This week, on Top Chef. Photo: croncast.

The saga of the Beamz Laser Music System goes on: the spectacularly awful demo video has spread on the Internets, and after Gizmodo proclaimed it the most stupid promo video ever, they were challenged by the PR company to do a real review. (No such challenge yet for CDM, mercifully.)

This does reveal where the thing came from, though. The Beamz tool was “invented” by songwriter Jerry Riopelle, who had a fairly significant career penning tunes in the 60s (“The Thrill is Gone”) and went on to a solo career in the 70s. (I say “invented” because it’s certainly not the first laser harp in existence.) Apparently his dream more recently was to move to the Valley and make a gadget, so he went on to focus on Beamz — and landed an exclusive distribution deal with Sharper Image a few years ago, before the company’s finances fell apart. (Doh!) Jerry actually plays with his Beamz system onstage, and it … uh … kinda sounds like it does in the videos.

But the PR firm wants Gizmodo (and the world) to believe everyone will feel differently when they play it.. except we’d presumably have to hear it, too, which so far is a bit on the painful side. (They also say this obviously tech-savvy crowd loved it.) Yet, that’s not what bothers me — this does (from PR man Matt Silverman’s retort to Gizmodo):

It is not meant to be a traditional musical instrument because that takes so much training for people to master. The beamz was conceived and created by an accomplished Hollywood musician and songwriter whose goal was to allow the average music lover to experience the passion of making music.

This is something we hear all the time. Yet you never hear anything like this:

  • Cup Noodles: Experience the real joy of cooking — finally, without needing years of apprenticeship under French master chefs.
  • Hot Wheels: Why own a real car and bother with greenhouse gas emissions and drivers license exams when this fits in your pocket?
  • Connect the Dots: Because deciding what to draw is just too much stress — and who wants hours and hours of training drawing nude models?
  • Tetris – the non-competitive edition: Put the blocks wherever you want! You don’t want all that pressure. Heck … the blocks don’t even move.

Updated:

On a more serious note — and illustrating just what a big difference different users, different musical content, context, and purpose can make — check out what happens when the system’s creator visits a Children’s Hospital. Part of why it’s worth being thoughtful about this stuff, and not reducing it to black-and-white marketing terms, is that interface design really can be meaningful. Thanks to Koen for the link.

Despite that, if anyone suggests that maybe a certain amount of challenge or open-ended creativity is kind of the point of music, we’re “elitists” or “pretentious.” (Nothing against, say, Cup Noodles — I enjoy a little Picante Chicken now and then, in fact — but you’d never describe them as the “passion of making food.”)

Don’t get me wrong. Making music more accessible has actually long been part of musical instrument design and music history. Think frets, tablature, shapenote notation, keyboards and pianos, the autoharp — there are countless examples of making music more accessible. A lot of them worked. Lutes were really popular in their day for a reason. Almost every great composer you can name from the Classical period wrote piano music for beginning students, often lovingly so. And don’t start with the “kids today” speech. Have you listened to From the Top? There are some terrifyingly-skilled 12 year-olds around. Music education is threatened in schools, but music making survives. And those kids get interviewed — someone invariably asks, surely you don’t watch TV, or play video games, or play sports, or have friends, right? But, of course, they do all these things.

What the PR person says about traditional musical instruments is just plain wrong. Traditional instruments run the gamut from impossible to play, impossible to tune, and impossible to lift to ridiculously easy toys for kids.

 

Traditional music instruments: pretentious power tools for the elite, keeping the Man in positions of authority. Photo: undergroundbastard.

Here’s the thing: the result has to be fun. It doesn’t have to be hard, or require massive skill. But simply saying something is better because it’s easier really does miss the point. The reason all those other categories from kazoos to pipe organs fall in the same basic category is that they’re fun to play over a long period of time, and they don’t impose one kind of musical expression on the user.

I don’t care if people claim I’m pretentious. I think it’s the job of people who do have more experience with more kinds of musical inventions and systems to introduce as broad a range of instruments as possible. I don’t think Beamz really stands up terribly well to a ukulele or a steel drum or even Guitar Hero — and I don’t have any training in any of those three. You can use computers. You can sing together off-key.

And, yeah, you really can build your own laser harp, save $400-500, and have a better time.

So how do I feel about buying expensive, pre-made gadgets that have limited forms of interaction, constrict the style, content, and expressive quality of what you play with them, and then claim to be new inventions even though they deliver watered-down forms of things we’ve already seen?

Sorry.

The thrill is gone.

  • Emmanuel Rio

    I totally agree. If anyone had transposed it into poetry : "Press a key on your keyboard and our very poetic algorithm will choose a word for you, rhymes guaranteed"…

  • Darren Landrum

    Remember how in the seventies, when the prog rockers were making music with complex rhythms and chord structures harvested from years of classical and jazz discipline? They were called pretentious for creating an art that required mastery of instruments and theory.

    Now, if you can play an instrument at all, you're called pretentious. I just don't get it.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Well, right … and then, if the point is really the algorithm (like that poetic algorithm could actually be quite cool), then it's a matter of making the *algorithm* interesting, rather than saying it's about you writing poetry. And that's the other place where this particular project falls apart — the algorithm is so lame.

  • Waffle

    Where does the Kaosillator fit in all this? It seems halfway in between beamz and a "real" instrument.

  • http://www.myspace.com/k1ru k1ru

    will someone hack this damn thing??

    :p

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    @Waffle: good question … maybe we need a graph. You have constrains on performance, timbral/pitch flexibility, difficulty … enjoyment?

    The Korg is still pretty open-ended by contrast. I think it's limited mainly by the fact that you can't load your own sounds on it, and there's a limit size of the touchpad. Some people here did complain that it was too restricted, but then, it's typically part of a bigger setup … it might not be your only tool.

  • http://keithhandy.com Keith Handy

    Thanks for countering the implication of elitism; I don't see that accusation adequately responded to often enough, at any level.

    Along similar lines, a teenager once told me I was "old school" (albeit in an accepting "live and let live" tone) because I told him I used guitars. That just means his sense of time is based on a very narrow reference, reinforced by radio stations who call 80s and 90s songs "oldies". (Oldies should be 50s songs, dammit!)

  • Sean

    You wrote all that just for that punchline didn't you? :-)

  • http://beatfix.com beatfix

    Actually, I think freeform Tetris would be pretty cool… :)

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    @beatfix: if you like that idea, check out this:
    http://createdigitalmotion.com/2007/04/17/breakou

    And now I'm hungry for instant ramen. Did I do that to anyone else, or just me? ;)

  • dead_red_eyes

    No, it's not just you Peter. I'm now craving a Cup of Noodles … you bastard. Great writeup! When I saw that the company wrote Gizmodo back … I knew shit was about to hit the fan. Beamz … ha … what a freaking joke.

  • kris

    chill out boys. it's not going anywhere.

  • PD

    NOODLES!!

  • Robet

    Someone has already remixed the original video

    http://youtube.com/watch?v=zZcyngSX2_c

  • J. Hall

    In the 80's there used to be a little Casio keyboard with a feature called "One Key Play" where you could enter a series of notes, then play them with two buttons, forward and backwards. At the time I was fascinated with this device because it separated notes from their timings, allowing you to concentrate on the rhythms. It was also great if you knew the notes you wanted to play but lacked the keyboard skills to play them with the rhythmic complexity that you might need (now I would just play it on a MIDI guitar, but back then there was no such thing) . You could sequence it of course, but it wouldn't have the feel of a perfomance. The Mac application 'Tapper' does something similar.

    This laser harp device appears to do the same thing (with the same schlocky results that most people using the Casio would get). But I'm wondering if it could be used as a simple midi device without all the horrible canned sequences.

  • http://www.quoico.com Richard Lawler

    This is a great discussion.

    Don't forget that we do have very powerful computers at our disposal. But most of what I see in electronic instruments and composition tools is that power getting mostly tapped as part of an ever increasing and spiraling web of complexity. Spellchecking hasn't lead to the demise of writing and actually may be instrumental in helping some people learn to spell. Computer algorithms can prevent harmonic "mistakes", identify chords and help with rhythm patterns. Not all aspiring musicians are well rounded in their talent and skill. A little help here and there may go a long way toward allowing them to become fulfilled musicians.

    Look at the success of the Guitar Hero games. They have become extremely successful because they they make "performance" more accessible. They eliminate some aspects of music making while retaining others (rhythm, anticipation, coordination and muscle memory). Is Guitar Hero really music making? Of course not. I don't think anyone really thinks it is. But it is a form of performing and it rewards the player with some of the same qualities as performing music well does.

    One need only look at the Tenori-On, Kaossilator, Electroplankton and many of the other "instruments" and "teaching methods" that have been "invented" throughout music history as attempts make music-making more accessible. When introduced they are often seen as a threat to traditional instruments, musicians and teachers. I do often notice a sort of reactionary recoil by musicians whenever a new such instrument comes along. Maybe it seems like we've been burned too often. But the ukulele, the auto-harp, the Fender Stratacaster, the kazoo, the xylophone, Orff Schulwerk and the drum have been pretty successful.

  • http://undergroundbastard.com undergroundbastard

    Nice take on the whole Beamz thing. And thanks for sharing my photo of Wavy Gravy!

    Long live musical skills, the quest for better interfaces and Creative Commons…

    b.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Well, said, Richard — and I'm all for managing complexity. But I do think there's a difference between managing complexity and *removing* complexity altogether, or simply eliminating user choice because you can.

    Spell check is an interesting metaphor, but I'd use grammar check instead — and even then, there's an accepted syntax that's right, and one that isn't, in language. In music, syntax is constructed and destructed at will; it's cultural, personal, and sometimes generative within a single piece of music.

    Of course, addressing these issues in a design is really difficult. You'd expect some experiments to work better than others. There is this profound complexity, variety, and capability to manage in design. So, obviously many people here aren't just reactionary traditionalists … many of us have tried dealing with these design issues and know how difficult it is.

    I don't question the validity of trying things out, like generative laser harps, even as a toy. What I reject is the assumption that something is wrong or inaccessible about traditional instrument design, that needs to be "fixed." In fact, talking about these new capabilities, it sounds like we're really "extending" musical expression, not fixing it because "ordinary" people can't access it — that just seems out of touch.

  • Koen

    Useless for "real" music making, but at least it may benefit some people:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LxY9ZGR54cQ&fe

    But that's probably about the best function this thing can perform.

  • http://www.quoico.com Richard Lawler

    One issue I have been trying to grapple with is why many musicians find electronic and computerized musical instruments so alienating. As a result they are often dismissed wholesale.

    I think one clue is quite apparent even on the surface. Look how complex the interfaces to most electronic and computer instruments are then look at how simple the interface to most analog instruments are. Why is that?

    Even just adding amplification to music makes performance much much more complicated.

    I gotta ask myself seriously, What's going on? Is there a better way?

  • MonksDream

    @Richard

    I agree that many musicians find electronics and computerized instruments alienating. I think some of it is interfaces having to do a balancing act between hiding the complexity of the systems' internals and making musically useful choices readily available and not doing it very well (the Beamz being a case in point).

    Some of it, however, is simple prejudice. I come from the jazz world where many people find the very thought of electronic instruments distasteful. (Don't get me started on the inherent hypocrisy of searching for the perfect electronic piano or amp for one's "acoustic" jazz set)

    I disagree, though, about the apparent simplicity of analog instrument interfaces. Some are wonderfully simple, strings and percussion come to mind. But have you ever picked up an oboe? or a trumpet? or sat at a church organ? or a pedaled harp?

    I think the answer to your first question is that up until the electronic age instrument makers had the guide of the limitations of the human body to shape their interface choices. Electronics removed that limitation but created the opportunity for sonic power AND baffling obscurity in the same instruments, the DX7 for example. By removing the necessity to actually *build* the instrument software just made it worse.

  • vanceg

    Sure, this product doesn't give you a "real" musical experience…not a "complete" one, but perhaps it DOES give you SOME portion of the experience and "thrill" of being "musical". Much in the same way that Cup of Noodles DOES give you some portion of the thrill of being a chef: it provides a pleasing flavor, the sensation of warm food and a full belly. All nice things to have experienced.

    The problem is when we lower our cultural expectations to the level that we believe that making a cup of noodles really IS the same experience as making a fine meal…Or that semi-musical devices like this one provide an equivalent experience to that which a musician who has practiced extensively and spent considerable effort working on being 'musical'.

    This seems to me to be a little bit like using Guitar Hero and believing that you are being musical. Or maybe a better example is using a very limited, beginners DJ program and believing that you are being musical; In SOME ways you ARE being musical…but it is a very different experience than one gets from learning to play an instrument…or compose…or conduct…or do any of those more traditionally recognized 'musical' endeavors.

    I suppose the same could be said about DJ-ing, or using loops to compose music: Are THESE musical endeavors? Id say yes, but VERY VERY VERY different from learning to play an instrument, or compose.

  • vanceg

    "I think one clue is quite apparent even on the surface. Look how complex the interfaces to most electronic and computer instruments are then look at how simple the interface to most analog instruments are. Why is that?"

    Wow – I'd have to disagree on this one: It seems to me that what is "simple" are computer interfaces and what is "complex" and difficult to master are acoustic instruments.

    It is MUCH MUCH MUCH harder (IMHO) to learn to play Oboe or even Guitar than it is to put together a "song" in Garage Band.

  • Downpressor

    Geech, people are still at this?

    How bout lets be kind and say that maybe this could be a very cool device to enjoy for people with limited mobility, or as something for kids in the hospital to play with or something.

    Seriously, lets find something nice to say, otherwise we run a high risk of just looking like elitist bastards.

  • deb

    yeah, downpressor

    i did take the time to check out the video of the thing @ a children's hospital and i feel pretty crappy for my initial reaction—it DOES have some redeeming qualities, or at least some use. too bad its trying to market itself as something beyond what was happening in that video, which was really great.

    i get to play music in a pretty wide variety of contexts, from oogabooga free improv to fairly stock mainstream stuff. and whenever i come off stage at one of these jobbing gigs and run into someone really, honestly moved by what happened, i have to question myself a little bit. not to say music shouldn't be challenging and evolve (and we should do the same as musicians) but there should be room for these people who are totally, honestly, and profoundly moved by what is probably quite lame. although i do draw the line somewhere (not sure where yet, but anne murray hasn't called anyway) i would like to think that i can use my technical, and maybe even musical, skills to create something nice for someone, somewhere.

    that being said, now i am going to go build a piezo mic.

  • http://www.thisischristhompson.com Chris

    omg I love ramen. I'm going to Setagaya right now.

  • http://www.quoico.com Richard Lawler

    I'm not arguing that playing a guitar is easier than using Ableton Live. But the interface to a guitar is far less complex. I'm reminded of the Monty Python sketch where they teach you how to play the flute. "Blow in here and move your fingers up and down over the holes here." You couldn't write the same sketch about Logic Studio.

    But MonksDream makes a good counter-point. An oboe or organ are hardly simple.

  • http://www.robotgigante.cl Jose

    That video actually offends cowbells.

  • http://www.figby.com/ Michael Moncur

    The trick to making simplified musical instruments for "the rest of us" is to leave SOME of the challenge and take away the rest.

    Exhibit 1: Guitar Hero. Takes away the composition, and the finger-on-fretboard skills, but keeps the timing and rhythm sense.

    Exhibit 2: The Kazoo. Takes away the physical difficulty of playing an instrument like a guitar or flute, but leaves the need to carry a tune.

    Unless I've taken entirely the wrong impression from their video, Beamz takes away ALL of the challenge. Nobody wants that. If we want to play beautiful music with absolutely no challenge, we can press Play on our iPods.

    Exception: Kids. This thing would be great for children, handicapped or not. The trouble is that (a) the price makes it inaccessible to almost all children, and (b) most of them would be bored of it in a day with the limited material they have to work with.

  • Vanceg

    Richard – I understand that you aren't making the argument that playing guitar is easier than using Ableton live. And/but consider this:

    The interface for playing guitar isn't simply "place your fingers on the fretboard and strum and music comes out".

    In your analogy I think you COULD write a skit about logic that goes "Logic audio – to make music, just click your mouse and music comes out".

    I think the interface to a guitar is considerably more complex than that of Logic. The nuance of how long to hold a note, how to get the left and right hand coordinated, REMEMBERING where to put your fingers, not to mention the very difficult task of getting your fingers to move to the correct place on the fingerboard, then you get into vibrato and all of the other nuance of making a "beautiful" note….

    I strongly believe that the real complexity of the interface of an acoustic instrument is overlooked – A guitar is more than "hold finger on fret, pluck same string".

    But I do see what you mean (I think) Logic's interface does appear to have more individual "items" or "concepts" that the user has to understand to make a sound come out than a guitar does.

  • Vanceg

    Now – is DJing making music?

    (ducking)

  • http://www.professorwhimsey.com Dr. Apostrophe X

    " In your analogy I think you COULD write a skit about logic that goes “Logic audio – to make music, just click your mouse and music comes out”. "

    No, that's GarageBand.

    Seriously, though, thanks for posting the link to Jerry Riopelle playing the Beamz prototype. How many of us watched that and had the eerie feeling that we'd just gotten a good look at our own personal future. Yikes!

  • Downpressor

    Chris

    Everyone knows the best ramen is in Ikebukuro.

  • Nowabeamzer

    Now that the beamz are out I can tell you that all the gripes are unfounded. I've taken keyboard and guitar lessons – I'm a frustrated musician, I like music much better than I play. I checked out the beamz and after 10 minutes had to have them. There is much more to the system then can be imagined – it does allow anyone with a feel for music to have fun. Oh, you can improve greatly and play in an infinite number of ways. I can't think of words to describe it – they haven't been invented yet.

    I found this link – http://lspearmanii.multiply.com/video/item/435
    with Quincy Jones, Yo Yo Ma and Herbie Hancock enjoying the beamz – and these guys know what they're talking about.

  • megan

    UPDATE: The beamz is now $499.95 and can be purchased through the company’s site: http://www.thebeamz.com. You can download and purchase additional songs there as well.

  • DaveDread

    All I can say is, if you're stupid enough to blow $600 on this thing, you deserve the certainly inevitable realization that you're a complete tool.