The Product, a Berlin-based design studio with a focus on objects, space and interaction, was commissioned by Volkswagen to develop a set of visuals for an interactive musical performance for the premiere of the New Beetle at the 2011 IAA motor show (September 15-25, 2011, Frankfurt am Main). What the client got instead was Soundmachines – a custom-built instrument for performing electronic music by DJing visual patterns on record-sized discs. Honk for ingenuity!
The development of the visual turntable trio was nothing short of a process, says Jens Wunderling of The Product in an email. “The initial commission called for a set of visuals for a performance entitled Connectivity, that was supposed to allow both the performer and the audience to contribute to the music. To achieve that the client proposed a camera tracking system analyzing motion in the audience. We realized pretty quickly though that the spatial and lighting conditions at the IAA Volkswagen area weren’t suitable for what they wanted us to do.” A different idea for engaging the audience was needed. Something playful and intuitive that young and old could easily interact with. “We had some vague conceptual ideas for visual turntables earlier. We really liked the elegance of the interface and at some point simply proposed to build them.” So they did.
In a sleek glass covered case Jens’ team installed three units of what at best resembles unconventional record players. Instead of vinyl each unit spins a pre-installed disc with concentric geometric patterns that translate into control signals for Ableton Live. Three discs, three tracks of different sounds each. Enough for sound designer and producer Yannick Labbé (of Trickski fame) to work and perform with. The visual patterns were created by ‘reverse-engineering’ a set of music he had composed exclusively for the event. “After discussing which tracks were most suitable for the performance and the audience, Yannick produced the whole set,” says Jens. “We then fitted the discs, set up our software (Arduino, Processing) to read the patterns and control the tracks.” Interestingly enough, the discs themselves were produced manually – no sophisticated software workflow needed.
From start to finish the award-winning studio had roughly six weeks to complete the project – including the production of a set of generative visuals that accompanied Yannick’s performance on a 25 meter wide LED wall. The linear monochromatic compositions were triggered via sound analysis and a camera tracking set-up. Using the Soundmachines also as “Visualmachines” has yet to be examined. “So far the translation of visual codes to sound events was more interesting to us. But a pick-up arm with a camera attached could generate some amazing results, no doubt.”
Although clearly inspired by a DJ booth, none of guys involved in making Soundmachines has ever DJed. “We did some VJing back in the day and have experience in sound design and programming. We also did some experiments with electronic music, but calling that DJing would be an exaggeration,” says Jens. “Thanks to our shared interest in creating synesthetical multi-media designs, we were able to set-up a pretty good workflow with Yannick and communicate without having do discuss the basics.”
So far there’re no dates for future Soundmachines performances. Yet Jens and his team are eager to push the concept further. “We’d like to alter the Soundmachines in a way that opens them up a bit. Easily changeable or even paintable discs would be a good start. The whole project was designed for a show/revue environment and we’d love to visit festivals with it.” For tour dates follow Jens on Twitter and stay on top of The Product’s activities here.