Something like this could be the guts of your next digital musical instrument – and it might even mean leaving your laptop at home for the next gig. Photo (CC-BY) Koen Kooi.

Mobile computing has already had an enormous impact on music making. A modern phone or tablet (and yes, most often, these come from Apple) is capable of out-performing a lot of dedicated hardware and easily runs the synths and workstations that required state-of-the-art desktops just a decade or so ago.

But what if this same computing power – low-energy, low-cost chips – could be in other music gear, too? They could offer significant advantages. Bare boards, while on their own not quite road-ready, can wind up in music-friendly housings. (Think stompboxes – without stomping on your phone, or buying a big, silly dock.) You’ll never have to sign a contract with a phone company to get one, or stop your latest song sketch to take a call. And they could be significantly cheaper: the Raspberry Pi isn’t quite ready for mass consumption yet, but it has already begun shipping at US$25, meaning the entire computer costs what a phone car charger might.

In fact, much as the original personal computing revolution took computing to masses of new audiences, this could extend music computational power worldwide. We’re not just talking strange DIY software, either – these boards run Linux, meaning a lot of off-the-shelf music software will “just work,” including even some fine commercial entries.

If you’re ready to stop dreaming and start making music, now’s a great time. CCRMA at Stanford in the United States and STEIM in Amsterdam, NL have each been working on development. STEIM even has a workshop scheduled for June, taught by Edgar Berdahl (CCRMA) and Florian Goltz (DE):
Satellite CCRMA: Interactive design with open embedded computers

The instructors offer some great inspiration about what this is all about in their description:

These small computers combine the connectivity of a laptop with the computational power of a high-end smartphone; however they are less expensive than either and fit inside a cigar box. We will dedicate much of the workshop to prototyping new functional artworks, for example: musical instruments, effects processors, interactive installation works, and anything else you can imagine that requires high computational power in a small, inexpensive footprint.

In the broader sense this workshop deals with interaction design: What happens when human behaviours meet those of machines?

But even if you’re not able to get to California or Holland, you can give the software a try. The BeagleBoard is now supported by a custom distro; the Raspberry Pi seems a logical next frontier once it starts shipping. With Pd (Pure Data) included, you can even copy-and-paste instruments and effects like synthesizers, step sequencers and drum machines, and granulators built by a broad community – even without necessarily being a master patcher yourself. (And then, when you do want to modify the way it functions or sounds or gets controller, you can.)

Raspberry Pi, you’re next. Smaller and far cheaper than the BeagleBoard, you could buy this up the way you would milk and eggs. Photo (CC-BY-SA) Jared Smith.

It’s not all beginner-friendly yet, but these hacklabs seem the perfect way to begin to move in that direction, as more people test the solutions, gather data on how different patches perform, and make tweaks and write documentation.

  • Brian D.

    I have been working with the beagleBoard for a few years and it has some fantastic audio DSP capabilities. I have also experimented with the PanadaBoard ES which is a dual core BeagleBoard adaption with built-in wifi and bluetooth but less powerful DSP. The only limitation the BeagleBoard has is the lack of a canned ham control interface for the device to be used as a DSP / Synth / Performance tool. 

    And at $25 you cannot beat the Raspberry Pi. And PD is my tool of choice as well. 

    This is a fantastic article thanks for posting. 


  • Howard S

    Coincidentally, I just saw this post in the Supercollider FB group the other day:

    An autonomous synth on Beagleboard :
    4 asynchronous voices controlled by a USB MIDI controler, automatic startup…
    SuperCollider 3.5.1 –  

  • Marco Donnarumma

    What we all need. Forgetting about laptops, and reduce the tools to their computational guts. Free the expressivity.

  • Random Chance

    But running a GNU/Linux distribution with generic software on top feels to me exactly like bringing a laptop or any other small personal computer, except that in those cases the hardware is already enclosed in a more or less durable casing. Consequently, I don’t quite see the point in using such overpowered platforms for relatively simple tasks (heck, the demo video with the Beagleboard could probably have run on a small AVR or (ds)PIC microcontroller) unless you really need all the power, for instance in case you want to build the next Korg OASYS. But, now I wonder if I could manage to port libpd or zen garden to the STM32F4 Discovery board in my spare time.

  • papernoise

    I’m actually quite intrigued by this technology! If you can cut down the software to the very essence then this can be totally powerful! I don’t think you can just slap your standard distro on it and hope it will replace your laptop.

  • Datalus

    If these boards could be used in conjunction with Livid’s DIY components, you may have the makings of a custom performance tool on your hands, I’m a pretty big newb when it comes to hardware hacking and such so I’m not sure about the feasibility but the possibility intrigues me greatly :)

  • Marc Resibois

    If everything goes well by the end of the week-end I’ll be able to show a beagleboard based synth controller by and arduino pocket piano.

    Should be fun.

  • Sean Costello

    Does the Raspberry Pi support floating point? 

    • Ben Mull

      Yes, and the default Debian OS supports the hardware (HardFloat or HF) in ‘Raspbian’.

  • a_s_tarantoga

    The problem with the Raspberry Pi is that it has no audio in, so you will need an extra audio interface if you want to build a stompbox. Therefore, the higher price makes the BeagleBoard more suitable for a stompbox project.