Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Guitar Machine II

We imagine a future world filled with autonomous entities, where humans share their civilization with sentient beings made out of metals and silicones, that function much like we do. Automation has long been part of the history of human creativity—from the classic player pianos to robotic heavy metal bands. Much of these inventions and ideas take a form of machines as replacements of human endeavor, thereby, arousing the fear of being obsolete.

Musicians have long tried re-inventing themselves through the use of specific instruments, or invention of new instruments and tools for unexplored inspirations. It is also well known in ethnomusicology that an instrument governs the shape of the music played on it—not only the sonic characteristics of the instrument, but what musicians are inclined, or even able, to do with it, from a very basic motor level. On this side of the spectrum, technology is not to replace humans, but rather to help them evolve.

Guitar Machine is a guitar loaded with a variety of robotic components. It negotiates between conventional ways of playing music with electromechanical extensions of the fingertips. It is designed to deconstruct the convention, and mould the human-machine collaboration into a new symbiotic musical species. It is an electromechanical organism, that can express its musicality; but it is only completed when it is paired with a human counterpart–a musician.

One jazz guitarist “improvised” with the robotic guitar, as it played pseudo-randomized patterns of beats. As their duet progressed, he shouted, “It pretty much feels like playing with another person!” I was watching him, and it was much more than playing in tandem with the machine. He was seamlessly transitioning between giving the robot the lead, taking over control, and synthesizing his own playing with the robot’s once he understood what the robot was doing. They were no longer two musicians in conversation; the border between the two diminished in the pursuit of new expression.

The Guitar Machine is not merely to show its efficacy as a self-enhancing prosthesis. It highlights how the intimate relationship between tools and humans can be extended or reshaped. As much as the technology challenges the human musicianship, it invites the human into a delineation and a synthesis of her knowledge and the technology itself.

Many of today’s technological innovations come at the expense of machineries claiming agency from what has always belonged to us. We boldly argue that a more organic and improvisational relationship with technology is necessary. Our design attempts to forge a visible path towards that, instead of suggesting convenience at the expense of human agency.

Please check out our Medium post for more info.

S. Leigh, A. Jain and P. Maes. Exploring Human-Machine Synergy and Interaction on a Robotic Instrument, NIME 2019

Guitar Machine II system includes input means of fretting detection, midi controllers and algorithmic composition. The actuators include:

Solenoid module: high-speed hammering plucking device, up to 400+ bpm in any complex sequence
Coil module: can drive bowing effects on each string individually or in parallel with any input frequency
Motor module: creates extremely high speed tremolo patterns, filling the sonic gap between bowing and plucking
Midi interface: the system can talk to any external midi devices, or software, to be driven through digital compositions