We wondered if we could use digital music making equipment to enable anyone to walk up to it, and with very little explanation join a ‘pop-up’ band and play along.
We have seen a lot of energetic inventing going on that aims to make music making more accessible. We have focused our attention on looking at what already exists and thinking about how it can be improved and used to best advantage. The pop-up band was a way for us to explore a range of existing music technologies and see how they might be combined to create an exciting and enjoyable music making experience.
In our pop-up band experiments we asked ourselves a few big questions. We think these questions are useful to consider more generally when trying to make a new participative music making experience.
- 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.
Pop-up band principles
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 well 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 abilities that provide 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.
The parts of a pop-up band
We have experimented with a few different ways to create a pop-up band but here is an illustration of a typical SoundLab pop-up band.
- Two Moog Thereminis on speaker stands
- One Alphasphere on a table
- Two iPads in iPad stands
- One Roland VT-3 voice effects machine with one mic connected to it
- One Mackie Onyx 1620i mixer/audio interface
- One Macbook
- A small genelec speaker for each player
- One pair of PA speakers
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 of the music 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.
Throughout SoundLab we have 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 for anyone to use with minimum explanation. We would have loved to use our favourite app [Loopseque] but we couldn’t get it to 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. This kind of challenge highlights 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. The other iPad had ThumbJam on it, which we have found to be a very flexible music making app that is easy for many people to use.
Later we got our hands on an AlphaSphere from Nu Design and we found that it is one of those instruments that attracts people to it, as you can probably tell from this picture.
We have always wanted a way to have vocals as part of the pop up band. We experimented with using iPads and the iRig mic but we found that the sound wasn’t good enough and that the vocal effects apps we were using were difficult to use for many people. We solved this by turning to some new hardware from Roland, the VT-3.
We think over 200 people have had a go in one of our pop-up bands now. We have run sessions for the public, but have also used it as way for a digital band to practice together and perform songs.
We are keen to explore whether we can create different shaped configurations easily - duos, trios, orchestras, using different instruments and giving more control to the band.
Tips and Tricks
- Think about ways of reducing barriers to play - Both the physical and the psychological barriers should be considered.
- We chose equipment that has an innate ability to cross physical barriers, like midi controllers, apps and electronic instruments - for example the Thereminis that do not require touch at all. However do not limit yourself, think about what people would want to play on stage.
- Create obvious connections between the players and the instruments - To enable people to understand as quickly as possible what was on offer and how they could participate we realised we needed to help people understand that ‘those’ objects were instruments and were making ‘those’ sounds. For example if we were using midi-violins or cellos (if such a thing exists!) the output logically would be ‘Classical’ music otherwise there would be a disconnect between the instrument and the sound produced. We reasoned that the use of entirely electronic instruments (both in purpose and appearance) logically dictated the realm of electronic music.
- Reduce confusion - The idea was not for us to confuse or confound people about what they were involved with, rather naturalise and create understanding and acceptance of unusual and unfamiliar instruments.