Open-source hardware? You bet. Create Digital Music, though primarily a blog, is a partner in the MeeBlip project. The most recent article on CDM features some demo videos showing what people are doing with MeeBlip.

This little box seems (I haven’t yet had my hands on one) to offer three flavors of coolness: It’s ridiculously cheap, the OS is hackable by the user, and it has real knobs. It appears to be a monophonic analog synth, well suited to bass lines, blippy filter sweeps, and such.

After suffering brief pangs of gear lust, however, I’m reminding myself that I have Csound, Pd, and Processing on my computer. These apps are beyond ridiculously cheap — they’re free. They’re insanely user-hackable. They will never suffer failure due to breakage. And they will do a whole boatload of stuff that MeeBlip won’t do.

What MeeBlip has that none of these systems can match are actual physical knobs.

For certain kinds of music, knobs are more than useful. With knobs, you can shape a line while you’re playing it (or while your computer’s MIDI sequencer is playing it). Playing a physical instrument involves you in a way that generating music in a computer just doesn’t. With knobs, you can be spontaneous, but it’s more than that. With knobs, you feel that you’re creating the tone. Without knobs, at best you’re the conductor of the orchestra. With knobs, you’re a violinist.

At least, in some unconscious visceral sense you’re a violinist. I’m not going to disrespect violinists by suggesting that playing the violin is as easy as twiddling a few knobs.

I kind of like being the conductor of my software orchestra. But I understand the desire to get into it more fully. And I understand the value for the listener in hearing musical lines that are inflected, from moment to moment, by a musician who is intensely focused on producing the sound.

At some point, I’m sure I’ll buy an iPad and install touchOSC. From what I’ve heard, this is a great combination. You can create “knobs” and “sliders” on the iPad screen and use them to send OSC messages to your computer, the computer then producing the actual tones. A touchOSC “knob” is only a flat surface, but even so, using it is a tactile experience — plus, the iPad screen is glowing and blinking and everything. If your MeeBlip starts glowing, unplug it, quick!

The meta-story is this: Artists are constantly discovering amazing new ways to make art with technology. What we can do today would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. And the possibilities just keep on growing. One of the comments on the CDM MeeBlip article suggested using it as a component in a modular system along with Arduino. So I googled Arduino. Turns out it’s a user-programmable circuit board that does sensing. I don’t know what kinds of sensing, and I’m not ever likely to delve into the details. If you’re designing some kind of big performance rig where you can wave your hands and have the music respond, Arduino may be just what you’ve been searching for.

Or you could set up a video camera and write a Pd patch that will analyze the live video stream, sense your gestures, and transmit control signals. And next year some genius will come up with yet another amazing system. The beat goes on.

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