Ideasroom

Acoustic automatons – the sound of robots

Developing musical robots that can listen to themselves play is helping to realise a future filled with unique acoustic music.

For Dr Jason Long, a composer of music for his own robot musicians and PhD graduate in sonic engineering from the New Zealand School of Music (Te Kōkī) at Victoria University of Wellington, the future should be filled with the dulcet tones of mechanical musicians – be it miniaturised, computer-controlled musical robots for your doorbell or an appliance or a full orchestra of these automatons playing in unison.

A composer, electronic music lover and creator of these specialised robots, Long is not looking to improve on the loudspeaker-dominated world we currently live in, but to return to an era of purely acoustic sound.

“In the pre-digital past, many items like toys, appliances, doorbells and ornaments used real acoustic sound-objects, but were generally superseded by loudspeakers for flexibility,” says Long.

“While I don't necessarily see people replacing their living-room stereo systems with a band of musical robots in the future, I think there is a lot of potential to replace many of the loudspeaker-filled items in our daily life with robotically actuated acoustic alternatives that will sound much better.”

To this end, Long has invented technology using closed-loop techniques that enables the robots he designs and builds to “pick up when their tuning, calibration or latency is drifting or out, and correct it while they are performing”.

“It addresses one of the key barriers currently to adoption of musical robots: that they can be unreliable and need a lot of maintenance and babysitting by a technician,” he says.

Jason Long at TedxWellington. Photo: Supplied

No stranger to such robot-wrangling, Long made his first musical robot (a Gamelan-playing automaton) in 2010 and discovered the satisfaction of writing music and hearing it played instantly with a real musical instrument

But his interest in the field dates back to 2001 and experimental musician Aphex Twin’s album Druqks, on which a robotic piano “was used to great effect to create music that had the precision and complexity of electronic music, with the natural organic feeling of acoustic sound”.

Although Long didn’t have the ability to create such instruments at the time, he remedied this by studying in the Netherlands and becoming involved with a “vibrant community of musical hardware creators and hackers that opened my mind to the possibilities of DIY interface design”.

Earning a Master in Composition degree at Tokyo University of the Arts and then a PhD at Victoria University of Wellington further developed his technical and compositional skills.

“Working with a musical robot is very freeing because in many cases it is possible to create music with unlimited polyphony – playing up to 100 percent of the notes of the instrument at the same time – at super-human speeds,” says Long.

“The finite nature of hardware accessibility means there have always been many more ideas for musical robotics works than there is time and resources to realise them, so my interest has never waned.”

The public’s appetite for music played by robotic musicians may still be developing, but Long believes their appearance in concerts will become more prevalent as the technology develops and becomes more accessible.

“Much of my research has focused on making gains in these areas and it is my hope that the technology I have invented and the music I have written with it inspires others to take up the topic, making musical robots as easy to use and accessible as other commercial musical technology is today,” he says.

“We can then bring forth a future full of amazing acoustic music facilitated by musical robots!”

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