Alex Lucas – Switch Access, Ableton Live and Inclusive Music

Since the year 2000 Enable Ireland’s Assistive Technology (AT) training service have run a Foundations in AT (5 ECTS) course certified by the Technological University Dublin (TUD). Those of you reading this post will most likely be familiar with AT and what a broad and rapidly evolving area it is. While overall the direction AT has taken over the last decade is positive and exciting, it has also become a more challenging area to work in. As a result, the importance and value of the Foundations in AT course has also increased and this is both reflected in, and as a direct result of the calibre of course participant we’ve had in recent years. The wealth of experience brought by participants each year helps the course evolve and develop, filling in gaps and offering new directions for technology to support people in areas beyond primary needs such as communication, access and daily living. Last month we began what is a new effort on our part to share with a wider audience some of the excellent work produced by Foundations in AT course participants with Shaun Neary’s post Accessible Photography – Photo Editing with Adobe Lightroom & the Grid 3. This month we will look at another area of creativity, music. 

Alex Lucas enrolled in the 2018 Foundations in AT course. As soon as we learned about his background and experience, we knew that his involvement in the course was an opportunity for us to learn more about accessible music technology and practice. Alex is an academic (PhD research student in Queen’s University Belfast), a maker, a musician, a developer and a product designer. Before returning to studies, he had gained 10 years’ experience working in mainstream music technology with big name companies like Focusrite and Novation. In Queens he is currently researching  “Supporting the Sustained Use of Bespoke Assistive Music Technology” and is part of the Research Group: Performance Without Barriers. He also works with Drake Music Northern Ireland

We could be accused of having underutilised Alex, but our suggestion for his project was to produce a resource that would act as an introduction to people new to the area of accessible music technology. Alex chose to focus on the mainstream Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) application Ableton Live and Switch input. As well as the project document (download link below) he released 5 really excellent tutorial videos on YouTube, the first of which is embedded here. 

Alex kindly agreed to contribute to this post so we asked him why he chose to focus on Ableton, to tell us a bit more about his work in inclusive music and a little about the research he is currently undertaking at Queens. Over to you Alex..

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Why Ableton? 

There are many software applications available for computer-based music production. Ableton Live is arguably one of the most popular DAWs. When first released in 2001, Ableton Live set itself apart from other DAWs through a unique feature called Session View.

Session View is a mode of operation which can be thought of as a musical sketchbook providing composers with an intuitive way to create loop-based music; a feature which is particularly useful when creating electronic music. When combined with Ableton Live’s built-in virtual musical instruments and devices for creating and modifying musical ideas, we find ourselves with a rich toolset for composing music in inclusive settings.

How this works with groups?

Music connects people; we see this often when conducting group-based inclusive music workshops, making work of this kind essential to Drake Music NI. There could be up to twelve participants of mixed abilities in a typical Drake workshop. As Access Music Tutors, we approach group workshops by first speaking to each participant in turn to identify their creative goals. One individual may have an interest in playing distorted synthesiser bass sounds, while another may prefer the softer sound of a real instrument such as a piano. Knowledge of an individual’s creative goals and their access requirements is used to select an appropriate device for the participant to use to control a virtual instrument within Ableton Live.

In addition to the Access Switches described in the video’s mentioned above, Drake Music also uses commercially available assistive music technologies such as Soundbeam and Skoog, and mainstream MIDI controllers such as the Novation Launchpad. It’s possible to connect several of these devices to a single computer running Live.

Together, the group make core musical decisions; i.e. genre, tempo, musical key. The workshop will proceed in one of two ways, either we jam together, or record each participant in turn, building up a composition gradually using overdubbing techniques.

OMHI – One-Handed Musical Instrument Trust

There are a handful of other organisations within the UK, working towards providing inclusion in music. One notable organisation is the One-Handed Musical Instrument Trust (https://www.ohmi.org.uk/). Many traditional musical instruments are designed in such a way that they place a fundamental requirement on the musician; they must have two fully functional hands. This assumption results in the exclusion of some individuals from learning a traditional musical instrument. Furthermore, in some cases, accomplished musicians are not able to return to their instrument after losing the function of a hand due to illness or an accident. OHMI aims to address this shortcoming by running an annual competition which invites instrument designers to adapt traditional musical instruments to be played by one hand only. Many fantastic designs are submitted to OHMI each year. I’m particularly impressed by David Nabb’s Toggle-Key Saxophone (https://www.unk.edu/academics/music/_files/toggle-key-system.pdf) which retains all of the functionality of a standard saxophone while being playable by one hand.

Research

Whilst OHMI primarily focuses on the adaptation of traditional acoustic instruments for inclusion and accessibility; my research centres on the challenges faced by disabled musicians in the long-term use of custom-made digital musical instruments.

In partnership with a disabled musician named Eoin at Drake Music NI, together we’ve been designing a digital musical instrument tailored towards Eoin’s unique abilities. Eoin has a strong desire to play electric guitar but as Eoin cannot hold a guitar, due to its physical characteristics, he has been unable to up until this point.

Using a motion sensor and an access switch, coupled with a Raspberry Pi embedded computer, Eoin is now able to play rudimentary guitar sounds using the movements of his right arm. We’ve tested several prototypes and are now in the process of assembling the instrument for Eoin to use both during Drake music workshops and at home.

As a musician, Eoin is the primary user of the device; however we’ve also been considering Eoin’s primary carer, his father Peter, as a secondary user. We’ve designed a high-level interface for Peter to use, hopefully allowing him to easily set-up the device for Eoin to use at home. We’re particularly interested in the longevity of the device, whether or not it’s viable for Eoin and Peter to use independently. Obsolescence can be a problem for assistive technology in general. Our current assumption is that obsolescence may be an issue with custom-made accessible digital musical instruments but hope, through this research to discover useful mitigation strategies.

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We just want to thank Alex again for making this tutorial and contributing to this post. The full accompanying document can be viewed/downloaded here. It really is a valuable resource for an area with such potential that is poorly supported at present (certainly here in Ireland) .

Keep an eye on Alex’s YouTube Channel or follow him on Twitter @alexaudio for more quality Accessible Music Technology information.


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