Video: New Class Devises Next-Gen Musical Instruments

The Garage is dark. Anticipatory buzz of the crowd mingling with the 60-cycle hum of the speakers as a guitar-like object is plugged in to the mixer. The shape of this strange object says guitar, but there are no strings; the frets run vertically down the neck and a touchpad sits where the pickups would be. A silhouette cradling this proto-guitar runs their fingers over the touchpad and a beat fades in. After a count, fingers begin pressing the vertical frets and sliding up and down the neck; the whale-song of a cello singing out above the thumping kick drum. In moments, this strange new object emits a sound equal to that of a full ensemble of musicians. Looking on, the director of this scene beams with a satisfied smile.     

In the spring of 2018, McCormick professor Bryan Pardo combined his passions for music and computer science into a new interdisciplinary course which brought together engineering and Sound Arts and Industries students to plan the next generation of musical instruments. Titled Digital Luthier, the goal of the class is to rethink interfaces and make cool new instruments that couldn't have been imagined before.   

Digital Luthier students reimagine the human element of performance and design

“The reason you get into engineering is because you want to help people; you want to make tools that are better than the tools that already exist,” said Pardo. “The community I came out of was musicians. Because I'm a computer scientist, the tools that I know how to apply are computational tools. So I wanted to find ways to build new interfaces, new tools that would allow for new kinds of music.”

The Digital Luthier class grew out of regular workshops Pardo would hold on weekends which focused on digital instrument building. The success and enthusiasm around these workshops proved a tipping point to secure funding from the University to expand it and turn it into a full-fledged course.

“The main consideration when thinking about human computer interaction is to understand what the computer is good at versus what the person is good at. Then you can begin to really make something that plays to each party's strengths. Even in the first offering, I felt like the students really got that and, even better, they came up with things I never in my life would have imagined. Even more than seeing my idea for the class come to fruition, watching the students build a community around creating things that no one of us would have been able to do before the whole thing started has been really fulfilling.”  

One of the main differences between this course and a typical engineering course is the emphasis on presentation as well as design.

“In a typical engineering course, someone says: these are the specs you have to hit exactly and when you've done that, that's success. But what I ask my students to consider are what they value in instruments; what they value in music and art. Then they have to come up with the specs and a design to fit those values. And they’re going to be judged! You're not usually expected to perform live with whatever it is you've developed; here the final project is illustrating how you realized your ideas by actually performing the instrument. It's a very different thing from start to finish.”

The biggest challenge for Pardo in the first offering of Digital Luthier was designing a class that would work for a diverse body of students that may or may not come to the class with an engineering background.

“We had students from Bienen (School of Music) doing music education, students from the Sound Arts and Industries Program, a bunch of students from electrical engineering and computer science who didn't necessarily come in with a music background but knew a lot about hardware hacking or software. I did my best to give all of these diverse populations something that they didn't have before—software or hardware or concepts of design for musical instruments. And I think it paid off. The CTEC (course evaluation scores) from the students were 5.5 out of 6. Pretty good!”  

While this type of a class would have been possible to teach 20 years ago, the “Maker Movement” infrastructure, as seen in places across Northwestern like The Garage, has made it much easier to get off-the-shelf parts like sensors or pull some example code of the web that a generation ago you couldn't have.

“There was a lot of dialogue where students got to discuss what they value in the technology they're building and how they can embody it. Having them bounce ideas off of each other was a really valuable thing that in general doesn't happen enough in the big kind of engineering classes I often find myself teaching. But the thing I really hope the students take away from this class is that you can create something awesome even if you don't start out having all the skills or the experience you think you might need. You come with what you know, you learn on the fly, and you can make incredible things if you just believe you can.”