The amazing Beatjazz Hands 3D-printed gestural digital music interface
By Paul Ridden
March 7, 2012
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.
"Each of the three units uses an Arduino Fio running Firmata to interface with the sensors, and XBee Series 1 wireless transceivers for communication - with 1mW transceivers on the interface nodes and 63mW Series 1 Pros on the base station nodes," Ashanti told us. "This allows for strong signal on the base station side and reasonable power consumption on the interface side."
Information from sensors on each unit is sent wirelessly to a computer, where the Beatjazz system translates the dance-like movements and controller commands into digital music output.
Full build plans, files and schematics for the early prototype also made it into Volume 28 of MAKE magazine.
Plans to build a better prototype from carbon fiber were abruptly changed when he was introduced to 3D printing in September of last year at the Maker Faire in New York. Fashioning build components by hand can result in finished products that look hand-made, whereas professional-looking designs can be achieved using software on a computer and a 3D printer. Another crowdfunding appeal provided Ashanti with the funds to buy an Emaker Huxley Reprap open-source 3D printer that was also being crowdfunded at the time. The unit's exposed circuitry inspired a number of the design choices for the new Beatjazz controller.
The remainder of 2011 was spent teaching himself to use CAD software ahead of designing and refining the files to be sent to the printer. Ashanti says that around 80 percent of the new controller is 3D printed, making it both durable and lightweight - the headset is said to weigh about the same as an iPhone.
"The freedom of 3D printing is that when I want to evolve some aspect of the interface, I have only to redesign the part and print it," he said. "The ability to create something at home that is cooler than what you get from a big company is going to change the world. On top of that, I use a plastic called PLA (Polylactic Acid), which is plant-derived and bio-degradable, so it's non-toxic (which is great since the printer is right next to my computer)."
"My primary goal is to be able to express myself as fully as possible," he continued. "I want to play the music I hear in my head how and when I hear it. My secondary goal is to share it as an open source project. Once I finish developing the gestural system software, I want to make the whole system downloadable."
"The first iterations will be strictly geek-only but considering that I taught myself most of what I needed to create this system in the last year, it's not unreasonable for anyone with determination to build one. The main things to know would be the software environment, built in Pure Data, a bit of basic electronics, and flute or saxophone fingering. I plan to produce a complete tutorial system so that anyone can go from building it to playing it."
The Beatjazz system is very much a constantly evolving work, and experimentation with the main controller interface will continue. He hopes that the open-source nature of the project will serve to encourage others to take up Beatjazz themselves. Ashanti also shared some other project goals with Gizmag, including a desire to enable physically-challenged musicians to create sophisticated live music using sensors as interface points.
Ashanti has produced the following video of the new 3D printed Beatjazz system in action. Yes, he does look like he's been assimilated by the Borg but that kind of fits the music, doesn't it?
All photos courtesy of Onyx Ashanti and Darren Holliday