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The Hackable Instruments Project

2013-2014, evolving… _ Augmented Instruments lab, C4DM |QMUL|

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This project investigated novel design practices for “hackable” Digital Musical Instruments (DMIs), which let the performer deliberately subvert the designer’s intentions for creative ends.

Think about a common and successful instrument, like for example the guitar. Since the crafting of the very first [proto-]guitar, a countless number of people have played, disassembled, modified and rethought the original design of this instrument, and passed it along. This iterative process turned the instrument into something new and helped meet the needs of a larger and larger crowd. Many other familiar acoustic and electric instruments have similarly acquired their current identity through generations of design revisions and performance practice, remarking the importance of this phenomenon. So, why does this not happen for novel electronic musical instruments?

Modern DMIs have a very short life span, a small repertoire and an even more limited number of performers using them. One of the reasons behind this limited longevity is that many DMIs are closed “black box” designs which too tightly specify the possible use cases.
No matter how many controls are exposed [sometimes drifting to infinity…], designers often craft a fixed metaphor that can appeal only to a limited number of musicians. Furthermore, while acoustic and electric instruments have been historically modified and misused in creative ways (e.g., distorted electric guitar, turntable), most of the attempts on these metaphors are more likely to cause crashes than to produce interesting musical results.

The Hackable Instruments project is the flagship of a new approach to openness in DMI design, inspired by the practice of music hackers and circuit benders.

The project started with the design of the core of what is now known as Bela [formerly “BeagleRT”], an ultra-low latency real-time audio and sensor environment for BeagleBone Black. This technology was used as a platform to explore novel design rationales, based on the combination of constraints, exposed mappings and the usage of metonymy in spite of metaphor.

Two user studies have been run, exploring the effects of this approach on appropriation, development of style, customization and hacking. The results of the study led to the development of the D-Box, the first digital hackable musical instrument, which is now used [and recklessly hacked] by several musicians around the globe.

Will hacking prolong the life of DMIs, boost development and foster accessibility to more musicians? Only time will answer this question.



This project was funded by the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council [EPSRC] under grant EP/K032046/1.

_media and links
_related artworks
_related publications
  • Zappi V., McPherson A., “The D-Box: How to Rethink a Digital Musical Instrument“, Proceedings of the 21st International Symposium on Electronic Art, Vancouver, BC, 2015.
  • McPherson A., Zappi V., “Exposing the Scaffolding of Digital Instruments with Hardware-Software Feedback Loops“, Proceedings of the International Conference on New Interfaces for Musical Expression, Baton Rouge, Louisiana 2015.
  • McPherson A., Zappi V., “An Environment for Submillisecond-latency Audio and Sensor Processing on BeagleBone Black“, Proceedings of the 138th AES Convention, Warsaw, Poland, 2015.
  • Zappi V., McPherson A., “On Hacking Instruments“, Almanac on Contemporary Instruments, online collection, 2015.
  • Zappi V., McPherson A., “Design and Use of a Hackable Digital Instrument“, Proceedings of the International Conference on Live Interfaces, Lisbon, Portugal, 2014.
  • Zappi V., McPherson A., “Dimensionality and Appropriation in Digital Musical Instrument Design“, Proceedings of the International Conference on New Interfaces for Musical Expression, 2014, London, UK.
  • Topliss J. W., Zappi V., McPherson A., “Latency Performance for Real-Time Audio on BeagleBone Black“, Proceeding of the Linux Audio Conference, 2014, Karlsruhe, Germany.
_development and updates
Bela and the D-Box on Kickstarter [and they’re nailing it]

Bela, the ultra-low latency audio and sensor platform that was inspired by the Hackable Instruments project, was officially launched on Kickstarter some days ago. And it is already fully funded, including