DistantMusic – Richard Borbridge and Sherif Taalab

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Live music everywhere.

Host a virtual concert in any space, streaming the note-for-note experience of great musicians in great venues.


Distant Music works by bridging a transmitter and receiver for MIDI signals, and outputting a real-time performance in distant spaces. We identified applications including house parties and in-home listening parties, shared concert experiences among multiple venues, adaptations for virtual bands, remote musical collaboration, and connecting performance and art installations in different gallery spaces.

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The concept of Distant Music was demonstrated by installing the prototype in a mock lounge setting, providing a basic visualization that responded to the key-presses transmitted across a wireless network. The lounge setting stood in for one of the prime markets opportunities for this device – as a data broadcasting tool. Conceived though our “change the vibe” buttons, users in each venue could experience different streams with a click, “attending” several concerts in a single night. Distant Music takes a prevalent concept of connectivity and begins to apply it to a future conception of digital music. As more music is rooted in a digital interface, the opportunity to transmit and reinterpret traditional analogue sounds grows through technologies like MIDI, or more likely Networked MIDI and Open Sound Control (OSC). Distant Music explores the principles behind connecting to existing instruments in new ways.


The concept began as a wireless musical instrument – a virtual band member based on an Android Tablet. Challenges were present throughout the prototyping. Most notably, the inherent limitations of MIDI on Android, Bluetooth idiosyncrasies, reading, parsing, and interpreting data through a serial bus, and ultimately passing serial data through to a MIDI interpreter were each “showstoppers” that needed to be considered and overcome. XBee served as an unencumbered wired signal replacement, but given its range would have limited efficacy for the final wider intent.


The final project connected a MIDI keyboard with a visualizer and audio output in a remote location. Though a standard MIDI interface, the keyboard is attached to MIDI shield on an Arduio, processed and transmitted through an XBee radio tuned to transmit at 31250 baud – the MIDI standard – which facilitated interpretation by the receiver. A second XBee radio, receiving the raw data stream was connected to a single-port USB MIDI interface via the MIDI-IN channel, allowing the onboard DAC and microprocessor to prepare the signal for interpretation by the operating system’s onboard MIDI subsystem, passed through to the MidiBus library in Processing and the visualizer and player prepared in the code.

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Visualizations in this project simplistically responded to NoteOn signals, “dinging” with each keypress to show explicitly the musical event. Future visualizations may enhance the experience of the sound through more atmospheric and immersive interpretations of the signals, bringing an even richer experience to the user.



In our experience, MIDI serves well as a control mechanism, but its functionality as a musical interface falls short in the face of wireless communication. In exploring Bluetooth and XBee, the limitations were apparent. Wi-Fi is the next logical step in the evolution of this project to achieve the distances implied in the prototype. The perpetual challenge is the fundamental relationship between music and time. Wireless technologies are all saddled with a latency that makes true interoperability challenging at best. Previous achievements including Yamaha’s Elton John presentation [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=phLe4F8mRoc] and emerging mobile projects like Ocarina [http://www.smule.com/apps#ocarina] are modelled on a single instrument, rather than a mass collaboration. The value of Distant Music remains as marketable opportunity to connect musicians in real time, rather than through the exchange of large high-resolution files or low-resolution collaborative techniques.

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The project proposed several questions about the future of music production and performance: how can/will music production respond to the shrinking world and harness new collaborative techniques to create new sounds and bring disparate and distant artists together? How can technology help musical performance to reach a broader audience and more varied venues? What implications are there for musical performance as it is separated from its inherent spatial and experiential qualities? While Distant Music may pose more questions than answers, it does begin to address two key issues: the technical potential and limitations of broadcasting JIT (just-in-time), rather than produced music, and the digital future of performance and collaboration.


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