In a world where startups and artificial intelligence are disrupting everything from currency and cars to relationships, music seems to be one field that has passed under the radar in our society’s frenzy to “disrupt” every industry in sight.
But while media coverage of the music scene has mostly been relegated to the hottest new release or biggest flashy festival, don’t let that mislead you—musicians have always been disruptors. It’s just that no one’s thought to call them so.
Music has always been intimately tied to the evolution of technology. From the birth of electricity in the late 1800s that led to the manipulation of digital audio signals in synthesizers, to the advent of computing in the late ‘80s which allowed Daphne Oram to produce computer-readable 35mm musical film strips in 1959, the relationship between instruments and music production is as old as the first Paleolithic bone flute.
In following the human tradition of aural curiosity and innovation, here are three tools that are continuing the evolution of musical instruments in 2021.
A studio and collective with interactive sound experiences as their raison d’etre, one could say Playtronica is on a fast and straight path to fulfilling their destiny.
Founder Sasha Pas credits the family-friendly version of Barcelona’s Sónar festival, SónarKids, as the inspiration and incubator behind her devices, which uses any organic object—pineapples, human skin, your cat’s fur—to produce sound waves.
Stemming from humble beginnings as children’s toys, the resulting simplicity and playfulness of Playtronica’s inventions has won them partnerships with the likes of Issey Miyake and Paris Fashion Week.
“In Playtronica’s universe, everything should sound,” Pas states. “Is it possible for sounds to be scratchy or wet? What do letters smell like? Or what sounds do colours make?”
Combining the worlds of music, engineering, art, dance, and fashion, Playtronica’s devices enable virtually anything and everything to become an instrument, and turns the idea of music-making into a synesthetic experience.
Ever since the first pianoforte was invented around 1700, keyboards have had a stronghold on their status as the quintessential classical instrument of the Western world.
So quintessential in fact, that few innovators have dared touch its fundamental design throughout the centuries; besides graduating from grand to upright, and kitting out its hardware with electric, electronic, and digital adaptations, a redesign of its mechanical interface has never appeared.
Roli spearheaded a long-overdue change in 2009 by debuting the Seaboard, a new type of controller promising “new ways of expression”.
Founded by jazz pianist Roland Lamb, the initial prototype was a way for him to break the limitations of discrete keys and notes, and to introduce the subtleties of pitch and timbre into the instrument.
Instead of ebonies and ivories, the tech-forward keyboard wears a matte, slate gray silicone surface that stretches continuously over all 24 keys (or 88 keys, if you’re going for the Grand model).
But the slick redesign is more than just an attention-grabbing gimmick—the capabilities underlying the Seaboard have convinced heavyweights such as Hans Zimmer, Grimes, and Pharrell Williams to adopt or even invest in the tool.
From pitch bends and vibrato via the pressing and pulling movements of the fingers, to what Roli calls “polyphonic aftertouch”, the Seaboard looks like it’s opening up completely new sensitive possibilities for pianists.
Having amassed a cult following in both the music and design worlds, Teenage Engineering quickly piled on the accolades after its launch of the OP-1— a synthesizer, sampler and sequencer-in-one—in 2005.
Inspired by the Japanese ‘80s-era samplers he worked with as a young music store employee, co-founder Jesper Kouthoofd felt that it was high time to bring back the playfulness and affordability of devices such as the Casio VL-Tone.
Contrary to the ergonomic forms and glowing textures of today’s futuristic devices (read: the silver-and-white status quo defined by Apple), Teenage Engineering opts for inorganic lines and simple, limited functionality in its “pocket operators”.
That might sound counterintuitive for a studio that’s trying to push the envelope on musical tools, but Kouthoofd claims: “One of the most inspiring things about the OP-1 is that it can’t do everything that a computer can do. Those limits boost creativity. Limitations are OP-1’s biggest feature.”
In a world where digital audio workstations (DAW) like the Ableton make anything possible, Teenage Engineering gives you a small but powerful selection of sounds to start drawing on the blank page with.