On Designing New Musical Controllers

by Thomas Brett

A while back I wrote about MIDI hardware controllers which are used by musicians who want to control their computer software.  (You can read the post here.)  Why does one need a controller when performing music with say, a laptop?  For one thing, it gives you the sense of having physical, tactile control over your music.  Rather than using a mouse pad to point and click your way through musical actions, a hardware controller makes making electronic music feel a little more like playing a “real” musical instrument.  (Whether or not a laptop computer running software is in fact a musical instrument is another question altogether.)  Another thing controllers are good for is that they enable their users to do many things at once.  For instance, you can easily “map” several different parameters in your software to one knob, button, or fader on your controller, so with one turn, tap, or slide you could set into motion a whole bunch of musical transformations, making you feel, well, bionic.  To make an analogy with the symphony orchestra: the conductor can cue or “trigger” (in electronic music parlance) several instruments or sections at once with the wave of a hand. Now that is power.  Similarly, MIDI hardware controllers give the electronic musician that feeling of potential musical control.

As of 2011, you can find many kinds of musical controllers for sale at your local music store.  Most of these units are small plastic boxes with buttons, knobs, and faders, and are designed to work easily with popular software programs such as Ableton Live.  But adventurous musicians sometimes go above and beyond by designing their own MIDI controllers.  Nick Francis, the music director at KPLU-FM in Seattle, is one such musician.  In the video below, Francis describes how he set about building his own custom controller in order to perform live remixes of some of his favorite jazz recordings.  Francis then demonstrates his live remixing/mash-up of Fats Waller’s jazz classic “Honeysuckle Rose” (1928).

How did he go about doing it?  By taking audio samples from four different recordings of “Honeysuckle Rose” and importing them into Ableton Live software (which Francis accurately describes as a “spreadsheet” for sound).  These sound samples are then combined with other rhythmic loops.  If you watch the video closely, you can get a sense of how and when Francis is triggering the various “Honeysuckle Rose” samples, as well as sliding faders to switch from one sound to another (listen and watch for the back and forth between the piano and the bass).

This clip has already been viewed over 14,000 times on YouTube, and viewers are especially impressed by how “natural” the controller looks and by the fact that electronic music remixing is (or always was) open to all ages.

If you are now curious about Fats Waller’s original song, you might enjoy this clip of him performing: