· 4 min read
How to Invent New Musical Instruments, and Why You Should: The Joydrums Manifesto
Written by Yzhk
My neck cracks. It makes a loud popping noise when I roll my head, only on the left side. I gained this ability from playing the viola with really bad posture for way too long. The viola is about the biggest instrument a person can fit under their chin and play with a bow. This makes it the lowest member in the viola da braccio (Italian for "arm instrument") family, but even still it's a relatively high pitched string instrument. It can't make a lower tone than C3 because humans can't physically hold a bigger instrument on their arm. It's sonically limited by its acoustic physics.
Luckily in the future (now) we aren't limited by acoustic physics. We can recreate sound at will with sampling, and synthesize anything we can't physically record. With DAWs and modular electronic patches musicians have more power than ever to enact our musical, textural, and compositional whims. But with this increased precision comes a psychological shift in the way we interface with the music making process. This is where new instruments come in, to bridge the gap between playing live - improvising and collaborating, and the granular control of sound design that you can achieve in a DAW.
When I started working on my new instrument Joydrums, a hybrid beat pad/loop device you play with a game controller, this was one of the challenges in mind. New musical instruments should be invented to solve a specific musical necessity, and in my circumstance I wanted an instrument that could play the intricately programmed drum patterns of IDM and Breakcore in real time. This goal guided my design process.
I accomplished the "sound" of Breakcore drums by using beat repeaters, the equivalent of a set of tiny loopers set to rhythmic divisions. By playing samples with the four main buttons and two triggers of a game controller, and playing eight different beat repeaters variations with the cardinal directions of the analog sticks, a musician can chop samples live. The repeaters can all be set to any time, and overlapped, so the palette of possible loops is pretty wide. Using math (scary) I generalized time signatures, meaning you can loop 1/8th notes, or 1/7th notes, or 69/42nd notes. You can also "tripletize" them, and I plan to expand this idea in the future to any possible tuples.
A large part of the beginning of the design process was asking myself what I wished my current tools had, and designing an instrument around those capabilities. A beat pad is fine for playing one shots, but it can't loop and sample itself easily. And beat repeaters by themselves are fine, but often they're limited in loop length and variety, and have to be controlled with LFOs or randomized gates. By combing them together I could achieve a sound that otherwise would have taken exponentially longer to program and chop by hand.
So if that's how I designed my new musical instrument, the next most important question is why? Why a game controller? As I see it, there are several important reasons why a game controller makes for a good musical interface. A game controller is idiomatic, ergonomic, and economic.
Playing Aphex Twin-style drum patterns is idiomatic to Joydrums. Idiomatic means "expressions that are natural to a native speaker". It's more idiomatic to play a glide with a trombone than with a piano. Similarly it's much simpler to play a skittery hihat riff with Joydrums than with one shots on a beat pad.
Because of the previously mentioned lack of physical acoustic necessity, the beat pad/looper design of Joydrums could have come in any number of forms. I experimented with keypads, typing keyboards, mouse controls, but I finally decided to go with the most ergonomically designed instrument I could think of. Game controllers are designed to be held and manipulated for hours on end with no strain.
And finally, game controllers make for perfect new instruments because they're available. Most people have one in their house right now, or at least have access to one from their friends. Rather than buy a unique $1200 synth that could be basically played with any keyboard, I wanted everybody to have the ability to afford Joydrums.
So, if you too are thinking about inventing a new instrument, consider these things. What will it be good at playing? How easy will it be to physically play? And how affordable will it be? Design accordingly. Look to the past for inspiration, but ask yourself what new ways of interfacing with music no one has thought of yet. We are not still limited by practical acoustic physics like in the past, no more achy necks from fiddles, calloused fingertips from guitars, hunched backs from pianos, or deaf ears from horns. The future of music making is really in instrument designer's hands. Kinda like a game controller, lol.
Yzhk is a musician, barista, and software designer. They play banjo in a band called gdwflrckt. If you're interested in Joydrums, or any more of their ramblings about the philosophy of new musical instrument design, you can find them at yzhkinstruments.com