There’s plenty of rightful skepticism about the use of mainstream displays for multitouch in general purpose computing. And why not? As a full-time replacement for other input, multitouch probably doesn’t make sense. But for music, the equation is changing. Multitouch capabilities are showing up on commodity-priced PC computers like the multi-touch enabled HP laptop models – the tx2z seen here starts, incredibly, at US$850. And because computer musicians are looking for more control, having a touch-enabled display (even single-touch) just makes sense.

The screen for a laptop musician is a huge piece of real estate. Finally, instead of sitting dumbly in front of you glowing, it can become an X/Y controller or give you shortcuts for controls or provide additional parameters. Yes, using a touchscreen exclusively can result in the dreaded “gorilla arm.” The ergonomics of using a vertically-oriented screen are extremely poor – if you use it exclusively for an extended period of time. But if you look at the way people are using these touchscreens, for incidental control in combination with other things – and the ability of convertible laptops to transform into a horizontal orientation – I think this is no longer the deal killer it once was.

At top, an HP laptop ($850) plus the free version of Sensomusic’s Usine is all you need to create a multitouch interface for Ableton Live. Correction: right now this is limited to single touch only, but multitouch is supported in the hardware, in drivers, soon in Windows 7, and support is promised for a future version of Usine. The point still stands — as does the ability to optimize controls for your fingers. Being able to use more than one at once will, of course, be that much better.

Fractal (see Myspace) uses the combination to play Ableton Live with some simple controls. If you get hooked on Usine, you can get the full “Pro” version for EUR70 with additional patches and objects.

The one major remaining obstacle to multitouch, at least, is cost. If you don’t especially fancy buying a new HP laptop, add-on kits still run in the range of US$800-900 (meaning, ironically, you might as well just buy the HP instead). Laptop vendors are still slow to adopt the technology, though that could change when Windows 7 ships later this year. (On the other hand, tablet PCs, even when they were shipping in relative quantity, often were constrained in available configurations and either skimped on specs or demanded a significant premium.)

But let’s not complain too much. The simple reality is you can add an HP laptop now to a live rig as a performance instrument for under a grand.

To see something else with Ableton Live, here’s a video by Andrew Coenen from earlier this year of Pance Party’s Bartelby playing Live with the open source Max Multitouch Framework. This is a more sophisticated setup – it requires a table-style setup using the Frustrated Total Internal Reflection tracking method. But the idea is basically the same. (By the way, Max 5 is an optimal choice because of its excellent widgets, and it’s great having this choice, but it’s a little odd having an “open source” framework in proprietary software. If you want a fully open source solution, there are options like PyMT, which we recently saw on Create Digital Motion. And that said, there’s no reason you can’t try out both.)

And yes, someone has done Reason, too (poor-quality video, but gives you an idea).

Updated: As I’m posting this, I see that Oliver Chesler is writing about how effective touch interfaces can be for synthesizers – just using iPhone as the example (but the idea still holds). And, in fact, you don’t necessarily even need multitouch to make this work; single touch would be effective.

The example: an upcoming iPhone/iPod touch synth from the folks who gave us the Curtis granular synth, The Strange Agency.

Sound Scope Space for the iPhone [Wire to the Ear]

Sound Scope Space demo from strange agency on Vimeo.

Of course, I have to point out at this point, this is another reason that OSC (OpenSoundControl) support becomes essential. Whether or not conventional gear vendors adopt OSC, it’s a logical way to deal with the growing number of touch-enabled devices, from your own display to your iPhone.

I expect this could all accelerate as we near Windows 7’s release. (You don’t need Windows 7 – HP is doing just fine without it – but the presence of in-box APIs for paging through photo galleries and the like is almost certain to encourage Microsoft’s hardware partners.) Stay tuned.

More Examples

$200 Makes Your Laptop Touch-Enabled; Usine Music Demo

Sensomusic Usine + Ableton Live = Modular Touchscreen Interface