Go hands-free or hands-on with the Jamboxx breath-driven synth
By Paul Ridden
October 23, 2012
Digital wind controllers like the Morrison Digital Trumpet give players the power to go beyond mere instrument clones and make virtually any instrument or sound available to the musician. More recently, Ashanti's Beatjazz Hands combined breath, pressure and motion sensors to bring gestures into the equation and free him from the confines of a computer screen. The problem in using such systems for folks with limited cognitive abilities or physical disability is that they can't effectively be used hands-free. A skiing accident in the 1980s left Dave Whalen a quadriplegic, and his burning desire to continue making music has led to the development of Jamboxx, a harmonica-like digital instrument that can be played and controlled using just the head.
Whalen was inspired by the work of Ruud Van Der Wel and the My Breath My Music Foundation in the Netherlands, and worked with the musician and physical therapist on the creation of an electronic wind instrument called the Magic Flute. This instrument features a mouth piece mounted on a tripod that can be tilted up and down by the user. Doing so selects the note to be played while simultaneously blowing into the tube. A control module with integrated display allows the user to change settings and instruments without assistance.
Jamboxx is described as a new USB-powered breath-controlled device modeled after a harmonica, that's designed to be played completely hands-free. It's the result of four years of research and development, and has been designed to harness the power of computers, mobile devices and an expanding array of software applications.
It's a project that Van Der Wel wholeheartedly supports and feels would "be a welcome addition to the very few true musical instruments for my students." So much so, in fact, that he asked his software programmer son Joris to donate some of his time to the venture.
"Our goal is to build an affordable and powerful device for a growing community of both able-bodied and disabled individuals," Whalen told Gizmag. "There are millions of individuals like me that will derive great benefit from this technology, and have a lot of fun. This dream has been funded by family and friends. I don't receive salary and I don't own stock. It is my passion to share this with other persons with disabilities because I know how much it will mean to be able to play music again. I really want this to work."
The current version of Jamboxx comes with a proprietary software suite for playing digital music authored by computer and console game developer 1st Playable Productions. After installation of the software on a Mac or PC system, users can access and play hundreds of digital musical instruments ranging from saxophone to percussion, and violin to French horn.
A built-in karaoke feature can also be launched to play melodies over backing tracks. There's no requirement to read music, as the melodies are displayed on the computer screen with an easy-to-follow numeric tab system.
For the professional musician, the system allows the creation of custom presets including custom scales and features, and is reported to be compatible with most VST, AU or MIDI devices. The device can also be used as an alternate hands-free mouse, digital paint brush or PC game controller.
The Jamboxx team (which also includes Whalen's sister Sue, his close friend Mike DiCesare and experienced software executive Doug Hamlin) has launched a crowd funding campaign on Kickstarter to bring the final design of the device to commercial reality.
A limited "early bird" special will secure a black Jamboxx, a bracket with standard mic stand connector, the Jamboxx Pro Suite software and a USB cable for a pledge of US$299. Once they've been snapped up, the cost will increase to $349 (which is still $50 cheaper than the suggested retail).
Other pledge levels are available, including one set at $20 where the money will be used to create a fund that will go exclusively to provide Jamboxx units to individuals with disabilities, rehab centers, advocacy groups and others who would otherwise be unable to obtain or use the device.
Have a look at the video below showing the very talented Tobias using Jamboxx in saxophone mode.