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Details of Grant 

EPSRC Reference: EP/K032046/1
Title: Hackable Instruments: Musical Interface Design for Appropriation, Modification and Creative Destruction
Principal Investigator: McPherson, Dr A P
Other Investigators:
Researcher Co-Investigators:
Project Partners:
Music Hackspace Ltd
Department: Sch of Electronic Eng & Computer Science
Organisation: Queen Mary, University of London
Scheme: First Grant - Revised 2009
Starts: 02 September 2013 Ends: 01 December 2014 Value (£): 97,982
EPSRC Research Topic Classifications:
Digital Signal Processing Human-Computer Interactions
Music & Acoustic Technology
EPSRC Industrial Sector Classifications:
Creative Industries
Related Grants:
Panel History:
Panel DatePanel NameOutcome
27 Feb 2013 EPSRC ICT Responsive Mode - Feb 2013 Announced
Summary on Grant Application Form
Digital musical instrument design presents several unique challenges in comparison to the design of most human-computer interfaces. For musical instruments, as for any tool for creative expression, the standards of success in a design are difficult to quantify, since standard HCI (human-computer interaction) metrics of accuracy and speed do not necessarily correlate with what musicians find expressive. More problematic still is the fluid and unpredictable relationship between designer and user. From the saxophone to the electric guitar to the turntable, musicians have been appropriating and even subverting instrument designs to produce music in ways the designer never anticipated. Some of the past century's most transformative changes in musical performance practice have arguably come from performers radically reinterpreting an instrument's capabilities and limitations. Digital musical instrument researchers therefore face a quandary: how can an interface be designed which embraces the user's wilful subversion of its original goals?

This project will produce a design methodology and a hardware-software platform for the creation of 'hackable instruments': instruments which embrace the performer's reinterpretation and modification. This kind of end-user (mis)appropriation is currently more prevalent among acoustic and analogue electronic instruments than digital musical instruments. The typical computer music interface is designed such that arbitrary modification by non-experts is more likely to produce catastrophic failure than interesting results. Moreover, in comparison to acoustic instruments, whose operation is easy to understand, a lack of transparency in how a digital instrument works can discourage the performer from fully exploring its capabilities.

User studies with musicians and instrument designers form the foundation of the project. The goal of these studies is to understand the exploration process musicians employ when adapting an instrument to their needs and to establish what features of an instrument design facilitate creative repurposing. In parallel, fundamental research on audio processing on embedded devices will lead to a hardware instrument platform that is robust to modification by the end user. Using this platform, several instrument designs will be created to test specific hypotheses about the factors promoting 'hackability' in an instrument. These designs will be evaluated in extended user trials which culminate in a public concert performance.

Many of the transformative changes in musical performance practice originated with the creativity of a few individuals, but their impact depended on dissemination throughout a larger community. Community-building is critically important in digital musical instrument research, and the results of this project will be publicly distributed as an open platform for instrument creation. Several initial instrument designs will be created to encourage exploration and modification, and all hardware and software designs will be released under open-source licenses. Thorough documentation will be provided to enable researchers and self-trained hackers alike to make use of the platform well beyond the duration of the project.

Key Findings
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Potential use in non-academic contexts
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Sectors submitted by the Researcher
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Project URL:  
Further Information:  
Organisation Website: http://www.qmul.ac.uk