Kano x Obelisk - Pushing the boundaries of music creation

Note: This is a guest post originally written by Karl Sadler. Karl is a British musician, producer, and visual artist. Karl runs Obelisk, a Sonic Experience Design company.

Recently, he has been working with 8 Kano Motion Sensor Kits, combining them to form a gesture-responsive musical instrument.

The idea

A few months ago I chatted with the team at Kano about their cool, friendly tech, the Motion Sensor Kit. They were interested in exploring interactivity and sound in general and I personally love the concept that Kano is based around, with accessible code blocks to create your own animations, games and music.

After going through many crazy ideas that touched both maths and creativity, we ended up with what we call the "molecule mixer". It is a toolkit of parts, bits and pieces that can be broken down, remixed or reshaped into new things. They represent musical atoms, molecules. You can see and remix the final result (you will need 8 Motion Sensor Kits!). You can also play with the sound pack we've created, no motion sensor required, works on your browser.

I worked with my brother Leon, responsible for the visual side of things at Obelisk, and we liked the idea of associating little characters, mascots if you want, to each of these musical molecules.

We ended up with a choir of fluffy pompom sock puppets that became our little hero molecule team. We brought them to life by creating modular molecule stickers within Kano Code, so you can combine them and make cool characters.

Making it happen

First, I laid out 8 sensors in a row, each of them coded to a different functionality. It wasn't like a piano where they all triggered and play a different pitched note.

I could have stuck them all over the studio or across my body like those eighties Body Rap toys, but I liked them being close by so I could cover two with one hand if I wanted, or switch quicker.

Once we had the sensors laid out, we created a series of loops and sounds that can be explored creatively and musically through the Motion Sensors to build virtual record decks, alien Vuvuzelas, or overly engineered digital whoopee cushions.

There’s a mixture of loops that play and synchronize well together, individual FX sounds and some tuned chords and pad sounds that can be used to create complimentary melodic sounds.

Making music with gestures and timing things correctly is more challenging than simply hitting a button, but because of that, you get more musical and natural results. If you think about it, sound and music are formed as energy in the air, and waving our hands to bend light waves is the closest way to connecting with the how sounds are produced.

When it came to coding the performance setup, it was incredibly intuitive with the Kano software. First of all, we went through the basic tutorials and challenges to get up to speed with how the Kano App works and how things are organized.

After playing with a few things, I just really kept layering more and more into it. We worked with the Kano team to export little code ideas for me to explore and play with and get the little molecules to dance.

Music + gestures

In my career, I’ve done a fair bit of work in the field of people interacting with music. I've explored things like haptics, which is how you design touch sensations and feedback, mixed with sound.

Despite being familiar with cool synthesizers and gadgets with tons of knobs and buttons, the concept of motion input is still quite alien. That said, the notion itself has been around for years with instruments like the eerie Theremin, which Roland and Alesis put on some of their audio FX and Grooveboxes.

More recently I've seen things like the Leap Motion being used by hacking communities putting them on guitars and controlling their computer software. We used one in our 3D audio studio to mix sounds in a tridimensional space with a pinch and drop gesture, so you could close your eyes and just move your hands around until things felt right.

This is where motion sensors really shine with sound and music. They are a very expressive way of controlling and you really learn and have to listen. In the same way the vibrato is used to move around concert pitch on a fretless instrument, motion gestures can hover between spatial coordinates around a sweet spot that feels good.

The future of motion-based-music

So are Motion Sensors the future of musical interfaces? How about the whole process of coding your own instruments? Well, let’s start with code. I use the audio software Ableton Live for most of my professional work and have done for a very long time, and I find it very performance-focused.

My approach is much more about work and play, make and do and go through a process of jamming and keeping the most interesting and best bits. Working and exploring sound in code can often feel like jamming and experimenting in a similar way.

I firmly believe code and music is the future, and when you have tools so accessible,
like the Kano App, you can literally rewrite your instruments.

With code, you become the instrument maker too, not just the performer

As a musician, how you choose and perform these instruments, how you find your own voice is really special. With code, you become the instrument maker too, not just the performer.

Based on my experience, the Motion Sensor from Kano it’s a really open-ended playful, expressive and inexpensive digital instrument. If I went into a music store today, I’d struggle to find an instrument for less than its price.

In terms of how to integrate sensors with other musicians and instruments, I believe it's about experimentation. What would a sound Looper and recorder do if controlled by the sensor? If you stuck one onto a microphone of a singer, could motion affect the sound of their voice? How could you play along with the rest of the band with your sensor?

Music can change the world and if the future of music making involves programming your own digital instruments, then I hope to see more experimental ways like sensors to interact with them.

Evolution in musical instruments has a big impact on the evolution and use and styles of music in general, and I think the way we are creating our own musical instruments, with code, is incredibly exciting.