We looked at the arc controller, and interviewed creator Brian Crabtree, early this year. In a way, the design is as much conceptual, kinetic sculpture attached to a computer as it is music hardware. It’s not for everyone, but it does inspire some sound designers and composers whose work I love, giving it a secondary advantage – without owning one, I can still see people doing interesting things with it and find musical discoveries in their work.

stretta in his latest video turns the controller into synthesized sounds that reference in the title of the piece the Dharma Wheels, the objects of Buddhist reflection. A cycle of birth and rebirth seems as appropriate to the act of musical composition and sound creation as metaphor I can imagine. And so, the wheels of the arc, ringed by dancing LED lights, become sparkling meditative wheels in motion, powered by simple, FM-modulated sounds in a ringing reverb. (That reverb is one of my favorites – Eos by Audio Damage.)

The work is all Creative Commons-licensed. In that spirit, I’m going to copy streta’s thoughts below, as I think anyone who enjoys sound design will get a kick out of his thought process.

holocene by stretta

hardware: arc4
software: electric dharma wheels

I received a production-run arc4 with the final firmware on Friday. This signaled a mad scramble to update my work for that and the latest serialosc with arc support so it’ll be ready when people start receiving their units in a few days. So what do I do on Saturday? Make a new app, of course. Sure, that totally sounds like the responsible thing to do.

After receiving the arc4, I thought it might be a good idea to produce an example that demonstrates a ‘bank’ of encoder values that you can switch between. That gave birth to an application idea involving triggering modal notes from a pool of probabilities across three octaves of scale degrees. There is a separate bank of pitches depending on clockwise or counterclockwise rotation so you can shift the harmony with a simple gesture. The weighting of scale degrees is programmable and editable in real time on screen or with a MIDI controller. This allows for a more controlled structuring of compositional development over longer periods of time. The speed of the rotation determines how often a note is triggered, and can also be used as a modulation parameter for the FM synthesis engine.

Relevant synthesis parameters are also editable on the arc as the notes are triggered. The state of these parameters is overlaid on the LEDs, so interesting patterns emerge when this mode is engaged. There was a really awesome bug where switching editing modes also transposed the output modally, so I built in a score feature that allows you to advance a programmed chord progression with a button push.

A sit-the-arc-in-your-lap-and-doodle app has been on my mind a lot and I have at least three good starts in this area, but other priorities have often pushed these out of the way. The prototype arc2 I had lacked the mounting bracket for the USB cable and the logic board was floating free inside the enclosure, so I always had to use it (carefully) on a stationary, flat surface. It is really nice to have an arc that can be moved around or used in the lap. My cat disagrees.

I recorded this video, holocene, as a demonstration of this app, which I’m calling electric dharma wheels. This is the raw output from the electric dharma wheels, with some Eos reverb added after the fact.

more information about monome can be found at monome.org

more information about me can be found at stretta.com


  • kramer

    everything old is new… again

  • bar|none

    Is everyone tongue-tied? This video blew me away..incredibly creative and beautiful. If this doesn't speak to you, you might be dead.

  • kid versus chemical

    "It’s not for everyone, but it does inspire some sound designers and composers whose work I love, giving it a secondary advantage – without owning one, I can still see people doing interesting things with it and find musical discoveries in their work"

    Well said dude (as always)

  • Stunning! Going to sleep now and dream of wheels of sound.

  • loopstationzebra

    Absolutely beautiful. Love the arc.

    But where does he mention Buddhist reflection on his blog? I can't find anything he's written along those lines.

    Can't the music stand on it's own merits without some hocus pocus mumbo jumbo. I don't need to know that what is happening sonically or visually is a reference to the wheels of life, lol. In fact, I'd rather NOT fucking know ANYTHING about a piece when I hear it, and often don't care to know after I hear it. I'd rather form my own visions and conclusions about any piece of art, as opposed to having it spoon fed me.

    Joe Jackson rather famously stopped making music videos in the 80s because he said the visuals totally ruined the experience of the listener forming their own mental imagery. He really went after Jazz musicians who also started making videos, lol. Explaining something behind an instrumental piece is the same thing that Joe was talking about, but in a different form. Again, this generation of electronic laptop artists cannot seem to just STFU and let the music stand for itself. There always has to be PARAGRAPHS of information and data and rambling musings about their philosophy and motivations and math behind the music.

    It's one thing to provide some nice background on the gear or technique, but it's quite another to have to suffer through endless PhDs about the piece.

  • ooot

    smells like youtube comments on here.

  • Peter Kirn

    @loopstationzebra: I described that somewhat inaccurately; only the title of the piece references the Buddhist imagery, but I found it a provocative metaphor.

    I'm a writer. I use words to write about music. This is a website that features writing. Get over it.

  • Chad

    Thanks to Loopstationzebra for bringing the shrill tone of Youtube discourse to this site.  I, for one, am enormously grateful.  Reading that thing made me feel like my skull was collapsing, which is a refreshing sensation.

    Thanks for explaining to us how you don't need explanation, yet here you are reading a blog about music technology and process.  Enlightening.

    – c

  • Chad

    The video is gorgeous and inspiring.  Stretta is clearly a brilliant man.  I tried to figure out causality — how the gestures and lights were affecting (or responding to) the music.  Couldn't suss it out, but I guess I will find out soon enough.  Bought an Arc2.

    Now, of course, I am wishing I bought an Arc4!

    – c

  • gunboatD

    great sounds. nice video.
    and i'm glad we have a site here where we can talk about the process *in addition to* admiring the finished product. To me, CDM and noise pages are places (two out of many) where i get my musical education. it helps to know process; it gets you where you want to go. once you know the process, you can subvert it, circumvent it, or do whatever you like. and the best way to know the process is to engage in thoughtful discussion about the process.

  • Benny

    Mmmm, not my cup of tea. I found it musically not really interesting and have the urge to say something like "Look, pretty blinking lights…"

  • loopstationzebra

    @chad You're confused. I don't need endless ramblings about the philosophical or mathematical reasonings behind a piece of music. I do, however, usually enjoy Peter's musings on digital music.

  • Peter Kirn

    Well, I think the ramblings are like the music. Sometimes, the ramblings work for someone; sometimes they don't.

  • loopstationzebra

    🙂 You know I love you, Peter, don't you? Please don't let my occasional trolling distract you from this important point. And when are you going to get CDM on Twitter??

  • Peter Kirn

    Heh, no, I'm open to criticism.

    http://twitter.com/cdmblogs ?

  • Peter Kirn

    Yeah, I probably shouldn't keep that link such a secret… been sitting on my to do list!

  • Beautiful. I would like to have such interface.

  • loopstationzebra

    Nice, tnx. Hmm. Yeah couldn't find that under a search @ twitter.

  • Random Chance

    Seems I'm the only one here who misses some crucial information. If someone writes about how he made a piece, I want to know more than just dropping a few terms. For instance, if someone is talking about probabilities I would like to know the exact random processes involved. Less talk (as in words) and more formulas if there's an explanation at all. 

    Besides, I really like the outcome (at least the parts with the lower modulation index). Sounds pretty musical to my ears for what is supposed to be a bunch of random variables. I can't imagine staring at this controller for long, though, but it's a nice piece of engineering (hopefully they included a global setting for LED brightness even if it's just a trimpot).

  • @random chance – each LED has an assignable brightness between 8 states communicated through OSC. 

  • Hey active… I'm pretty sure it is 16 variable stages… although you are not going to really tell the difference between individual stages… which makes it more like 4 truly usable stages.

    "/ring/line n x1 x2 l

    set leds on encoder n (0-1 or 0-3) between (inclusive) x1 and x3 to level l (0-15). direction of set is always clockwise, with wrapping. "

    Glad to see less hate…

    Hey loopstation, its good to see your trollin again.. but seriously you have to give up the anti-intellectual argument. You have every right in the world to skip the discussion and just listen to the track, but trying to impose your preference on others is getting old