Jan Schacher at Sonic Circuits. Is the object to his left the best form factor for the situation – or not? (CC) IntangibleArts / Hawkins.

The sight has become ubiquitous: if you’re hearing an electronic live act or computer DJ, there will be a laptop hovering nearby. The glowing logo of one fruit-themed computer brand in particular has appeared all over shots of artists, and the phrase “computer music” has come to be interchangeable with “laptop music” or “laptop performer.”

You can hide the laptop, of course. But, while that’s a valid choice, you do have to wonder why it should be necessary. After all, we don’t hide instruments, or mixers, or microphones, or performers – and, to be sure, the performers aren’t always lookers. And so, the object is there, and reflected onto it is the aura of the performer.

Laptops as a form factor aren’t going anywhere just yet. In fact, I think we may discover by way of contrast why the design of a laptop can be useful. But if it’s not the end of the laptop, it might be the end of the laptop’s hegemony. “Computer music,” after all, once meant hauling computer towers onstage, something reserved these days for a select few. The laptop’s monopoly hold on most computer performers isn’t a sure thing. And this could be the year the tide turns.

Oh, and not just because of the iPad. But we’ll get to that.

David Merrill, David Bouchard, and Ben Vigoda made the Audiopint in 2007, merging the flexibility of a computer with the plug-and-play satisfaction of hardware. Build a similar box today, though, and you can make it more powerful, more reliable – and much cheaper.

The Forerunners

The idea of putting a computer into some other form factor for music is nothing new. Plenty of artists do carry rack-mounted equipment or small form factor PCs. PC vendors catering to musicians sell computers in racks, and there are dedicated rack-mounted machines running Linux like the MUSE Receptor.

The problem with these machines is simple. You can’t tote them back to your hotel room and continue working on your set. You lose some of the advantages of computers – like graphics.

Other solutions are simply too big, or too costly, to work for an average musician on a budget. Open Labs has put computers into keyboards, but the specs of these machines don’t differ greatly from standard computers, whereas the cost difference is significant. They may work well for someone, but the test remains: can you just put a keyboard next to a laptop and call it a day? If you can, then all but a few die-hard touring artists may move on.

Some of the happiest musicians I’ve seen are the ones who have embraced tablet PCs. “I was into tablets before tablets were cool” would be an appropriate thing for them to wear on a t-shirt, especially in 2010. These computers should have, by all estimates, been a huge success, at least among PC users. They have the advantages of a laptop, but can convert into something that will rest on a music stand. They can be used with pen input and touch. They don’t have to loom in front of artists on a table, and you can pick them up while they’re on without performing a balancing act. The reasons these tablets didn’t catch on, though, are pretty well known: they commanded a price premium, many weren’t available with higher-end specs, and they lacked compelling software tailored to their form factor.

In each of these cases, of course, some brave individuals carried on with these solutions. Some key ingredients were simply missing to catapult the idea to a broader audience. You might want to go befriend one of those individuals, because I think they were onto something. And I think the rest of us might soon have rigs closer to theirs.

Signs of Change

The iPad, Bringer of Slates

In the midst of the iPad-crazy tech bubble, Rana Sobhany aka DJ Rana June has been getting a lot of press and Twitterati attention for using iPads in place of decks to DJ. Of course, the only thing that makes this a “DJ” setup in the eyes of observers is the presence of a mixer in between the two Apple slate devices. That’s caused criticism from some – DJ Tech Tools’ Ean Golden lamented that the the whole situation was kind of irritating.

I’m not about to jump on the hype train. Novelty, by definition, wears off. So let’s consider what Rana is really doing here. I actually find it interesting to watch people pick up devices, to see how they approach them. In this case, the iPad is replacing three different categories of devices: conventional digital decks like the CDJ, DSP-based sound hardware like the ElecTribe, and, most importantly, laptops. Software developers may want to take note of the fact that she’s consuming apps in a disposable way, swapping from one $2 app to another, rather than devoting time to mastery and greater investments of time and treasure. But beyond that, the main revelation here is that the tablet is the computer. And the laptop computer, like specific sound hardware and various arbitrary devices for playing back recorded sound on circular discs before it, proves not to be as sacred as the sound-making activity itself.

Translation: look out, MacBook Pro. Read Rana’s take on what’s happening on her site. And another thing, MacBook – it’s not just the iPad gunning for your job, but a bevy of other tablets and slates in its wake.

Of course, the Revolution won’t necessarily be at the Apple Store. (Where’s Gil Scott-Heron when you need him? “The Revolution will not be presented in a keynote by Steve Jobs. The Revolution will not have an unboxing video. The Revolution will not be first seen in Williamsburg. The Revolution will not appear on Twitter.”)

The computer, in new boxes

iPads may look to musicians a bit like computers without the keyboards, but the Orange PC (“OPC”) looks more familiar. It’s a portable amp with a computer inside – or is that a computer with a portable amp outside? We still don’t know exact pricing or other details on this just-announced beast, but part of what makes it special is that it seems to have big-boy computer specs. It has 4GB RAM, runs a full 64-bit version of Windows 7, has a whopping eight USB ports and wifi, plus an optional dedicated ATI GPU. Check out more details here:

The computer, gone mobile and embedded

I was struck this month, even more than interest in the iPad, by interest in things completely unlike conventional computers – Apple tablet or otherwise. Digital musicians are rediscovering synth hardware. But they bring to those kinds of sonic devices some of the expectations of computers. They want synths to be customizable, modular, extensible. They want to be able to reprogram them, to make their hardware synths platforms on which they can run software.

For me, personally, instead of an iPad, I bought a Shruti-1. It may look like a synth with an analog filter. It’s actually a computer. Then again, once MPC users start running their own firmware to change its capabilities, maybe the MPC really is a computer, too.

Consider, too, the Minicommand. It uses the Arduino environment so you can run code sketches on the hardware, programming custom rhythms into your drum machine. It is, in effect, a pocketable computer. So, too, could be discarded mobile phones running Android as their operating system and connecting to physical hardware through hacks to their USB port.

But wait a minute. You’ve heard all of this before. You heard all of it years before. So what’s different this time?

Why everything will change – No, seriously, for real this time!

Advances in computing in music have, for years, been counted in processor cycles and growing performance. But aside from the fact that Moore’s Law never said we’d continue to watch machines get faster (read up on that), something else is happening. Computing is getting cheaper and lighter. It’s generating less heat and consuming less power. That means that the intelligence of computing can appear in new devices.

Um… okay, actually, you’ve probably heard that before, too. What’s different now is, well, we’re older. The technology is more mature – and so are the software and hardware designs. In fact, it may be because you’ve been hearing this story over and over again that the technologists designing the solutions are closer to getting it right.

Getting new form factors right has specific musical relevance when it comes to computer performance. Form factors matter in music. Just take a look at the history of musical instruments. Instruments are constantly redesigned in different sizes, carved with different decorations, merged with furniture, folded into walls, re-engineered to be held differently or played differently.

There are many wonderful things about laptops. They retain the greatest power-to-weight ratio for computers. They (usually) come with lots of ports for expansion. The hinge means you can see the screen without propping them up, and the screen is big enough to show lots of stuff. The keyboard lets you type. Deviate from the design, and this and many other advantages disappear. For all these reasons, expect to see traditional laptops onstage for a long time to come.

That doesn’t mean computers have to be the only solution for everyone. There are plenty of reasons to suspect we may finally see a greater number of other form factors in computing in music performance – and to me, nothing tests the use of computers more than someone going in front of a crowd of people with one.

In other words, there are reasons computer music could go from majority to plurality.

Reason #1: Computing goes cheaper, cooler, leaner. Look inside the iPad, or your cell phone, or those new netbooks, or slates, or tablets, and you’ll see the same thing: new architectures that fit in new boxes and last longer on batteries. Heck, even Roland is now touting new more power-efficient DSP on their devices, which means suddenly a lot of Roland gear runs on batteries for extended periods of time.

Reason #2: The ARM race. Remember RISC (reduced instruction set computing)? Remember the Acorn computer – which, incidentally, ran the precursor to today’s Sibelius notation software? Most people probably don’t, because these technologies were supposed to be on the losing side of a battle. The world became “Intel Inside” and the PC platform, and the rest is history. Or is it? Well, just as the 90s were about computing platforms that ran on x86 (read: PCs, Windows), the world today is all about ARM, RISC-based architectures descended from the Acorn. Some billion phones a year use almost entirely ARM architectures. Mobile tech is reaching all the parts of the world’s population who didn’t even have computers or basic infrastructure. ARM is now the largest chip architecture out there by an order of magnitude. And just as the PC platform stormed the world because it was licensed to partners, ARM, too, is growing in dominance because no one company controls its manufacture. ARM is everywhere. It’s the future. And that means it’s also the future of music making with computers. Clarification: I should note that ARM does charge its licensees, but, just as installing Windows proved lucrative for an industry of computer vendors and their associated ecosystem, so, too, a number of big hardware players have found there’s great economic incentive to build their own ARM chips.

Want something new to happen with computer music? Well, billions of people who never had a computer before are getting computers. Some of that future of electronic music likely will come from people not reading this story – and that’s a good thing. You may have scoffed at the One Laptop Per Child initiative, but in the meantime, the world is rapidly becoming One Mobile CPU Per Person.

Reason #3: Open OSes. Don’t laugh. How do you run on billions of devices with no central vendor? We may need the opposite of the kind of control we’ve traditionally seen in operating systems. Linux is a logical front-runner. (If it’s not Linux, it might be the Linux-based Android or Symbian – all three are mobile-ready and open-source, and each have some serious market share trends behind them.)

You can pick up a computer for $100 or $150, or a cell phone, or what will soon include a bunch of cheap tablets, and run something as common as Ubuntu Linux, today. A surprising amount of your software will “just work” on the ARM platform – even though there’s no direct equivalent on Mac or Windows. You’ll accordingly see a lot of big names investing. ARM is inspiring the competition, too – Intel is investing heavily in Linux and in making their x86 architecture leaner, meaner, cooler, and cheaper, too.

Put these pieces together, and things get interesting – and cheap. Think about $200 slates that run free, powerful sound creation environments like Pd or SuperCollider, $300 netbooks that could fold like a book and balance atop a keyboard, and the countless Linux, Windows, Android, Chrome, and other devices coming your way. Yep, even those Chrome browserbooks might work: you could have a UI built in HTML5 Canvas and JavaScript, with sound running native behind the scenes, and your entire music set stored on the cloud. Play the gig, output audio, and have the live set up on Facebook and Soundcloud before you’ve even wound your audio cables.

The ability to hold vintage digital synthesis in your hand spawned entirely new breeds of music software, and then a musical phenomenon, something that seemed retro but turned out to be new. And that’s just what used Game Boys did. One key ingredient: they were cheap. Photo (CC-BY-SA) Lucius Kwok.

Reason #4: Build it, and they will come. The hardware is going to be out there: cheap, flexible, numerous in quantity and variety. People will use it and do stuff.

But whereas laptop musicians today sometimes seem like armies of look-alike MacBook users, I don’t think this brave, new world is going to look the same way. The Mac laptop (and to lesser extent, its PC brethren) became popular with good reason. But now, as digital performance techniques become more widespread and the artists make greater demands on their gear, maybe variety is exactly what’s needed. I think you may soon see everything from strange hardware boxes to iPads to slates and tablets and handheld gadgets and more showing up onstage.

Musical invention, when it’s healthy, doesn’t lead to one or two designs. It leads to absurd, insane chaos. Take even the piano, an emblem of standardization and mass instrumental consumption. The piano has spawned endless mutations, sizes, manufacturers, sounds, and so on. Or the guitar: the icon of the 20th century mass music culture was at its best when people were abusing it and feeding it through boxes that destroyed its sound and breaking every rule of how you’re supposed to play it. And that’s about as conventional as instruments get.

The musical applications that start to get most interesting:

  • Boxes with physical controls – think stomp pedals, faders, knobs, the like – but programmable computer brains
  • Intelligent, cheap synths, effects, and the like that can be easily reprogrammed
  • The return of the hardware sequencer (as evidenced by the minicommand), now with the intelligence and flexibility and customizability of software
  • Tablet computers, from the iPad to new devices that also handle inputs like the stylus, that – far from being just a controller – take the role of the computer, an all-in-one digital brain for a performance. Via hardware support, they could still connect to high-quality audio outputs, headphone monitoring, and external MIDI keyboards or physical drum pads. They could become interactive canvases that would make Xenakis proud.
  • Computers that can double as physical instruments, music stands, amps (like the Orange) or other musical devices.

Trivia note: in 1977, Xenakis implemented his UPIC graphical system on a Hewlett Packard computer. In 2010, HP will introduce the Slate. I have no idea if the Slate will be any good, but all of this has happened in roughly the span of my lifetime. Sometimes, technology takes time.

What’s next?

I realize I’m making an argument about musical practice based on technology, and that that argument isn’t entirely complete – but that’s what blogs can be for. I just want to introduce the idea first. I actually have some ideas about technologies that could enable the sort of performance changes I’m talking about, and ways they could be more musically useful (which is what really matters). But I’ll keep that for another day. In the meantime, I’m interested to hear what you think.

I think we all know why we love laptops: they’re cheap, they’re powerful, they have big, bright, usable screens, and they can move from the desk to the tray table on a plane to a stage situation with aplomb.

And I do pick “live” as the context for a reason: desktop computers can still best even laptops when it comes to bang-for-buck in the studio, if something doesn’t have to leave a tabletop.

The question is, simply, is that all there is? Some of you are already using mobile phones, Game Boys, tablet PCs, netbooks, PSPs, embedded hardware, Arduinos, homebrewed synths, modular synths…

As the digital landscape continues to evolve in the mobile and embedded realms, what sorts of solutions are you dreaming of for playing?

For further reading…

Palm Sounds, a site that has championed alternative form factors and mobile music production in its very charter, has an interesting take on all of this:

Where will the desktop go?

He argues that Apple’s laptop line is now lagging the iPad and iPhone in innovation. I’m not entirely sure I agree. Apple’s pace with the MacBook line is dependent on the availability of chips from Intel, NVIDIA, and many other vendors. Evolution there may indeed seem slow, but then, the laptop space has long required price/performance/heat/battery compromises, and has always been more or less iterative and evolutionary. Also, I think when Apple says “mobile devices company,” they’re lumping in sales from their Mac laptops because it makes their numbers look more impressive. (I would have to look closer at their numbers, though.)

What is interesting to me is that laptops, too, may benefit from the new mobile center of gravity, with touch, stylus, low-power/low-heat, and new operating systems and user interfaces trickling “up” to the more powerl machines. Apple’s line is more streamlined, so some of this variety may appear first on the PC, but looking at laptops generally, there are some interesting changes in store – all making the laptop more mobile and more flexible as a musical device.