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Bits and pieces

When we do workshops we also use a few other things which we’ve included under this section as bits and pieces!

Switches

Some of the technology we use is drawn from the area known as ‘Augmentative and Alternative Communication’ (AAC). Within AAC there are all sorts of amazing switches and sensors made for people to use to access computes and other sorts of AAC equipment. Generally if someone has voluntary control over some sort of movement, there is a sensor which can capture that movement to act as a switch.

In most of our workshops, especially if we’re getting a new piece together or rehearsing, we use wireless switches made by Pretorian Technology in Gainsborough (https://www.pretorianuk.com/). These really are great – very reliable and can be programmed to emulate the switches on games controllers or even alpha-numeric keys on a computer keyboard. They work in conjunction with a receiver which pugs into the USB port on a computer. Each receiver can support up to 4 wireless switches. Pretorian can also supply the ‘guts’ of a switch if we want to build a switch into, say, a theatre prop of some sort. (We once built one into a mock-up of a lock gate for a piece of music to do with Manchester canals – the opening of the gate on stage triggered off various sounds and visuals!)

‘Simply Works’ wireless switches made by Pretorian Technology. This underneath view shows the buttons used to ‘pair’ a switch with a receiver, and also to make the switch  work in various ways. For example, it could emulate a mouse left button press, a key being pressed on a computer keyboard or even a games controller button press

A ‘Receive’ unit for the Pretorian Simply Works wireless switches. Each of these Receive units plugs into the USB port of a computer (PC) and can support up to 4 wireless switches, as well as other devices from the ‘Simply Works’ range.

A great source of AAC equipment is Inclusive Technology, Oldham (http://www.inclusive.co.uk/). 

Midi Interface

We’ve talked about this thing called ‘MIDI’ before.  Without going into too much ‘techy talk’, suffice to say that it’s a sort of electronic language – a system of electronic messages – used by various bits of music technology equipment to ‘talk’ to each other. Sometimes we need a piece of equipment to talk to a computer, and the way we get them to communicate is via a ‘midi interface’. Here’s a picture of a very simple one we use a lot. It simply plugs into a USB port on a computer (MAC or PC). The piece of equipment being used, for example a SoundBeam, then plugs into the midi interface and hey presto! – the SoundBeam can control a piece of software on the computer……..we hope!! Actually, to be fair, nowadays we find that software and operating systems (OSX, Windows, Linux etc) are pretty reliable and things do indeed usually work!

 

Sound Module

When triggered, a SoundBeam or Midi Creator don’t generate music or even audio but midi messages. At some point these messages need turning into audio signals which can then be plugged into a loudspeaker so we can actually hear them! One piece of equipment we use to do this is a piece of hardware called a sound module.

Yamaha MU50 sound module

Actually, these are now pretty much ‘old-school’ these days as this function is now very often carried out by computer software. However, we quite like using hardware in workshops as we can plug it up and generally forget it. There’s no computer to crash and it’s really handy having a real piece of equipment to control in a workshop or performance situation. We like the reliability and immediacy of bits of hardware!

All the main manufacturers – Yamaha, Roland, Korg – as well as smaller more specialist ones used to make stand-alone sound modules. Nowadays it seems a bit complicated as to what actually counts as a sound module – quite a few being made seem to be hybrid units designed to work with software. Others are modern re-releases of old synthesisers – even modular synthesisers! All a bit confusing which is why we keep it simple and old-school!!

A view of the back of the MU50 sound module showing the usual ‘in’, ‘thru’ and ‘out’ midi connections

The module we use is the Yamaha MU50. These were made in the 1990s so are now a bit long in the tooth. However, good condition second hand ones come up for sale occasionally for not much money and can be a good buy. A SoundBeam controlling one of these into a nice desk and nice speakers with a little bit of quality reverb effect can still sound gorgeous!!

Midi Merge unit

A generic term for a SoundBeam would be a ‘Midi Controller’, as it generates midi messages. A sound module we call a ‘Midi Device’, as it’s something which responds to midi messages.

Sometimes in a workshop we find it handy, to minimise cables and clutter, to only have one sound module to generate all the sounds of instruments people have chosen to play, such as the Yamaha MU50 shown above. The MU50 can generate up to 16 different instrument sounds at the same time. So we could, for example, have four workshop participants, two playing a SoundBeam sensor each and two playing a Midi Creator sensor each. The midi generated by the SoundBeam is merged with the midi from the Creator and sent to the MU 50. To do this we use what is termed, somewhat obviously, a ‘Midi Merge Box’.

Again, this approach is all pretty old hat by now – a lot of this sort of equipment was more widespread in the 1990s. However, we use it because it’s simple to set up, it works and it’s reliable – all very valuable qualities when running workshops when, as a workshop leader, we need to have all our attention on the workshop participants and making music!

 

This picture shows the sort of Midi Merge Box we use in our workshops. Made by Philip Rees, this particular box will merge the outputs from 3 midi controllers into one output, as well as allowing separate access to the individual outputs of 2 of the controllers – the diagram on the front makes this clearer!!

Philip Rees stopped making midi equipment back in 2005, but good condition boxes come up fairly regularly on second-hand sites. Another company well known for midi accessories is Kenton Electronics, still in business and making all sorts of useful devices (https://kentonuk.com/)