experimental music making devices.

Yofred Moik
Yofred Moik on July 15, 2010.

Offhand predictions can be jokingly made about the future of musical instruments – like touch-screen guitars or iPod drum machines.  However, this list of ten futuristic musical instruments takes a closer look to how new mechanisms and interface designs, can impact the way artists create music in the coming years.  The trajectory of future musical instruments is aligned within the intersections of emerging genres of contemporary music and advancements made in analog and digital technologies.

Instrument-makers can take helpful cues from today’s growing presence of open-source technology creation and anonymity-based resource trading – like more efficient controllers harnessing makeshift designs developed by the DIY community or effects pedals that work with an Arduino controller board.

PSFK takes a look at both the analog and electronic categories to draw insights on what tomorrow’s instruments may resemble.

K-Bow becomes the smart bow for string players.

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The K-Bow was the recent winner of the Guthman Musical Instrument Competition.  The idea enhances the historically unchanged instruments from the string family and embeds sensors in their bows.  By measuring and transmitting statistics from its movement, the innovative bow can detect how far it is from the bridge, how much it’s being tilted, the amount of hair tension, and the speed and directions of its movement. It parallels the effects pedal for electric guitars. String instrument players now have a gestural component to music playing. For example, shaking the K-Bow or performing special sequences in bow movements can activate digital modulations like echo or reverbs. It is Bluetooth equipped to wirelessly transmit information to special software.  Statistics retrieved from bow movement may eventually create real-time visualizations for symphony concerts of the future.

K-Bow

Reactable merges tangible and digital interfacing for electronic musicians.

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The Reactable concept mashes tangible and digital interfaces to create one of the most futuristic instruments available today.  The Reactable was handpicked by world-renowned Icelandic artist Bjork to accompany her on her last tour.  The modular synthesizer is a digital table-top that manipulates sound by having users drag and rotate different physical blocks.  It also becomes a collaborative instrument as up to four players can participate in shaping its sound.  Although the Reactable has been around for some time, it has pioneered the multi-touch gestural interfaces for musical instruments and we will probably see many iterations of this being developed and marketed for mass distribution in the near future.  Electronic musicians that were confined to small rectangular laptop screens are now able to experience music creation to the fullest extent.

Reactable

BeatBearing takes a DIY approach to mainstream implementation

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Unlike the previous Reactable, the BeatBearing is a fully tangible interface that caters towards making electronic music.  Users can compose different rhythms by picking up bearings and placing them into different slots, making for a more engaging and intuitive music-making experience. Designed by musical instrument designer Peter Bennett, he plans to share his idea not through signing a contract with a musical instrument-manufacturer, but by using DIY-site MakeZine to distribute a tutorial for others to make themselves.

BeatBearing

The Swarmatron

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The Swarmatron, developed by brothers Brian and Leon Dewan, is a purely analogue instrument recently used by industrial musician Trent Reznor for his latest musical effort “How To Destroy Angels.” The Swarmatron uses an analog aesthetic that differentiates itself from its similar-sounding electronic counterparts. Two pitch ribbons and multiple knobs which are the controllers to separate or cluster eight layers of sound. It’s primitive mechanism produces a genuine ambient texture not often found in electronic instruments.

Swarmatron

CrudBox harnesses open-source Arduino board for electro-mechanical sound manipulation.

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The CrudBox, invented and used by the folks at CrudLabs, creates an interface for an embedded Arduino board.  Arduino is a very successful open-source micro-controller project aimed to be affordable and democratic.  The housing is the controlling interface that harnesses the potential of Arduino’s open source programming – users can configure the output sound through simply programming on an inexpensive board.  CrudLabs aims to explore the juxtaposition between electronic and mechanical sound qualities with this 16-step sequencer.

CrudBox

Songwriting and visual composition intersect with Tenori-On

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Songwriting and visual composition intersect with Tenori-On

The Tenori-On was invented by Japanese interactive media artist, Toshio Iwai, to create a device that merges the experience of playing music and drawing pictures.  The futuristic musical instrument features a 16×16 matrix LED grid surrounded by an aluminum frame.  Users can play sounds and create loops by pressing down the LEDs for a certain duration.  The Tenori-On can also join in on synchronized sessions with others with the device, making it a collaborative song-writing experience.  Music legend Jim O’Rourke have composed music with the device.

Tenori-On

Eigenharp

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A UK-based company invested about 8 years and $16 million USD to develop Eigenharp, a state-of-the-art musical instrument. It features 120 keys that are pressure and direction sensitive to provide the utmost control for professional musicians. Built-in sound managing capabilities enables musicians to record, playback, and loop at ease. It incorporates three inputs (the keyboard, mouthpiece, and tap-pad) to make one of the most advanced electronic instruments on the market.

Eigenharp

Continuum Keyboard is a seamless digital interface that tracks finger coordinates.

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Haken Audio has developed a musical instrument that produces sounds by tracking the x, y, z, coordinates for fingers. With the Continuum Keyboard, musicians can slide their fingers up and down to digitally “pluck” the instrument. Depending on the performer’s playing technique, the device can even accurately resemble the sound of an acoustic instrument. The Continuum Keyboard can also track 16 fingers simultaneously.

Continuum Keyboard

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The Double-Slided Controller manipulates sound through on-board computer chips and hand movements.

The Double-Slided Controller by Tomas Henriques looks like an electronic trombone. It incorporates two hand controllers embedded with sensors and two slides. The user manipulates the sound by gestural arm and hand movements. An on-board computer chip programmed with music software generates complex sounds from the device.

Double-Slided Controller

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Square Band is a solar-powered wearable technology that functions as a synthesizer.

The Square Band is a portable square wave synthesizer. It is wearable musical instrument that’s lightweight and straps around the wrist like a watch. The strap is embedded with flexible solar panels and a light sensor. Arm movement and sunlight are the variables that manipulate the electronic synthesizer.  It was designed with the intention of the user wearing it throughout the day and having it ready to play when a spurt of creativity strikes.

To listen to Square Band samples click here.

Square Band

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