There a few things we wanted from the pop-up band, and a few big questions.
- Could we create a music experience that anyone could join in and feel and active, creative part of?
- Could we have a broad range of digital instruments that would all work together to create a cohesive and enjoyable band sound?
- Could we find instruments that you could learn to use quickly just by playing in the band for a few minutes?
- Could we create a format for music making that other organisations could easily replicate and customise for their own needs?
There were of course many other questions that perplexed us, but those four were the big ones.
Thinking about what we had learned from our SoundLab work over the last year or so we had started to formulate some ideas about what might make the band experience work for the players. These are some of the principles we sought to work to:
- There should be a good variety of instruments that work for a wide range of people and provides a set of different sounds for the band.
- It needs to be obvious that any player is playing with the rest of the band, not just on their own.
- There needs to be a pulse (or rhythm) that unites the instruments. Where possible the instruments should be limited to playing in a key so that they sound good together.
- Although there should be some constraints for the player there should also be enough room to experiment and do your own thing.
- Each instrument should have its own little speaker so that the player can clearly hear what they are doing as part of the band overall sound.
- The band should have 5-6 instruments that can easily be swapped or replaced with other devices so that it can work in many kinds of environments.
With all that in mind we used some of the SoundLab workshops to test some different devices and different combinations.
We quickly decided to use the ultra flexible Ableton Live as the central ‘brain’ to the band set up. Using Live we could control the pulse and send midi controller signals with the minimum of fuss.
From that basis we tried our brand new Thereminis from Moog (thanks Moog). They turned out to be a great pair of instruments that people could learn to use quickly and were fun and sounded good. We set each one to a different sound, but set them to work on the same scale, again all very straightforward. We decided that they needed to have a bit more dynamic movement to make them work together well. This was more tricky to set up, but in the end we realised we could easily send midi volume controllers to the devices from Ableton. With that they were up and running.
We had learnt a lot about how iPads work in collaborative music making, so we decided to test a range of apps to see how they worked alongside the Thereminis. Initially we thought an iPad could provide the beats for the band. But despite our assumption we couldn’t find an app that could be midi synced and provided an interface that was easy to use. We would have loved to use our favourite Loopseque but we couldn’t get it join in, a good example of the challenge of setting up these kinds of digital music experiences. In the end we used an app called Mira to control beat loops on Ableton Live. This was a solid solution but required a more complex setup. Again this highlighted the challenge someone in an arts organisation or a school might face when trying to do a version of the pop-up band for themselves.
We also brought in a number of devices from the creative computing team from Goldsmiths. Again our challenge was how to integrate them. And later we got our hands on an Alphasphere from Nu Design.
Making it real
Having done a bit of testing with our small team we knew that we needed to take it out for road trial. Our plan was to take it to the Tunnel of Love installation, then into a field at the Liberty festival and then onto the Beautiful Octopus Club. Each environment would test the band in different ways, and our aim was to improve the setup each time by applying what we had learnt from the previous version.
And that’s exactly what happened, as you can see from these photos. We think about 200 people have had a go in the pop-up band now. Having now had the pop-up band as part of three events we are going to digest what we observed and think about how that should help us develop functionality for the framework we are starting to develop. But we will continue to use the pop-up band idea as part of next set of SoundLabs. One thing I am keen to explore is whether we can create really different shaped configurations easily - duos, trios, different instruments, more beat control and so on. We will let you know how that goes soon.