~ the co-founder of Human Instruments introduces us to the limitless creative possibilities their technology brings to individuals previously constrained by physical limitations. Learn how Human Instruments combines some plywood, electric paint and clever electronics to foster creativity for millions of adults living with a disability.
Creativity Restored by Human Instruments
The Human Instruments company creates and redesigns musical instruments for people who otherwise thought they could only listen, rather than create beautiful music. I’m talking with Vahakn Matossian, a designer and creator at the London-based company Human Instruments. Human instruments redesigns instruments that allow people to work around their physical limitations in order to create music. The company was started by Rolf Gelhaar and Vahakn Matossian. Rolf is an artist, composer, musician and early creator of electronic and computer music. Vahakn, Rolf’s son and business partner, is an artist, maker and musician with BA’s and MA’s in Product Design from Brighton and Royal College of Art respectively. Their work focuses on creating “accessible musical instrument devices”.
The Human Instruments company began when Rolf and Vahakn were helping out the British Paraorchestra by setting up their tech and sound support. The British Paraorchestra is the only one of it’s kind so far. This orchestra is the world’s first professional ensemble of disabled musicians. Their mission (from their website paraorchestra.com) is to “shift the perceptions of disability and disabled people by creating a visible platform for gifted disabled musicians to perform and excel at the highest level”. For as much as the orchestra was designed to give people opportunity, Rolf & Vahakn watched as people wanted to join the orchestra had to be turned away because there just weren’t any way they could play traditional instruments. They decided to change that. Their first creation, a re-made piano, is designed for people who have some dexterity and control in their hands and fingers, but lack the strength to manipulate and instrument accurately. They’ve also developed a horn instrument and are designing a breath-only controlled device. I’ll tell you more about that further along in this article. They use open-source hardware to develop tools to create their instruments which relay on their use of their breath, sight and slight use of their hands to create music. They use synthesizer technology that even allow for varied expression of the tones (think loud verses soft, long notes verses short, staccato notes).
How does it work?
The first time you see the keyboard device, it hardly looks like an instrument, let alone a keyboard. It is comprised of two pieces of plywood with black symbols painted on them. A microprocessor circuit board sits atop each piece of plywood, connected by a little bundle of wires.
The design is screen printed onto the plywood using an electric, quick-drying conductive paint by Bare Conductive. There is a mouthpiece with a tube which is a breath sensor which helps to give the instrument expression without very much lung or touch power. The mouthpiece is a key component to the Human Instruments designs. Breath can be used to conduct sound, even if a person can't use their hands to press keys. The paint lines are connected to the microprocessor at the top of the plywood. When touched, they send a signal to the computer. The board is loaded with a basic sound program, but Human Instruments wrote custom software which sends MIDI data to the computer. (MIDI is the musical digital interface data language which all computers speak). This program allows the Human Instruments users to have precise control over their sounds and how they create them. The computer takes the MIDI data and uses whatever program they are using (HI uses Massive & LOGIC) to process the information and render the sound.
The Human Instruments keyboard can play the sounds of most any instrument, much like many other standard electronic keyboards. Throughout the podcast episode, you’ll hear Vahakn playing the keyboard in various sound modes.
What’s in development?
Human Instruments is expanding their reach of instruments for accessibility by developing a hands-free expressive instrument aimed at people with limited physical mobility, particularly spinal cord injuries.
The first hands-free instrument they’ve created is the doosephone. This was made specifically for professional trumpet player Clarence Adoo who lost the use of his limbs in a car accident. They developed a head-mounted instrument that allows him to control his sounds and create music with his breath. They’ve given him back the ability to create music. Amazing!
In development right now is a gadget their calling Typhoon. This is a mouthpiece which will register a person’s head position in space and allow them to play notes using their head position, breath & various characteristics of their mouth. This is essentially a hands-free musical instrument controller. It will have 2 very distinct and empowering modes for those using it. In one mode, it will be able to control any computer of any kind and the other mode will be a dedicated musical mode.
Awards & Recognitions
They have most recently been awarded 2 prizes for participating in the Music Hack Day at Sónar Festival. Awarded by Music Bricks and Fab Lab Barcelona for their design and prototyping of a wireless hands free expressive instrument aimed at (but not exclusively for) people with limited physical mobility, particularly those living with spinal injuries.
What’s coming up for Human Instruments?
They will be presenting at Music Tech Fest Central (Ljubljana, Slovenia) Sept 18th - 20th and running a accessible music tools hack and they’ve been invited to Internet Festival in Pisa, October 8-11th.
Want to Collaborate?
The Human Instruments company is still in relative stage of infancy and they welcome collaboration through support, affiliation and creative discourse. If you like what you’ve read here or heard on this episode and believe you, or someone you know would like to get involved in their mission, please reach out to them at HumanInstruments.co.uk.
CDC: 1 in 5 American adults lives with a disability
(USA Today 31 July 2015)