Adaptable, minimalist interfaces
Interview with Brian Crabtree and Kelli Cain from Monome
By Marsha Vdovin
Brian Crabtree (who performs under the name tehn) and his partner Kelli Cain are collectively known as monome. They design what they call adaptable, minimalist interfaces. The musical instrument industry calls them alternate controllers. There are currently three models that interface with a computer. There is no hard-wired functionality; interaction between the keys and lights is determined by the application (such as Max/MSP) running on the computer. Basically the monome units can do whatever you program them to do and serve as alternate controllers for not just music but games, lights, video etc. Monome is fantastically successful. I found their story inspiring and exciting — they represent a new breed of creative entrepreneurs who are environmentally and socially conscious.
Where are you from? Where did you grow up?
Brian: I grew up mostly in Southern California. We lived on the edge of town, which meant spending a lot of time in the hills and creeks with friends. Wilderness served as a sort of blank slate for inventing projects (divert a stream) and games (rock stacking) and architectures (tree forts). We lived in a subdivision where you had to drive to get anywhere and neighbors rarely came outside, (which I could likewise be accused of as I discovered computers much too young).
Kelli: I grew up in a small post-industrial city in Southern New Jersey that was central to a huge agricultural community. It was the kind of place where you could go horse back riding in the country, pass through a field of soybean plants, cross through the woods, and end up in the drive-thru of a fast-food joint. There was a fair share of abandoned factories to explore, train tracks to wander, and spots to go fishing (or watch people fish).
When you were a kid (elementary school), what did want to do when you grew up?
Brian: I luckily don’t feel like I was ever pressured or preoccupied with this thought. Even through grad school I didn’t have much of an idea what would end up being a career, instead focusing intensely on whatever was interesting to me at the time. Since elementary school this has been a mix of computers and music, later I found out I could unite these explorations and also add electronics. There were of course diversions into early computer RPGs (for future nerd credibility) and skateboarding and climbing on whatever in general. Part of “growing up” always seemed to feel like some sort of arrival, like a plateau. I’m glad to have a sense that we’re still learning everyday, invite new research enthusiastically, and try to be adaptable in complicated situations.
Kelli: I had so many interests as a kid and a fairly large imagination when it came to wondering what adults actually did when they got to be adults. I was pretty serious about ghost busting. A lot of thought went into that potential career path. There are many others of course, but sucking wandering spirits into a vacuum-like apparatus and helping them find their way to some kind of afterlife. That was one preoccupation.
What is your earliest creative memory?
Brian: Very early on (wearing my mom-made superhero cape) I carefully assembled a habitat for caterpillars whom I perceived to had fallen out of trees. I cried inconsolably after accidentally stepping on one who had jumped ship.
Kelli: I had an early obsession with pretending to be blind and/or having only one arm … it sounds strange and amazingly insensitive, I mean I know my parents were probably confused by it, but I wore this scarf over my eyes and tied my arm to my waste and just hung out around the house.
What are your creative influences?
Both: architecture, the natural sciences, irony, pure math, agriculture, well designed manuscripts, Jane Jacobs, Charles and Ray Eames, John Cage, Louis Kahn, Masanobu Fukuoka and many others.
Tell me about your college and grad school experiences?
Brian: Hopefully our first lessons are to learn how to learn. School is expensive and you don’t actually buy knowledge anyway. You buy access to instructors, peers, and tools– but most importantly time. Honestly I’d like to see the emergence of a new generation of modern farmers with enormous libraries and workshops.
Kelli: School is pretty much what you make of it and how well you manage to take advantage of the time and resources presented to you, and you may even find that after you’ve done all that you still feel a little short changed when youâ€™re still paying for it twenty years after the fact.
Post formalized education however, I’m amazed at just how much I continue to learn and experience for free or for what feels like a donation to someone or something I believe in… I see the re-emergence of community based educational opportunities via cultural institutions, non-profits, and independent and creative well-learned citizens as a total step in the right direction. I can’t help but think that just like most everything going on now, we need to take the BIG business aspect out of education.
When did you first encounter Max/MSP?
Brian: At UCSD, after deciding to dedicate myself to computer music/art. Despite my extensive background in computer science and modern music technology, Max/MSP opened worlds of possibilities with shocking ease. Max allowed endless flexibility to create precisely the live performance and composition environments I imagined, where commercial hardware had failed in various ways.
Kelli: Brian introduced me to Max/MSP through some of his early music performances… for me it was like watching Brian give the tin man a real, bloody beating heart â€” half-magic, half surgery…
What attracted you to Max/MSP?
Brian: I was attracted to Max/MSP for a live performance setting. All of my life-performance work was confined to different ways of trying to fit commercial gear into doing things they weren’t supposed to do. So by being able to program our own systems, we could determine exactly the way that we wanted to perform and try to express ourselves with computers, which are traditionally very not expressive tools. So that enabled us to strip away a lot of those layers.
Photo by Peter Kirn
How did the monome come about?
Brian: The whole thing came about initially as a device that I designed for myself for performing music, which was enabled by my discovering Max/MSP, basically. Being able to have my hands on a device that was really adaptable, that could change depending on what parameters I wanted to have control over was really the key. So an open grid of buttons where the LEDs didn’t match specifically into toggles, hardwired, was really the goal. Then I got it in the hands of some friends who performed and toured a bunch with it. Enough people had asked me to basically build one for them, that it was an intangible thing to hand wire so many things, so that’s when the first thoughts of making a very limited run, which was never initially conceived as just being a business. It was more of a sort of project that we could potentially sustain ourselves for a little while. And at that time, Kelli and I were making a lot of mechanical installation art, so it seemed just an extension, like the next project that we were going to do. And what was really exciting is that by getting this adaptable, open-ended interface out into the community, there wouldn’t be a reliance on just the patches that I had written. Basically, since it could do anything, it would foster everybody writing their own patches and then sharing them with other people. So it would be a generative process, where people would contribute back their work and then inspire other people to maybe modify it or do something different, and then continually share. I think the sharing component is what’s made it really successful, and also kept people really engaged, in that it constantly renews itself.
Tell me about your production process.
Our approach has been about sourcing everything very locally. For example, the keypads are made right outside Philadelphia, the aluminum plate is sourced out of Maryland. The wood frames are also now made right outside of Philadelphia, the lumber is actually black walnut from forests in Pennsylvania, and the circuits are made in Colorado. All the assembly is right in middle Pennsylvania. So we can actually go and visit all of these different factories and companies, and meet the people who are involved, and that creates a really good bond, so you understand whom you’re paying, and who’s working on your project, so you can really trust them and talk to them in person.
Do you make everything in your loft, or do you actually go other places to do certain tasks?
Brian: We literally build and test everything in our loft. That is not to say that everything is fabricated in our loft. Like I said earlier, the plates, for instance, get machined down in Maryland, or the keypads get compression molded out of silicon at a facility outside of Philadelphia. But we literally get boxes full of these components, and then we put everything together and test them laboriously, and then do all of the finishing. We do all hand finishing on the wood, and package them up. Shipping them out is a tremendous amount of work that we never would have imagined. When it comes down to it, the development and the design of the circuits, all the things you imagine being hard, are actually quite simple compared to just the sheer man hours of assembly and finishing.
Kelli: And designing packaging, and printing.
Brian: That’s the fun part, though.
Kelli: It’s tremendously fun, but it’s the stressful part. It’s the part that takes a lot of consideration. Because it has many more implications.
Brian: Right. Decision-making is always complicated, but that’s part of our attraction to hyper minimalism, is that embellishment is more often than not excessive or distracting.
Since making monome your business do you still have time for creative work?
Luckily, monome as a project fulfills many of our creative needs, though we’re looking forward to spreading our time between more new projects very soon. Additionally monome has been a wonderful platform for us to promote many topics we care deeply about, including sustainability, local economies, and open-source.
What are some of your favorite Max/MSP objects?
Brian: random, of course! Then there’s expr and sprintf, for their flexibility. udpsend and udpreceive, to get data in and out of Max in a manner superior to MIDI. multislider, for its minimal elegance and adaptability.
Do you have a particular patching style?
Brian: It’s evolved organically since 2000 and I don’t think I could describe it in words. Since I had all sorts of “real” programming experience before learning Max/MSP, I spend a lot of time trying to make patches have the look of sequential operation, as if they were typed out code. This is often impossible, so the compromises appear as strange-looking nuances. Modularity is always a goal for re-usable patches, but I normally forget what I’ve already invented and re-invent things in a new and possibly more or less effective method each time. I don’t use segmented patch cords. I use as many shortcuts as possible to patch as fast as possible. It’s a bit of a mess.
Do you use host software such as Live or Logic?
Not so much for my own composition– I’ve tended to create patches in Max/MSP that do everything I want, which is a drawback in some ways because there’s always something new one might want. Instead of actually making music, you go program a bit longer, until eventually you’re more obsessed with making tools than using tools. What matters is acknowledging that this is not a bad thing– Max Matthews and Miller Puckette as testament.
Is the monome your main/only controller? Did you use other controllers prior to creating the monome?
Despite using quite a few controllers in the past, I never dedicated myself to any for very long. For performance I do use a monome device, which is best complimented by a Wurlitzer or xylophone or something completely unlike a grid of buttons.
So, how many variations of the monome are there?
We started out with the 40h, an 8×8 grid. We just released the final device in our new series, which have redesigned keypads and black walnut enclosures– the two fifty six is 16×16, the one twenty eight is 8×16, and the sixty four is 8×8. We also make a kit version for people to assemble and design their own enclosures; this allows customization and a lower cost of entry.
What do you think of the Internet?
Kelli: Ooh. We love the Internet. We have this sort of belief that the Internet gives you rewards. If you give something to the Internet, you will get back from the Internet. For example, if you make something awesome, and you post a picture of it on the Internet, and a million people see it and they love it; you’re going to come across a picture on the Internet that you really love. Does that make sense? So it’s a little bit of karma in a computer.
Brian: The Internet is great, but as much as it’s an enabler, it allows for really obsessive tendencies. So learning boundaries in terms of when to work and when not to work, and how engaged in a community you can possibly be without totally losing your identity completely.
Kelli: Or there is the virtual versus real. It’s one thing to be in a community on the computer. It’s another thing to meet those people in person, and actually have that physical connection. Reality is important.
Brian: Reality is really important. I mean, we’ve had a wonderful opportunity to meet a lot of our users as they come through town, or we visit other cities and are able to meet people who are involved in the forum, or are musicians of some sort. And always, the face-to-face interaction is so valuable.
Kelli: And that’s the beautiful thing about the communal aspect of it. And especially on our forum, which I really love, is people are who they are. It’s not people pretending to be–or so far, I haven’t met the person pretending to be someone else. We’ve been very, very fortunate that way.
Have you ever gone to a Maker Fair?
Kelli: Oh, yeah. We did the first two Maker Fairs.
Brian: They’re good.
I’m surprised they don’t do one in New York. Or Philadelphia.
Brian: They just did one in Austin. We were at the two San Mateo ones. They were a lot of fun. It was great to meet an audience that wasn’t just musicians. What’s actually a bit peculiar is we never intended to be so focused on the musician market.
Kelli: Not at all, actually.
Brian: Because it literally is just a device of buttons and lights, and there’s nothing that says that musicians need buttons and lights. And we’ve had a lot of people who are not musicians use them, like artists, researchers or designers.
Kelli: Lots of designers, like graphic, even web designers. There’s this one web designer who uses it–he just uses it as a calendar.
Kelli: Yeah, very expensive calendar. It’s like a time clock.
Brian: It’s a design object. We also met some students at Cal Tech who were using it for some sort of neural-network research that I could not possibly understand.
Kelli: Yeah. They were incredible. And then there was the filmmaker who wanted to buy it, but he had to convince his wife. So he showed her a picture and he said, “We can put it on the mantel.” And she was like, “Oh, it’s beautiful. Yes, go ahead and buy it.” [Laughs.] We were like, “OK. That’s great.”
Brian: I know a person who wants to imbed it in their wall so it can control the lights in their house. But really, I mean, we used it for a couple of mechanical installations, to be like in a museum–oh, we’ve had lots of museums buy it, for like kids’ museums. So when interaction–I think the simple, intuitive, kind of binary on and off, the lights and the buttons, it’s, I don’t know, kids gravitate to it instantly. Which was something good about the Maker Fair, was to see all of the different crowds, and how they would interact with it. Not just people imagining how that that would fit into their music production process.
Kelli: I think in time we’re going to explore those differences a little bit more in the future. Right now, we’re trying to get through the new series, and just get our bearings as a small business. Because financially, and stability-wise, you just kind of have to do it that way. And then eventually, we want to progress, and really pick out a number of things it can do other just music. Or program more. Make more children’s-related toys with it, and make it more, I don’t know, accessible to a wider range of people.
What lies in the future for monome?
Future plans are very open at this time, but whatever comes next will certainly follow the same minimalism, adaptability and aesthetic.