Music production is now as simple as a flick of the wrist

Imogen Heap with Mi.Mu gloves

Photo courtesy of Kickstarter

Wearable technology is becoming more of a reality in every industry, including music. For Grammy-winning artist Imogen Heap, the clock is ticking to see whether or not her musical gloves will become a reality for everyone.

The glove’s Kickstarter campaign has raised £67,717 ($93,422.35) and has only 12 days to meet it’s goal of £200,000 ($275,919.92). If the campaign meets its goal, those willing to pay the hefty fee of £1200 ($1,655.52) per glove will have access to an extremely fun and creative way to produce and interact with music.

The musical gloves called Mi.Mu Gloves were created by Imogen Heap and a team of engineers, designers, computer scientists and techies after Heap visited MIT’s Media Lab and saw a version of musical gloves being developed. She immediately loved the idea and formed a team to experiment and develop a similar wearable tech:

“The tech is all out there, which is exciting, the challenge more now is in the language and how to better articulate the hidden or techie side of stage performance, so it looks and feels natural to engage with.”

The Mi.Mu Gloves track hand gestures through sensing the orientation of your hand, the “flex” of your fingers, your current hand posture (fist, open hand, one finger point), the direction of you hand (up, down, left, right, forwards, backwards) and sharp movements such as drum hits. This enables musicians to produce music through simple motions, such as raising their arms instead of turning up a fader, or pointing to move a sound around the room. The information the gloves gather is transmitted wirelessly to a computer over WiFi via the x-OSC board on the wrist.

Photo provided by Kickstarter

Photo courtesy of Kickstarter

In addition to being technologically fascinating, Heap loves how the gloves allow her to produce music artistically, instead of feeling held back or uninspired by technology.

“I feel tethered to a keyboard or other control surface for computer duties and when you’re ‘stretching’ a sound or changing its pitch, a button, wheel or fader just never really cuts it. I always longed for more expressive control of the tech in studio and on stage, something I could wear and create sound fluidly with, more organically, humanly somehow.”

Not only are artists able to use the gloves to produce music in a whole new way, but the experience is enjoyable to watch, making it easier for the audience to connect with the performer. The goal is to not only break down the barriers between musicians and machines, but also between performers and audiences.

Like Heap wrote in Wired last year, wearable tech is the future. With Google Glass hitting the market (for a brief trail run) earlier this month, and active bracelets like Nike+ FuelBand and the Jawbone UP band becoming more and more popular, there is a race to see who can create the next big wearable technology.

For Mi.Mu Gloves, their biggest competitor in the music tech market is probably the Midi Controller Jacket by MACHINA Wearable Technology, whose Kickstarter project was fully funded in February. The jacket allows the user to control a MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), allowing them to create music through motion and touch sensors by communicating with a mobile app.

Another similar music production gadget is Muse, a Mac desktop app that allows you to create and perform original music through hand gestures as you sit at your computer. Created by Leap Motion, the app works with the Leap Motion Controller, which is a USB device that reads the user’s hand gestures and interacts with the companion apps in the company’s Airpsace app store, according to The Next Web.


Photo courtesy of The Next Web

With these technologies popping up more frequently, I have no doubt we’ll be seeing more in the way of music production technologies, especially in wearable tech. As for Imogen Heap, the waiting game continues as her and her team hope to be fully funded and start producing Mi.Mu gloves for consumers:

“There is a long way to go to add to the dialogue; this is a lifelong project but already it’s greatly encouraging where we’ve come as a team. It feels like such a treat to make something physical as opposed to music.”


The concert of the future?: How live music is beginning to harmonize with holograms

M.I.A. and a Janelle Monae hologram  (photo provided by Billboard)

M.I.A. and a Janelle Monae hologram (photo provided by Billboard)

Janelle Monae and M.I.A. pulled off quite the musical feat last week. Both of them sang two new duets, but while on opposite coasts. They did this through the technological magic of holograms.

The way it worked was while Monae sang onstage in LA, she was projected onto a stage in New York where M.I.A. was performing, and vice versa, giving each of their respective audiences a high-tech finale to their shows that evening. The event was the first hologram performance using integrated video mapping, including 3D mapping to add layered depth of field perception with animated graphic content, according Rolling Stone.

Now this is not the first concert to use holograms. In 2012, Tupac was resurrected in hologram-form to rap alongside Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg at Coachella, which really put the technology on the map as possibly music’s next big thing. Ed Ulbrich, the chief executive at the company who helped bring Tupac to life, Digital Domain, told Bloomberg Businessweek that the Tupac hologram was first to give a concert not previously rendered while he was alive:

“This is not based on archival footage. This is not him performing at some point. This is a completely origianl, exclusive performance only for Coachella and that audience.”

Not only were the festival-goers fascinated, but with over 28 million views on YouTube, the real question viewers want to know is, ‘how does it work?’

The reality is what is actually being seen is not a “hologram” at all. According to the International Business Times, Tupac was really a 2-dimensional video projected using technology based on a centuries-old theater trick called the “Pepper’s Ghost” illusion.

(Graphic provided by International Business Times

(Graphic provided by International Business Times)

AV Concepts orchestrated Tupac’s performance using Musion Systems Ltd.‘s Musion Eyeliner setup, which projected an animated version of Tupac, created by Digital Domain, onto a screen which was invisible to the audience. The “Pepper’s Ghost” illusion that Musion utilized is a technique used in plays and magic tricks, where an actor is hidden below the stage and faces a mirror. What the audience sees is the actor’s ghostly image reflected in a piece of glass suspended above the stage, much in the likeness of a hologram.

Ever since the success of the Tupac concert, using holograms in performances has become a new trend to try, not only with living artists, but the idea to resurrect other beloved performers from the past could draw big audiences and drive up ticket and record sales. For example, Tupac’s album ales rose 500 percent after his show, and downloads of the song he performed, “Hail Mary,” increased 1,500 percent, according to Mashable.

The late Michael Jackson appeared in holographic form on the Michael Jackson ONE tour by Cirque du Soleil, and some other artists are rumored to become holograms in the near future, including Elvis Presley, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix. According to Billboard, the estates of a number of deceased musical acts are exploring the possibilities of virtual live performances using Digital Domain. The company is already in the early development stages of creating a “virtual” Elvis, according to CEO John Texto.

Jeff Jampol, who manages the estates of the late Jim Morrison, hopes to eventually create a multimedia experience featuring his band The Doors:

“We’re trying to get to a point where 3-D characters will walk around. Hopefully, ‘Jim Morrison’ will be able to walk right up to you, look you in the eye, sing right at you and then turn around and walk away.”

Earlier last week, Alki David, founder of the company Hologram USA, revealed plans to take a hologram of the late Amy Winehouse on tour, but due to objection from Winehouse’s father, such plans have been put on hold, according to USA Today. Despite the fallout with the Winehouse idea, David is still continuing to explore the possibilities of hologram use outside of music, he told the Hollywood Reporter:

“This is by far the most exciting business opportunity I have ever seen. Imagine running 100 meters against Usain Bolt or resurrecting Richard Pryor!”

However, not everyone shares his enthusiasm. Holograms definitely have a weird factor. When CNN introduced its hologram of a news reporter during Wolf Blitzer’s 2008 Election Night coverage, the technology was universally mocked, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. Four years later when CNN used holograms in its coverage of the 2012 Iowa Caucus results, Anderson Cooper made fun of them on air.

In Japan, something a bit more worrisome is happening involving musical holograms. Since 2007, Hitsune Miku has performed over 100,000 original songs and has over 1.8 million Facebook fans—more than any other pop star in Japan, according to Japan TodayThe fascinating (and creepy) part is that she’s not a real person. She’s a “digitally synthesized voice encapsulated in a crowd-sourced humanoid persona” appearing in live shows as a hologram.

The fact that she can literally conform to what audiences want at computerized precision is extremely worrisome for those in the music business and to the parents of the thousands of fans this hologram has worldwide. Japan Today suggests that perhaps the world is growing tired of human pop stars who only meet—but do not exceed—expectations for idols. I really hope that computerized holograms don’t replace real, human artists, and frankly, I don’t know if I would pay to see a hologram.

Something even more eerie to think about, Ulbrich expressed his ultimate hope: to create a hologram that people won’t realize is fake:

“Now that we’ve developed the tools to do this, we can start to look at other applications—advertising, commercial work; until now things like this haven’t been feasible. Nothing is real and everything is possible.”

Whether it’s multiple artists performing from different places, a resurrected artist, or an entirely computerized pop star, holograms are seeping into live music. While I definitely think the Monae and M.I.A. performance is extremely innovative and look forward to seeing more exploration in hologram-use at concerts, I just hope the hologram creators stop and think about the ethics and the impact of holograms in entertainment before they start recreating the deceased or giving middle-schoolers a new robotic idol to obsess over.

The quest for new music: how the rise of the machine isn’t such a bad thing

Photo provided by Glide Magazine

Photo provided by Glide Magazine

How do we find the music that draws us in and never lets us go? This is the question drummer, DJ, record producer, and music journalist Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson asked in his cover story in this month’s issue of Wired. For those that love the feeling of discovering new or hidden musical gems, it’s a very relevant question.

Even though according to a new study, AM/FM radio is still the top source overall for keeping up-to-date with music, there are so many apps and online options to help you find your new jam.

One “machine” that is heavily involved in music discovery is The Echo Nest, the self-proclaimed leading music intelligence company. The Echo Nest allows developers to use their platform and solutions for their apps and programs, currently powering more than 400 apps and sites.

Some feel using the “machine” to find music is less authentic and not very effective. Brian Whitman, the CTO of The Echo Nest spoke to Billboard about how their solutions are more than just algorithms:

“It’s a lot more than that. We are obviously doing a ton of computer stuff but it’s all based on what people are saying and choosing and that stuff. We hate this stupid man versus machine dichotomy.”

Photo provided by Mashable

Photo provided by Mashable

The digital music services that rely on The Echo Nest’s Music Discovery and Personalization solution to connect users to new music include iHeartRadio, XBOX Music, SiriusXM, Vevo, and Spotify. Depending on the service or site, The Echo Nest uses DMCA-compliant playlisting, personalized playlisting and radio, or a hybrid of the two, combining automated playlisting with expert curation. It’s a more complicated process than critics think, and it’s all about the listener, Whitman said.

“The more we know about the listener, the better everybody is. Any smart service would want to know all sorts of tracking data across everywhere you go. It’s not just for them obviously, it’s for you to know more about your taste.”

Recently, music-streaming giant Spotify acquired The Echo Nest, which has caused some companies to drop their partnerships with the company, including Rdio and Rhapsody. This just goes to show that music discovery is definitely in flux. Nevertheless, The Echo Nest still powers most of the leading options for music discovery.

As a daily Spotify user myself, I think them teaming up with The Echo Nest is a gamechanger. Daniel Ek, chief executive of Spotify, explained to Billboard why they bought The Echo Nest when they could just as easily, if not more inexpensively, get the company’s services as a customer:

“With our [application programming interface], you have the ability to play music. With The Echo Nest API, you can now understand the music. That means you can build the ultimate running app, for example, using music that is tuned to your pace. Data will just be a massive advantage for us in this game.”

Meanwhile, The Echo Nest’s biggest competitor, with a whopping 200 million users according to Wired, is Pandora Radio, a site and app that allows you to create stations that automatically stream music recommended to you based on a certain song or artist. The service uses their own music discovery software, The Music Genome Project, which uses a methodology including precisely defined terminology, a consistent frame of reference, redundant analysis, and ongoing quality control without machine-listening or other forms of automated data extraction.

Despite it’s massive popularity, some criticize Pandora for it’s small music library, which is only about 1 million songs, as opposed to Spotify, which has over 20 million songs. I agree that Pandora does not have the variety that Spotify has, which is why I prefer Spotify. Whitman shared his thoughts on Pandora to Billboard as well:

“I think the people who rely on Pandora, for example, that kind of freaks me out because it’s such a small amount of music they are listening to it’s almost just like top 40 radio all over again. With all the power that technology gives you, I would like to see people doing more with it then just listening to the same 20 songs over and over again.”

Some other music discovery services include the very popular SoundCloud,, and the new Beats Music, which has a really cool feature called The Sentence, which recommends music based on a sentence made up by you using the many choices given. For example, the sentence “I’m on a boat and feel like going back in time with my family to vintage should and funk” prompts “Isn’t She Lovely” by Stevie Wonder.

Other music discovery services are Songza, Shazam, SoundHound, Bandcamp, Mixcloud, This Is My Jam, Soundtracking and Soundwave.

This all may seem overwhelming, but I think it’s fun to try them out and see which ones I like and are most helpful in finding me cool new music. It’s all about using the “machine” to connect you to new music that fits your taste or mood.

This is how Questlove views modern music discovery (and I think it’s a pretty good perspective):

“I try to navigate the waters by remembering where I’m going. When it comes to players, to programs, to services, think of them as ships bringing you to the music you need, have always needed, will continue to need. They’re not the voyage. They’re the vessel. Learn how to steer in the prevailing winds and soon you’ll be sailing.”

A magical moment on the Tonight Show with the help of an iPad app

Image courtesy of NBC

Image courtesy of NBC

Since this is my first post, I thought I’d start with something fun.

Last night, I watched the Tonight Show with new host Jimmy Fallon, mainly because Billy Joel was a guest. Not only is he a musical legend with a string of hits and awards that would make most top 40 hit-makers of today drool, but he is genuinely a cool guy. The native New Yorker came off pretty humble and relaxed for most New Yorkers I know, but at the same time, he’s definitely from the city.

Joel was on the show to promote his new live album A Matter of Trust: The Bridge to Russia, which was released yesterday. He also mentioned his franchise of shows at Madison Square Garden this year (don’t bother, they’re all sold out), but he’s also a friend of Fallon’s. After a commercial break, Fallon asked Joel if he wanted to sing a little something with him. The late night host whipped out his iPad and said he wanted to use the Loopy app, which allows users to record phrases and play them on a loop. Joel looked a little hesitant, but agreed, and the impromptu doo-wop duet began to sing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”

By looping the back-up vocals, they were able to sing all different harmonies and create a full sound with only two people. It was a pretty special moment and it all happened because of an iPad app. Sure, they could have sung just their own two parts, but by using a simple app, they were able to add multiple layers right on the spot without additional singers.

The company behind the app, A Tasty Pixel, is a one-man indie software development company run by solo programmer Michael Tyson. The company has released multiple iOS apps including the Loopy app, which launched in 2009 and has received a lot of good reviews from app developers and recording artists alike. For example, Pete Mitchell of the band No More Kings gave the app his vote of approval on the Loopy app website:

“This is an incredible app,” Mitchell said. “I’m definitely using Loopy to write my next album.”

From serious artists and music-enthusists looking for some fun, the Loopy app includes a whole host of features and capabilities to play with. The interface has 12 circular loops and features overdubbing, count-in and count-out and record chaining. Users can import loops from a computer and adjust the tempo while recording. Music pros can use several industry-standard MIDI features, allowing them to interact with external equipment and other audio software and apps. When you’re done recording, tracks can be shared via SoundCloud, Twitter, Facebook or email. 

Currently, the $7.99 app has a five out of five star rating with 35 total ratings, including a five star rating from Marlco:

“This is my favorite music app on the App Store, and I have dozens of them,” Marlco said. “Any time I write a song Loopy HD is the first app I go to. It’s really stable, has extensive MIDI support, the best clock sync on iOS, and is fun and intuitive.”

Artists have been using loopers for decades, from recordings to live performances. 2014 Best New Artist Grammy nominee Ed Sheeran is a big fan of using a looping station live. For example, at the iTunes Festival in 2012, Sheeran used a looper in his performance of “Grade 8” off his debut album + (yes, just the symbol). Other examples of artists using the Looper app specifically include Dub FX, a reggae hip-hop artist who specializes in beatboxing, and has given the app his blessing through a Youtube tutorial. Electric cellist ecce cello (David Fernández) has also given the app a spin with his rendition of “The Son.”

There are both advantages and disadvantages to using loops in music, according to eHow, a website that serves as an online resource for professional advice in 30 categories, from cooking to budgeting. Owen Wuerker, an eHow contributor who covers the music industry and home recording, described the advantages of looping:

“Loop-based music tends to take the emphasis away from the development of individual instrumental parts and puts it instead on development through layering, which is an exciting new way to approach song writing,” Wuerker said.

On the other hand, some might say that using a looper is almost cheating, allowing the artist to avoid mistakes more easily with less effort. Some might even go as far as to say looping isn’t real music. According to Wuerker, the disadvantage to using looping is that when the method is used sloppily, the human element and need for true musicianship is lost, a statement I definably agree with. However, when used correctly, looping is an innovative way to approach songwriting. 

Whether loopers take the authenticity of music away or not, the app seemed pretty cool to me. I see last night’s Tonight Show performance as an example of technology being used to help the average person create music in a personal way. Almost all technology can be used for evil, but it can also be used for good, and sometimes, moments of greatness come as a result. Last night was one of those special moments in the music world.