Drake Music Hackathon at Web We Want Festival

Coders working hard on new technology

On Sat 30th May Drake Music ran an accessible music hackathon as part of the Web We Want festival at the Southbank Centre, London. Drawing together a diverse group of musicians, hackers and coders, the idea was to collaborate and inspire new thinking in the design of musical instruments. With a particular focus on widening the options available to disabled musicians, by the end of the day 6 projects were in development, which are summarised below.

Gathering in the morning, it was immediately apparent that the room was full to the brim, not only with technical expertise, but a spirit of risk, cooperation and caffeine-fuelled laughter. By its very nature, hacking work is an uncertain business, often pushing components to their limits as diverse electronics are coaxed into talking to one another and working together. Thankfully, this was never going to be a problem we had with the humans in the room, all willing to share components, knowledge and surprising amounts of cake.

Chris Heinrichs

Chris Heinrichs is working at the cutting edge of digital music platform design. While many technologists use the Raspberry Pi to power their ideas, Chris has been using the similar Beagle Bone. Sitting over the top of the this is an 8-input 8-output audio ‘cape’ that puts ultra-fast, professional grade signal processing within reach of the bedroom music maker and hacker.

Chris is part of a team who are developing accessible ways for those with no programming expertise to be able to design sounds and effects, and then install them onto the processing board. The cat miaow synth ’hack’ he developed for the festival is an example of the extraordinary possibilities that this system offers for people to run with an idea and get it tested and built in without any need for expensive or time-consuming prototyping. Take, for example, the ‘disco gun’ he threw together with friends for a recent party: a hand-held controller that linked to lighting and sound effects, giving dancers a new way to truly own the floor.

John Kelly

John Kelly is a professional musician in search of a guitar. Currently using an iPad interface for live performance and finding the interface limiting, Kelly wanted to develop a professional grade instrument that was accessible to him, but one that he could control with one finger. Approaching Drake Music with a full spec, Gawain Hewitt began to work on the hardware and Charles Matthews spent the hack-day developing a software front-end.

Using a Fender Telecaster with the neck and fretboard removed, a set of digital pickups were added that allow a signal to be passed from each string into the computer hardware. Then, with a tablet-based app, different pre-set chords can be selected, as well as simple sliders for use as pitch-bends, reverb, volume and tone. There is no substitute, Kelly believes, for physical instruments in live performance. With the guit-board, that dream is now becoming a reality.

Two people testing out a new instrument

Kieran Plissonneau

Kieran Plissonneau is completing a Masters degree in electronics and ‘Sonic Leap’ is being developed as part of his final project. At the core of the instrument is the Leap Motion sensor, an infra-red gesture controller which can detect individual fingers moving in three dimensions.

There have been lots of applications developed to exploit the device, but Plissonneau recognised that they tended to be very ‘input heavy,’ typically with lots of menus to click through and lots of work required for set-up. He wanted to develop an instrument that was accessible to anyone.

A piano is immediately playable – you lift the lid and start creating. With Sonic Leap, Plissonneau is aiming for the same immediacy, but using the massive power and potential of the Leap Motion sensor to add flexibility and accessibility. Aiming digits at on-screen pads that can be changed, as required, to any shape, the player can trigger sounds and use gestures to add tone or effects, creating sound-worlds without the need for great physical dexterity.

Dave Green

Dave Green runs cheapsynth.com, a site dedicated to showcasing affordable ways of creating music technology. He realised that electronic instruments were often prohibitively expensive for so many people, especially children and, with a background in computer science, decided to do something about it.

The instrument he has created this weekend is a brilliant example. Picking up 4 Playstation Quiz controllers for £2, he ran them into a Raspberry Pi module. Costing around £20, this is a fully functioning computer, and Green was easily able to map the USB inputs from the controller buttons onto sounds running on a software synthesiser.

Thus, for under £30, he’s created an accessible digital instrument that, with four controllers, can be used collaboratively. Robustly made, and with large, simple buttons, the Playstation controllers are ideal for those who struggle to control more complex instruments. But, as Green notes, with the code very simple to manipulate, the output sounds can be easily modified in a vast array of ways. Importantly, he sees these ‘hack days’ as opportunities to experiment wildly, no one ever quite sure what potential end-use others might realise.

Zen Olenski

Zen Olenski began work as a product designer but, becoming disillusioned with the way manufacturers were obsessed with bottom line rather than durable functionality, moved into software products. Photosynth began as something of a throwaway experiment with little practical purpose, but when Gawain Hewitt—Drake Music’s head of Research and Development—saw it, he convinced Zen of its potential as an accessible instrument.

The idea is simple: controlling a classic synth using colour and motion. Dancers with glow-sticks, coloured clothes or light sources can direct the music, as well as effect the video on screen.

Accessibility is not always a physical issue. For many young people, their home situation means that time to make music is difficult to find. Being browser-based, Photosynth could allow people to simply ‘dial in’ to a jam session from wherever they are. For Zen, this is a core part of the vision. ‘Music,’ he says, ‘is unparalleled in the positive effects it can bring to people’s lives. This is technology that allows me to have fun, and music is the best excuse for that.’

Luis Zayas

Kazumi is a self-contained instrument being developed by recent product design graduate Luis Zayas, and is like nothing else you’ve ever seen. Each of the seven surfaces is a touch-pad that, depending on how the structure is rotated on its base, either triggers or modulates sounds. Playing music on Kazumi is a tactile, sensual experience, hands exploring and caressing to draw different notes from the speaker embedded in the peak.

Zayas approached Drake Music with the initial idea, and has been iterating new prototypes, focusing each on open-source and customisable components so that musicians and makers can use it as a springboard for further learning.

Experimental and immediately accessible, Kazumi is something to play, and therein lies its wonderful attraction, drawing those into music-making those who might feel alienated by more traditional instruments.

Group photo of all hackers and musicians looking at laptop


Drake Music’s Research & Development programme is supported by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation.

Image credit: Emile Holba / Drake Music
Text Credit: Kester Brewin / Drake Music

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