The importance of physicality in electronic music instruments

It can be argued that electronic music is the greatest paradigm change in the history of music composition. Most of the physical constraints that once got in the way of a composer’s ability to create sound suddenly vanished. It became possible to conduct multiple instruments at the same time using multiple tracks on a digital audio workstation (DAW), extremely complex and rapid rhythms could just be punched in to a sequencer, pitch accuracy became the default... All it took to interface with the computer were a mouse and a keyboard. Nowadays, it’s hard to find any piece of music that isn’t electronic in some way or another. And a great deal of it is actually fully made on a computer, from beginning to end. This means that entire songs can be made using interfacing devices that require no training or practice of any kind.

On the other hand, acoustic instruments generally require some amount of learning and skill to play correctly. Beyond compositional and aesthetic skills, much of a musician’s practice is devoted to mapping their motor functions to the shape of the instrument, learning to interact with it as an object of their proprioception. This part of the interaction with the instrument also plays out in live contexts, where spectators are often interested in both the musical content and the physical performance itself.

What we are looking at is the fundamental difference between acoustic and electronic music: the former absolutely requires practice of fine motor skills, while the latter doesn’t. Synthesizers fall in the latter category, since they are arguably more about the sound shaping than the keyboard playing, not to mention that many synths do not even come with a keyboard attached. In electronic music, the physical action of turning a knob is a very minor aspect compared to the choices of knob-turning themselves. That is also why throughout the 80s and 90s, knobs went from physical elements to images on a computer screen interface, and the pinching and turning became a mouse-click and dragging to change the desired value. In electronic music, “skill” and “talent” is mostly found in choices and creative ideas, since most of their implementation is handled by the machine (synth, computer) itself.

The point that this article conveys is that, for many musicians, it remains very important to have some kind of physical medium to create sound and music.

Electronic music lets you choose which kind of tools you’d like to map your body on to.

It is often said that with a modern computer and the latest software tools, pretty much any sound can be achieved given enough time and research. That statement is most likely true, and it can become a scary realization for musicians trying to find their own musical identity. If everything is possible, then what should one do? This question doesn’t really have an answer. Rather, it’s often said that it’s easier to eliminate it altogether by introducing limitations in your own process. But what should those limitations be? Here lies the point of this argument: if acoustic instruments rely on the regular training of the musician’s proprioception, then perhaps we could try to mimic these properties with our software controllers.

Novation Launchpad X, From the collection of: Swiss Museum & Center for Electronic Music Instruments (SMEM)
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Novation Launchpad

MIDI controllers come in various shapes and forms. Their general purpose is to improve the physical connection between the musician’s hands and the computer, instead of the default “mouse and keyboard” setup. They often advertise properties such as ease of use, ergonomic design and readability. These aspects are most definitely essential and useful in the context of making electronic music, as the goal is often to be able to lay down an idea with the least amount of obstacles and frustration possible. But there is a certain breed of these devices that don’t clearly try to make things easier for you: instead, the proposal is for you to accommodate yourself to a new interface, learn its quirks and hopefully generate new ideas through the unique workflow you learned.

Roli Seaboard Rise 49, From the collection of: Swiss Museum & Center for Electronic Music Instruments (SMEM)
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The Roli Seaboard Rise 49

Such devices are an exception rather than the norm. Classic examples include the Roli Seaboard, Monome Grid and Arc, and glove-like controllers like the ReMIDI T8. These controllers often have very bare-bone design and interfaces, in order to remain somewhat mysterious and to avoid suggesting any particular type of use. Learning how to use them requires time and patience, and much like a proper acoustic instrument, mastering their use gives rise to a great number of new possibilities. These devices are not supposed to make your workflow easier, they aim to make it harder for a while, until you get good enough to access entirely new ways of creating sound.

Any inspiring musician should consider the use of MIDI controllers not as a shortcut, but as a tool that requires learning and that will definitely shape their productions. Our brains and bodies are able to adapt to all sorts of strange contraptions (we are monkeys riding bikes, after all!), so let’s use that as a way to look deeper in to the process of creating digital music.

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The Monome Arc

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