Technology has always been a fundamental part of music, whether it’s about crafting a perfect Stradivarius violin or manipulating Justin Bieber’s vocals for a giant worldwide hit single. However, most of the big advances in music technology are restricted to the experts and professionals. Most synthesizers and music software, for example, appear to the amateur as completely impenetrable. That’s not a good thing, says Justin Davis, a guitar player of over two decades. “Ease of access,” he says, “has almost always resulted in a boom of output.” With that in mind, a new category of instrument designers are seeking to make digital music easier than ever to learn and create.
Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms have proven to be marvelous incubators for new musical instruments, allowing wacky ideas that might have gone the way of the keytar to find their footing. The most interesting use some of the same gadgetry that’s found in an everyday smartphone to take them to a totally new place. With technology like Wi-Fi, accelerometers, gyroscopes, and proximity sensors now so cheap and so tiny, there’s no reason not to embed them into weird, futuristic instruments.
The Instrument 1, from Artiphon, is perhaps the most intriguing of these. It’s shaped vaguely like the neck of a guitar, but is equipped with a huge number of different ways to play it: you can strum it like a guitar, or treat your phone like a violin’s bow and wave it over the neck, or place it on a table and play it like a piano or drum machine. It’s equipped with pressure sensors, so the harder you strum or tap, the louder the sound.
But most interesting of all is the way Instrument 1 seamlessly plugs into a smartphone, allowing you to instantly record with easy-to-use apps like Apple’s Garage Band. This is an instrument that’s exactly what you make of it. “The concept of plugging in a device that will allow a user to essentially play a mock-up of any instrument in the world and, presumably, store and share the creations on a unified platform, has massive potential,” says Davis.
Other examples of the new crop of musical instruments are even more futuristic. The Remidi is a pair of gloves, literally: it’s embedded with sensors in all the fingers and palms and allows the user to use their own hands—any musician’s best tools—as synthesizers. The AirJamz is a wristband sensor that turns air-guitar-like motions into real sounds, which appear on your smartphone for editing, remixing and sharing. And Mogees is a tiny vibration sensor that you slap onto basically any surface, from tables to balloons, that picks up the sound of the player hitting that surface. It makes the entire world into a musical instrument.
These devices, and many more to come, are designed from the ground up for the smartphone generation. They connect in ways instruments have never been able to connect before, and may produce an entire population that views making music as no harder than sending a text.