We hear lots of discussion of how to make better digital instruments. But to fully understand instrument design, it’s often best to look at instruments from around the world that have evolved over centuries. (Hey, these synthesizers and such, by comparison, are mere infants.)

Here’s a fantastically virtuostic performance from 11 year-old Sirena Huang, via June Cohen on the TEDtalks blog. Following the music, she discusses in frank terms why the instrument is such a timeless design. She’s got a smart audience for such thoughts: the performance comes from the Technology, Entertainment, Design conference, a legendary gathering of “thinkers and doers”. And while Sirena feigns surprise that her violin would be included with “real” technology like an iPod, I think she recognizes the violin is the better design by far.

Embedding their videos doesn’t seem to work, so I suggest checking out the story directly:

Sirena Huang on TEDTalks [Video links and comments, TEDblog]

Thanks to our friend Matrix of Matrixsynth fame for this. The TEDblog has plenty of other music coverage, including a similarly virtuostic video of pianist Jennifer Lin, not to mention lots of other general cool tech and non-tech topics.

Notably, on the topic of violins, the blog has a mini review of the book Stradivari’s Genius by Tony Faber, exploring the history of the most famous of violins.

Will digital instruments ever match an instrument like the violin? I tend to look at it the other way: watching a great performance is as much about the player as it is the design of the instrument. Practice your favorite digital instrument for a lifetime, and see what happens. And keep in mind that “easier” isn’t always better. A violin is anything but intuitive, and sounds awful when you first play it.

  • Adrian Anders

    True that man. I tried learning the sax in middle school, and I sounded soooooo shitty for years til the point that I eventually gave up on it. I just didn't have the patience needed to get even modest skill, let alone a Coltrane level of one.

    So I picked up the computer instead. Hardly need to practice, a whole orchestra and beyond of sounds. Perfect for my quick fix, small effort, slack-ass lifestyle. 😉


  • Nik

    I believe this violin is a lot more modern than the 16th century one. 🙂 Violins are improving, so is my instrument, the recorder. What's going on with music tech is just what musicians and instrument makers have been doing all along, making the instrument a little bit better.

    This girl makes a great performance and really takes the stage into her own hands. Too much have I seen "laptop-musicians" sitting with their hands in their laps waiting for the computer to finish performing. I hope we can use music technology to take traditional instruments in new directions and design new instruments. For those who are going to use the computer as THE instrument on stage, I hope they'll learn to master it the way this girl has done with the violin.

    Adrian, I'm happy to hear you found your instrument, but I regret to say that I have yet to see a laptop musician get to Coltrane level one. I hope the first will be you, but I promise you that, just like with any other instrument, the path is lots of practice, patience, fun and exploring

  • Fair enough, Nik — but I know plenty of players who play 18th Century violins. (And plenty of early music aficionados who don't think those "new-fangled" 18th Century models are an improvement!)

    And as for playing laptops live, I think it does require practice. A lot of us are still figuring out how to play them. To me, though, the laptop is like the soundboard on a piano: it's the bit making the sound. So I still believe in playing with some kind of physical interface, like a keyboard or drum pad. If *that* doesn't look musical, it's probably because I need to practice some more. 🙂

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  • It's an interesting subject. Are synths infants, or are they *inheritors* of all that evolution? Kurzweil, for example, views human technology as the product of 5 billion years of evolution on Earth (and just happens to have a synth company named after him). Clearly, though, there are discontinuities. Synths suck, for example.

    Evolution does a better job than anything else, but it isn't perfect. And in fact, one can usually count on a few flaws ("frozen accidents") that are easily correctable with engineering. I wouldn't be surprised if these people are right, for example:


    At least, there's no reason I can think of why front-loading laundry washers shouldn't have been standard 50 years ago.


  • Ever consider driving a laptop with a violin? Have here a few mixdowns of live performances of an octophonic, six string electric violin.

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