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Max Mathews' one-man electronic orchestra

A computer music pioneer.
Jon Turi
Jon Turi|@jonturi|February 2, 2014 11:00 AM

Welcome to Time Machines, where we offer up a selection of mechanical oddities, milestone gadgets and unique inventions to test out your tech-history skills.

Conduct an electronic orchestra, right from your living room!

It may seem like a fever dream headline from the 1950s, but the physical results of Max Mathews' years of work in computer music wouldn't fully materialize until the '80s. His Radio Drum (aka Radio Baton) -- although a continual work-in-progress -- was a groundbreaking method of controlling computer-synthesized sound through a predominantly wireless three-dimensional interface. Many of its unique abilities were courtesy of technological visionary Bob Boie's capacitance research, creating "a much more participatory way of enjoying music," as Mathews described in Stanford University's Brainstorm. The Radio Drum could track surface hits and even hovering positions, and use that data to control a multitude of audio parameters. It was one of many projects that Mathews worked on during his lifetime and played a part in earning him the honorary title of "Father of Computer Music."

The Radio Drum / Radio Baton

It was 1955 and Mathews was fresh out of MIT with his Ph.D. in electrical engineering when he signed on at Bell Labs. He was tasked with converting speech to electronic signals and back again as a tool for digitally testing new phone products. Around 1957, he began exploring the possibilities of generating music using computers, which led him to begin coding the first in a series of pioneering programs for synthesis and composition: Music I. In an interview with Curtis Roads in The Music Machine, Mathews described the program's characteristics at the time: "[Music I] generated one waveform, an equilateral triangular waveform, with the same rise as decay characteristics. You could specify a pitch, an amplitude and a duration for each note and that was it."

Mathews understood the limitations and was eager to develop it further. As head of Bell Labs' Acoustical and Behavioral Research Division from 1962 through 1985, Mathews continued to focus on synthesizing music with computers, and that research culminated in his seminal 1969 book The Technology of Computer Music. Following the introduction of the integrated circuit in the '70s, more powerful and affordable computers began to appear on the market, opening up new opportunities for the field. Mathews stated in an interview with Wired, that "it would take an hour just to record 18 seconds of music" back in the '50s, but with new developments, machines could finally produce music faster than humans could play it. This led Mathews to develop his GROOVE software and RTSKED algorithm, both of which were focused on enabling real-time musical performance.

During a stint in the '70s as science advisor at IRCAM (Institute for Research and Coordination of Acoustics/Music) in Paris, Mathews developed the idea for the Sequential Drum. Professor and composer Andrew Schloss, a longtime associate of Mathews, recognizes this device as a conceptual ancestor to video games like Guitar Hero. He saw the Sequential Drum as one of the earliest examples of storing music on a computer for on-demand playback using a control interface. The hardware involved in the Sequential Drum concept was the first incarnation of what would eventually become the Radio Drum. It consisted of a drum head with two subdermal wire grids that were connected to a computer, and could translate hits into triggers for computer-synthesized sounds or sequences. The surface hits also generated an amplitude signal, based on the velocity of the strike (for loudness) and the X and Y location for each hit was used to indicate timbre. It was a major step forward for computer-controlled music, but still had a degree of limitations.

Enter Bob Boie, robotics engineer, capacitive-sensing expert and associate of Mathews from Bell Labs. Around 1985, Boie developed a radio technology that could track the position of an object in three dimensions and initially considered using it as some type of mouse-like device. Mathews saw the project and it seemed obvious to him that they should redirect its development into a music controller. The use of Boie's capacitive sensor for 3D tracking was a breakthrough at the time, pre-dating devices like the Kinect and Leap Motion by several decades. With the Radio Drum's surface now wired with receiving antennas and two batons (or drumsticks) outfitted with transmitting antennas, location data for the batons could be registered in X (right-to-left), Y (top-to-bottom) and Z (position above the drum surface) coordinates. You could use the Radio Drum like an instrument, playing notes and controlling variables such as pitch, envelope and volume, or you could use it to trigger and control pre-recorded sequences of music rather than notes, as Mathews had envisioned. He developed his own Conductor Program software just for this purpose and when used in this manner, the device is commonly referred to as the Radio Baton.

The Radio Drum/Baton went through many iterative developments over the years with the help of synth designer Tom Oberheim, who produced the subsequent hardware. A limited number of devices was produced and sold, but musicians and academics continued to be intrigued by the technology and its unique potential as a performance tool. Its original RS232 serial interface was updated to MIDI in the early '90s and continued adjustments were made to the antenna and sensitivity settings. Schloss, who often received updated versions of the Radio Drum from Mathews and Oberheim as they were developed, continued to compose for the device -- primarily for percussive pieces -- and even made his own changes to the hardware. During the mid-'90s, Schloss paid a visit to Boie (then retired) and showed him this latest version of the Radio Drum he'd been working on. Immediately, Boie offered to make some "necessary" changes to the device and soon presented him with, what Schloss now calls, the "radiodrum," a percussive-focused version that he continues to use for performances today.

Andrew Schloss

Other modern musicians have sought wireless ways to enhance their live performances, including MIT's Elly Jessop. Her musical glove project inspired Imogen Heap to experiment further with gesture control interfaces as well, manipulating effects, volumes and sound triggers with a sweep of her wire-enmeshed hands. When comparing the functionality of the Radio Drum to more modern developments, Schloss notes that while these newer devices are ideal for exploring the range within three dimensions, Boie's capacitance technology for the Radio Drum still stands the test of time, outperforming many similar control devices in tracking high-speed motions at close quarters, especially in percussion. As for Mathews' Radio Baton and Conductor Program finding a place in the homes of casual music fans, it's still a possibility.

Images: Patte Wood CCRMA (Lead image of Max Mathews); Boie, Mathews, Schloss (Radio Drum drawing); Andrew Schloss (Radiodrum performance - mid-90s)]

Max Mathews' one-man electronic orchestra