Instrument Design Considerations

Posted on Posted in Thoughts

For many years I have been using and/or building novel musical instruments (both acoustic and electronic). Innovations in the tools we use to create music is, in my opinion, just as important as developing new ways to use what already exists. Lately I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the topic and I felt like sharing some of the questions I ask myself when approaching the subject.

Is there a need?
This is a massive gray area and ultimately a very personal question. One tool or feature could mean the world to one or two people but absolutely nothing to everyone else. Does that make it worth it? If you are the one or two people who would benefit from it then maybe yes. Every instrument or interface need not have mass appeal. David Tudor is a perfect example of this. The circuits he built were designed specifically to be difficult for anyone else use. They were his own personal instruments. That does not make them any more or less valid as a piano or violin because his music could not have been created with anything else, and other types of music could not be created with them.

The most important thing is that a need exists at all. Developing anything requires time and probably money (at least in the form of time), so if you are making a solution there had best be a problem for it to fix first. “This would be cool” is never as good of a reason as “this would be useful.”

What do you gain and what do you give up?
Instruments are inherently about trade-offs. They are tools designed to make certain things possible while making other things more impossible. Take the piano for instance. It allows one to play any combination of (in theory) up to 88 different notes at once, each at (in theory) any dynamic level. That’s great but what do we lose? Well: continuous sustain, fine grained control over pitch, the ability to stuff it in your carry-on for a flight, etc. These were all things that had to be considered when the piano was being conceived.

Especially in the digital world, there is always this notion that “anything is possible.” This does not however mean that everything is possible at the same time. If the intent is to make something human-controllable, you are always limited by the fact that we only have 10 fingers, 10 toes, 2 nostrils, 2 eyes, one mouth… you get the picture. One person can only do so much at once. It doesn’t matter how many awesome input devices you use, at some point you just run out of input.

“So what about networking? Let’s have a bunch of people work together!” While I’m always a fan of networking, what you gain in bodies you lose in coordination. This can be a good or a bad thing depending on what you actually want.

“Well then, I’ll just make an AI!” Ok cool. At that point you aren’t directly controlling anything, which once again can be good or bad depending on what you want. If you are willing to let your 1337 h4x0rz AI program make all the decisions then great! That in turn means that you are giving up all immediate control.

No matter what solution you come up with: it’s all a trade-off. Find whatever balance makes you happy and go with it!

How much money will this make me?
… you’re doing it wrong! The correct question is “how much music will this make me?” If you make something that will be used in one work you create that will only be performed once ever, is it worth it to make the thing? Maybe; see question 1 above. It is however worth considering the longevity of an instrument. Once again, especially in the digital world there is this idea that “I made this sound specifically for this piece!” While that’s totally cool, could it be used elsewhere too? I don’t know, it depends, but it’s something you should at least think about.

There are of course plenty of other things to consider but these are a few of the major ones for me.