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String Thing
Exploring expressive complexity in music controller hardware interaction

Author: Benjamin Dove (United Kingdom)
Supervisors: Ralph Ammer and Massimo Banzi

Idea/problem/context The sight of a musician playing a traditional instrument, perhaps particularly a stringed one, is a satisfying and intelligible visual counterpart of the sound. Computer-generated and computer-enhanced sounds have enriched musical language and expression. But computer-based music performances still mostly involve people sitting rigidly behind a laptop, their fingers hidden by the screen.

What it is String Thing is a cello-like electronic instrument played by stroking or beating metal rods with the hands. The use of bodily gestures, infinitely variable and visible to the audience, avoids the ‘robotic’ and visually uncommunicative quality typical of computer music.

How it works Four roughly parallel metal rods are each divided into a long and a short section by a bridge element. The pressure and position of the fingers on the longer rod section are continuously sensed to control pitch and expression; pressure on the shorter sections controls velocity, attack and volume. MIDI software converts this information into sound and, through magnets under each rod, vibrates the rod according to the pressure it senses, thus returning haptic feedback to the player. Like a fretless instrument, String Thing produces continuous pitch: notes bend seamlessly into each other. Light from a laser pointer above each rod, reflected as a dot on the player’s finger, is detected by a small webcam in the bridge; this movement controls the pitch.

Value/Potential The instrument and its interface is cheap to produce. Though designed for musicians of varying ability, it offers those who have mastered the subtleties of traditional stringed instruments not only a new range of sounds but a familiar richness of aural and haptic feedback. Audiences, similarly, enjoy the concord of sight and sound associated with traditional music-making.

download QuickTime Movie (video by Andrea Pierri) - 1.66 MB


Benjamin Dove
2005 graduate
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