An Interview with Bert Schiettecatte about AudioCubes
Bert Schiettecatte is the founder of Percussa, a music hardware and software company located near Leuven, Belguim. The company’s first product is Audio Cubes, a beautiful and unusual controller system that can be used in powerful ways in conjunction with Max/MSP and other software.
If someone asks you to explain what the AudioCubes are, what’s the first thing you say?
A tool for creating and performing electronic music and sound, which aims to stimulate creativity and lower user interface barriers.
Can you give me an example of the kind performing interface I can make?
If you use the AudioCubes out of the box as a MIDI controller, you can map relationships between the cubes and distances to trigger and continuous controller information.
For example, you can use a pair of cubes and let one cube detect where the other cube is and send a trigger when that changes. If the cube is on the left of the other one, play MIDI note C4, and if it’s on the other side you could play note C5. You can sense the distance to your hand also and map that to a continuous controller value. Of course this is not the limit, the cubes are configurable however you want to use them.
If you want to use it within Max/MSP you have an external available which lets you communicate with the cubes over USB. The configuration patches are available when you buy your set of AudioCubes, so you have an example of how to use the external.
You can send the cubes simple commands like change colour, set behaviour, set parameter, etc.
Is there one cube that is connected to the computer using USB while the others talk to it wirelessly? How far apart can they be?
If you want to send signals to your computer then one needs to be connected with a USB cable. you can use multiple “receiving” stations if you want. How far apart they can be depends on the software it is running and how and where you are using it, but most of the time this is around 40 cm (about 16 inches).
If you use the cubes as a MIDI controller, how do you get the MIDI out?
The external in Max/MSP gets you high rate sensor info which you can convert to MIDI rate stuff. There is a patch you get with the cubes that can do the conversion and send out MIDI. So if you have a hardware MIDI interface you can send that information to your external MIDI synths. Eventually there might also be an AudioCube that has a MIDI port. We are also looking into OSC.
Do I receive information from each cube as a separate stream of data, like a MIDI controller, or do I get streams of information about the spatial relationship between the cubes and other properties of all the cubes as a group?
You can get both types of information depending on what the cubes are doing. If one cube sends data about its other cubes nearby you get spatial information. If you just have one cube connected and measure distance to your hand for example, then it’s more of a classical MIDI controller.
How do you control the color of a cube?
You can control the colour from Max/MSP. The external supports a colour message similar to the colour picker. Of course any MIDI gear capable of sending continuous controllers can control the colours too (red, green and blue channels available for creating up to 4096 combinations).
Is it possible to make a cube change color in response to sound or some other control information?
Yes, you can create colour pattern “sequences” quite easily using continous controller envelopes, for example.
Can you describe one or two examples of work people have done with the cubes that you particularly like?
We had various public events in which we let people use the cubes to make music / sound. One example was in December of 2004, at the MUHKA in Antwerp (a museum for contemporary art). Peter Swinnen, a composer from Belgium, used an early version of the AudioCubes in an art installation. Over 270 people stopped by that day and it was a big success. The cubes really stimulate people to experiment with sound and music.
Another event held recently was a workshop invited by Vancouver New Music in Canada and conducted by Kim Cascone at Video-in/Video-Out. One group of musicians in the workshop used over 16 cubes together to build a sound generating/processing network which created a drone-like sound which constantly evolved. I was really surprised how they put the tools together to create their installation.
We’re also getting increasing interest now in using the cubes as a MIDI Controller for live performance. Artists and performers are welcome to get in touch and talk about their work.
What resources do you have available so people can learn more about the cubes? How do you sell them and how much do they cost?
We are working on more video material and tutorials so people get a more in depth view of how you can use the AudioCubes. You can see demos online at www.percussa.com.
You can also send us an email, let us know where you are geographically, and we’ll let you know if there is a retailer (or existing customer) where you can go see the system.
We sell through the website for 599 EUR per set of 4 cubes. We’re also talking to select retailers to offer them to their customers.
I heard that there is some possibility for the cubes to do some kind of DSP processing. Tell me how that works.
You can let the cubes do lo-fi sound generating / processing also. You can connect them to your computer and assign a “behaviour” (= signal object like in Max/MSP), disconnect them, and point the cubes at each other and have them communicate sound signals or controllers.
The cubes use a mixed digital /analog signal processing system so you can get sounds specific to the cubes.
Tell me a little bit about your background and how you came up with this concept?
I’ve had a dream of designing technology for electronic music for as long as I can remember. I got my first gear when I was in high school. I went to study computer science at the university in Brussels and then got a Master’s at CCRMA, Stanford University.
I came up with the AudioCubes as a reaction to the knobs and displays on existing electronic music tools. I wanted to be able to create sounds and music by manipulating objects instead of staring at a computer. Of course computers will always be necessary to record what you create, and some information is best displayed using a display.
Do you have any plans for other products you can tell us about?