Students make music with video game controllers
With a joystick in each hand, Hayk Martirosyan ’13 looks like he is ready to play a video game when tinkering with his new invention. But he is actually playing an electronic instrument that he created as a midterm project with classmate Flannery Cunningham ’13, who also made an instrument for the assignment.
For his class, MUS 314/COS 314: Computer and Electronic Music through Programming, Performance, and Composition, Martirosyan built a string instrument with two joysticks — representing the bow and fingerboard found in traditional string instruments — connected to a control panel by cords. Using technology similar to that of Nintendo’s Wii controller, the joysticks track the axes and distance that the cords are pulled out to determine the tone, smoothness and volume of sounds played.
“The strings divide the space into three parts, and based on the position of the string, it makes the sound smooth, adjusts the volume and modifies the tone,” Martirosyan explained. “It’s modeled right now like a real guitar or violin, but in theory, you can change it to sound like a clarinet or a cello. You can add as many strings as you want.”
This information is then translated into synthesized sounds emitted by a speaker.
Though Martirosyan has not named the instrument and does not plan to market it, a friend, James Chu ’13, has already coined its slogan: “Looks like an Xbox, plays like a cello.”
Martirosyan, who also plays trombone and “a little bit of guitar,” said that the variety of joysticks used for video games presents a number of opportunities for creating of new electronic instruments.
“The idea was to show that something electronic doesn’t have to sound like it, to prove that it can sound acoustic and tonal — [it] doesn’t have to be like beeps,” Martirosyan said. “This gives you a free range of motion to do things that wouldn’t be possible to do with a traditional string instrument.”
For her part of the duet, Cunningham programmed a foot pad for the video game Dance Dance Revolution to play piano chords.
“Instead of lighting up arrows on-screen, stepping on each position of the pad plays a different pre-recorded chord, allowing the player to create harmony through choreographed movement,” she explained. “Stepping on the ‘select’ button changes the set of chords available to me at a given time, so I’m not stuck with my first set of eight chords for the duration of the piece.”
The pair’s performance, for which they played a duet composed by Cunningham, intrigued their professor and classmates.
“I was really blown away by the quality of their performance,” Gabriel Greenwood ’12 said. “I think the line separating video gaming from electronic music production is growing increasingly blurred. I wouldn’t be surprised to see instruments resembling those used by Hayk and Flannery appearing in more abstract and creative descendants of the Guitar Hero lineage.”
Music professor Dan Trueman, who taught the class, also offered praise for his students’ creativity, calling their performance “very well done.”
“I think the instruments that Hayk and Flannery built are terrific; this is exactly the sort of project we hope for from our COS/MUS 314 students, and a particularly successful one,” Trueman said in an e-mail.
Outside of the classroom, Martirosyan said he thinks his instrument has some comparative advantages over traditional string instruments.
“It’s cheaper to build, and takes up less space,” he said. “It could be useful in third-world countries where you can’t afford a string instrument, which is usually like $1,000.”
Cunningham predicted that ensembles combining acoustic and electronic instruments will gain popularity in the future. “The medium doesn’t have strict limitations,” she said.