I thought I’d share a couple of fun internet music toys that I’ve recently come across. I’ve long been interested in instruments with strong constraints. In fact, I wrote my dissertation about that very topic. The trend in the industry is to pile features upon features so I’m always interested in seeing how others choose to strip things down.
I think its fair to say that both Plink and PollySynth are more like musical toys or games than they are like serious musical instruments, but that’s a philosophical difference I’d like to set aside for another day (why post today what you can put off posting until tomorrow?). That said, they are both great examples of designs with a minimal set of features that invite playful interaction by an audience of varying ability levels.
Both systems drop the user into an active room, (potentially) filled with random strangers with whom to share a jam session. In this case, anonymity adds to the experience. Unlike the cesspools that are most online communities, there is no opportunity to troll here because there is no opportunity for verbal communication. I suppose you could come in and purposefully play in an annoying way, but that’s pretty minor trolling. Basically, players are free to have fun and make music with others without judgment. This is very liberating; if you’ve ever seen a beginning improvisation class then you know how stifling the pressure to avoid sounding foolish can be.
Since you are playing with others, however, a player may well develop some feeling of responsibility to the group. This is a good thing. I’ve found that even in these simple and somewhat silly platforms, there was a drive to try to contribute meaningfully to the collaboration. Some people are clearly just messing around, but at times I could sense that I was really interacting with the other participants. I suspect that safe places like these would be great even for complete novices to first experience the joy of playing with others. This could lead novices to explore the next level by learning an instrument and playing with friends.
Of the two, Plink is closer to creating “normal” music. The player selects from a series of different timbres represented by a row of multi-colored squares along the right side of the interface. The rest of the space is devoted to the play area. It’s divided into horizontal channels each representing a note in a pentatonic scale. This is a natural choice for a beginner’s tool since it avoids (more or less) the potential for “wrong” sounding notes.
Little bubbles representing the rhythm that will be produced flow backwards from the player’s cursor. There’s a kick drum sound on the beat to keep a sense of time going. Clicking the mouse will cause a melody to be played in a 16th note pattern on the pitch corresponding to the channel that is clicked. This works even better with the touch interface on the iPad. On a touch interface, one can play the instrument almost like a keyboard.
With the tight constraints of rhythm and pitch, the player is presented with an extremely shallow learning curve so players of all levels can get up and running right away. There is plenty of room within these constraints to explore the instrument, with the different timbres provided each giving a slightly different experience.
PollySynth is a hybrid web/mobile instrument. First you log in to one of the “rooms” in your desktop web browser. This is where you will see the avatars representing yourself and other participants, and where the sound is generated. You then visit the same room on your mobile device, which becomes the controller for your sound/avatar.
PollySynth takes a different approach than Plink, enforcing fewer assumptions about how the music should be created. Unlike Plink, it doesn’t restrict the rhythm or scale but instead provides a simple synthesizer for the user to explore. Since the average user is going to be unfamiliar with the concepts and terminology of synthesizers, PollySynth’s challenge is to create an interface that invites exploration without being scary or opaque.
The creators came up with a clever solution to this challenge: don’t label anything. The lower half of the controller contains a smiling pair of eighth notes. This large X-Y area, the user will quickly discover, is how you play notes and control the pitch. The upper half of the interface contains 8 buttons and two sliders, all unlabeled. What do they do? Press one and see! Though someone experienced with traditional synthesizers will be able to easily give names to these parameters (I won’t provide spoilers), the lack of labels encourages novice users to explore and use their ears to play, and avoids scaring them off with terms like LFO (oops, I spoilered it a little). The result is a simple noise synth that is fun to explore.