Yes, he does look like he’s been assimilated by the Borg
A few days ago, my colleague Eric Mack brought together eight of the coolest items produced by 3D printing – I’d now like to add a ninth. Digital music artist and inventor Onyx Ashanti has spent the last couple of years creating a wearable system to help him break away from the confines of the front of a computer screen and create improvised music using wireless gestural interface controllers. His original prototype Beatjazz controller was made from cardboard and featured pressure sensors, accelerometers and an iPhone. The vast majority of the latest version has been 3D printed, and it looks and sounds incredible.
Ashanti – who currently lives and works in Berlin, Germany – told us that he’s been playing digital music for almost 20 years, has spent three years on tour with Soul II Soul and played on the award-winning Basement Jaxx album Kish Kash. He calls his music Beatjazz, which is inspired by the flow of music in DJ sets and described as the creation of continuous live, improvised digital music. He told us that the music results from interaction with an array of software synthesizers, each played one at a time, recorded into a buffer and then looped. The process is repeated until an on-the-fly sonic orchestra is created. The player can add effects, add or remove existing loops, or throw in some new ones when the mood dictates. Beatjazz also caters for gestural control over synths, effects and loops.
The software side of the system is built and designed in Pure Data, and is interfaced using a hardware controller. Ashanti says that he developed his Beatjazz control interface because he had reached the limits of what he could achieve using a midi wind controller. He also admits to being somewhat frustrated – and even a little bored – by using an interface built to resemble its real-world counterpart or always having to stay in the same spot while looking at a computer monitor to create or record music.
“I couldn’t understand why I had to hold my hands and head in this configuration when a digital instrument doesn’t need an acoustic tube to make its sound,” he explained.
He was struck by the idea that breaking down the controller into separate mouthpiece and handheld key units would allow him more freedom of movement when controlling the Beatjazz system. The control interface developed by Ashanti is a three-way wireless network made up of a head-mounted pressure sensor and two hand units, the latter each sporting four pressure-sensitive pads, two joysticks and an accelerometer. The instrument is played using modified saxophone fingerings and exhaled breath registered on a sensor. The multi-color LED lighting is not just for effect, as each color represents a different sound being produced.
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