the beat goes on
A pair of UVic researchers pushes the boundaries of
music and science
by Margaret Milne
“A lot of people have the misconception that
you can be either an artist or a scientist, but not
both,” says Dr. Andy Schloss. “That’s
just not true.”
should know. The music professor and his long-time collaborator,
Dr. Peter Driessen (electrical and computer engineering)
have recently received a landmark grant from the Natural
Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada and the Canadian
Council for the Arts to investigate the fusion of art
and science. Using the science of gesture recognition
and the art of sound mapping, they’re out to explore
the future of musical instruments.
At the heart of the project is the radio drum. Created
at Bell Labs in the 1980s, the instrument consists of
two conventional-looking drumsticks and a flat foam-covered
pad. When it’s connected to a computer, moving
the sticks above the pad generates sound.
“The radio drum is like a three-dimensional computer
mouse,” explains Driessen. “It senses position
in space.” This is done through small radio transmitters
embedded in the drumsticks. The pad is equipped with
four antennae, one in each corner, to receive the signals
coming from the sticks.
“The antennae compare the strength of the signals
to determine the position of the sticks,” says
Driessen. “We translate the motion of the performer
into electrical signals.”
Those electrical signals are then mapped to sounds
by a computer. Exactly what sounds depends on the details
of how Schloss and Driessen have programmed the instrument.
Schloss has had great success with the radio drum,
performing across Europe and North America since 1988.
Now the pair want to improve things. “We want
to make the radio drum more sensitive,” says Driessen.
“There needs to be enough of a challenge that
you can become a virtuoso.”
When an instrument is too simple, Driessen explains,
there’s no room for an artist’s musicianship
to shine. That’s why there’s no such thing
as a kazoo virtuoso.
In this work, Schloss and Driessen are exploring the
deeper question of what makes a musical instrument musical.
“In acoustic instruments, gesture and sound generation
are linked,” Schloss explains. “The power
of using computers is that anything can happen from
any gesture. But this is also the problem,” he
adds, “anything can happen from any gesture!”
In addition to making the radio drum more sensitive,
they plan on aligning its sounds more closely to those
of traditional acoustic instruments. “My reference
is always real acoustic instruments,” says Schloss.
“These are the best instruments. I have no interest
in making cheap imitations of acoustic instruments;
they are my inspiration when forging new musical territory.”
In the end, any instrument — acoustic, electric,
or something in between — is meant to be performed.
“The Internet may kill the record companies,”
says Schloss. “It may get to the point where you
can’t sell recordings. But you can always sell
performances.” Schloss and Driessen are committed
to creating music and instruments that can be performed
and enjoyed. “We’re trying to keep music
alive,” says Schloss.
The gesture recognition technology used in the radio
drum also has many applications beyond the field of
music. For example, Driessen and Schloss are working
with UVic psychologist Dr. Janet Bavelas, who studies
the gestures people make while talking. By using gesture
recognition techniques like those in the radio drum,
they can measure gestures with great precision as they’re
They’re also starting a project with Queen Alexandra
Centre for Children’s Health to work with patients
who have a very hard time knowing where their bodies
are in space (called proprioception). If, for example,
they hold their arms out, they can’t tell if their
hands are at the same height.
Schloss and Driessen plan to set the drum to play different
pitches for different heights of the sticks and ask
the patients to raise the sticks. When the sounds from
both sticks match, the patients will know they’ve
moved their arms to the same height. They hope that
this audio feedback will help the patients train themselves
to have a better sense of their body position.
Margarite Milne wrote this story as a participant
in the SPARK program (Students Promoting Awareness of
Research Knowledge), funded by UVic, the Natural Sciences
and Engineering Research Council, and the Social Sciences
and Humanities Research Council