Experimental Music: Composition with an Arduino MIDI Controller
Knobcon Chicagoland, September 2016
With an Arduino, a breadboard, and a handful of parts, you can build a MIDI controller that works as a sequencer or a classic beatbox. But the same design can be used to implement interactive MIDI effects that bend musical time and space. From real-time manipulation of tone clusters to playing the silences between the notes, simple midi parameter misdirection to an exploration of vertical time, hyperrealism and perceptual illusions – one basic Arduino MIDI build can serve as a useful platform for a wide variety of sonic explorations. In this talk, Elliot Inman of Musical Circuits will demonstrate the build and code necessary to get started and demonstrate various musical effects.
Apologies to Hiller and Isaacson, 1959, for use of the title.
The first four ominous notes of the Fifth Symphony are well known: da-da-da-dum! That musical idea seems so obvious now, but think just for a moment about how radical it was and is. First, this is a symphony that doesn’t begin with a note. It begins with a rest, an eighth note rest. It begins with a moment of silence. Second, the motif is only four notes, but the first three notes are the same note, the G, repeated three times. The fourth note, the Eb, is held until the conductor motions to continue. The orchestra is barely two bars into the music when the conductor stops the performance. Finally, if you have the entire score, you can see that every instrument plays those exact same notes (G, G, G, Eb) and does so at ff.
So, Beethoven notated a very loud repetitive group of notes to be played by an orchestra in unison – and, based on the tempo, to play it very fast. He started with silence and, two bars into the symphony, stopped the entire orchestra. And that’s why Beethoven was a genius. That’s why we’re starting with Beethoven. Because… Beethoven.
“Rule #17: If it sounds good and doesn’t smoke, don’t worry if you don’t understand it.” ~ Nicholas Collins, Handmade Electronic Music: The Art of Hardware Hacking, Second Edition, Routledge, 2009, p. 144.
Collins describes it as the “world’s simplest oscillator” and that must be true. One integrated circuit, a capacitor, a resistor, a battery, and a couple of wires. That’s it. There are countless examples of this circuit available on the Internet, but Collins’ Handmade Electronic Music book provides a step-by-step guide for many such circuits. Collins has posted an earlier draft of the manual here.
“What really makes an instrument musical is that a musician decides to make use of it.” ~ Allen Strange, Electronic Music: Systems, Techniques, and Controls (2nd Edition, 1983, p. 2).
This post documents two circuits connecting an Arduino to electronic controls on a breadboard and the programs necessary to generate basic MIDI note commands. These circuits can be used to make music, conduct experiments, or both. For an introduction to Arduino and MIDI, please see Arduino and Midi for Beginners. Or, you can skip all this backstory and just watch the videos: Boogie Bass or Mathematical Midi.
This is a brief introduction to the Arduino, MIDI, and how the Arduino can be used to communicate musical messages. This guide is not a tutorial. This guide provides a quick, concise explanation of these technologies and links to some of the best resources to get started.