A Video and Text Interview with Owen Grace: The Guitar Zeros

    Game Controller

    A surprisingly expressive instrument
    It's great to see the way that Max/MSP crosses musical genres and also allows people to repurpose available (and maybe not so available) technology. Owen Grace has a band called The Guitar Zeros. He took the guitar controllers used for the Guitar Hero video games and wrote a Max/MSP patch interface that allows him utilize them as an expressive and innovative, stand alone instrument. The Guitar Zeros band currently has four players, a guitar controller player, a bass controller player, a 'real' drummer and a vocalist.
    So, where'd you grow up?
    I grew up in a suburb of Chicago.
    Did you play music back then?
    My mom was always around when I grew up. My dad was working two jobs, and my mom was just always there. Which is a nice thing. I had my best friend around, and it was my mom. She was really active in every part of my life, and really waiting, like what's he going to get into? Is he going to get into sports? OK, he likes baseball, he's pretty good at that. He's good at tennis, but what else? Music? She thought, OK, I think he's kind of tone deaf, because he's sitting in front of "Sesame Street," and it's very musical, and he's just watching and listening, not dancing or clapping like they're supposed, but just really listening. She thinks, oh, he must not have a sense for music whatsoever. Then my parents would go to church, taking me along to play with all the other kids in the part of the church that's like, OK kids, go wild. There was a piano in there, and I would just poke at the piano the whole time, figure out things by ear. I think I was developing my 'ear' early. By the time I hit fourth grade, it was, OK, you choose between Boy Scouts or the school band. I thought, well the Boy Scouts suck... better do band. So I picked up a trumpet - I remember the guy spraying the mouthpiece with some kind of disinfectant. Then tasting that I was like 'whoa!!' He reacted, “whoa, you hit a higher note than most kids hit, you're a natural, you defiantly have an innate ability here”. I thought, oh, OK, sure - yeah trumpet it is. I had no idea what I really wanted but right away I was the 'Trumpet Boy', first chair trumpet all through junior high and high school. That was just a big part of my youth. So, I guess music for me started with playing around on the piano, just experimenting, and then trumpet in high school. Then... I got really into playing guitar. I started opening up my ears to other popular music that was out there, because obviously the guitar's a huge instrument in popular music. I got really into the guitar virtuosos.
    Like... Joe Satriani?
    Yeah, Joe Satriani, and Van Halen kind of stuff. So I was really into that, for a couple of years, until other friends opened me up to so many other different things. I thought, you know what? It's not really about virtuosity on this instrument that I care about. I'm not that into 'musicianship' so much... what I really like is composition. I started really getting into writing interesting things, not just performing.
    Such as?
    I think I got really into the humor and the satire of Zappa, who had a potpourri of styles. I just like all the wackiness. The atypical started to really attract me. That's what ultimately led me to get into really outside, experimental electronic music and things. Just an ever-evolving interest in what would not be considered 'normal' music, not what's just fed down into the pipes. That's what led me to apply to Dartmouth.
    Where'd you go to undergrad?
    Bucknell University, which is a Pennsylvania, middle-of-nowhere, Engineering-Liberal Arts school.
    Did you take music classes?
    No, I went with Electrical Engineering, with a minor in Music Composition. I wasn't really even thinking about going to a grad school at that point in my life, but I applied Dartmouth, because it was so different. It was music 'composition', as opposed to performance.
    Who teaches there?
    John Appleton was my primary influence.
    Oh yeah, right. He was a big Max person from early on.
    Yeah. He was integrating Max into the curriculum right away and I loved it. It was like oooh, that's totally different, totally fun... bring it on. Yeah, there was John Appleton, Larry Polansky, and Charles Dodge. There were only three or four people accepted a year into that small program and I got in! I learned a lot about things that involved Max, and that's been at the center of this current project of mine. I learned so much about music. I really didn't know I was going to end up doing electro-acoustic type music. I thought, oh, yeah, I get it, electronics and acoustics, mash it together... its all music, I'm open to everything. I get into it and I realize, oh, this is a whole genre, it's focused on academic circles and it's generally like sitting in a chair and listening to twenty-minutes of noise. It's like, well, I got really into it, but, come on, it was a lot to endure. Two years of that straight and I was like, man, I need my guitar again, I need to ROCK OUT! [Laughs]. I'm really glad I went though it all, even though I actually didn't really get along with the professors that well. It's a very small family, there's interesting politics and dynamics between the three or four professors and only seven students, but I was lucky to be a part of it.
    Wow, I'm impressed that you went to Dartmouth and that whole scene.
    All my colleagues, some of whom were great mentors of mine, came from all different places. Dartmouth is really great. Especially this program, they took me, an electrical engineer. They took a math major--this girl had never written a piece of music in her life. They took a San Jose State music major, incredible composer, brought him in, and then lastly a English major, a writer who was really into Electronica. They brought all these people together ...
    You know... I really try to bring a little life, a little non-academic life into the Max thing. There's people that come up to us after a show and they're like, "Is that Max?" I've been tweaking with that for a long time”. I think there's a lot of people outside of the academic, that aren't so geeky, that really dig into it.
    It's so exciting that you can actually design your own idea, the potential is really limitless. Now with Jitter, you can have everything, sound, midi control, visuals, they can talk and interact with each other. I think that's so exciting...
    I like it because once you get over the learning curve, you realize what it does, how it works, what it can do and all of a sudden the ideas just start to pop. It's like, oh, I wanted to do this, in this very specific way, ahh, I can do that with Max, you can get right down to the nuts and bolts... you can tweak that bolt at the very bottom, just a little bit, and change things just the way you need. It's so open in that way. It's truly creative.
    So, when you were seventeen, your friend had a 4-track, and a guitar, and you started playing guitar. Did you get a 4-track for yourself?
    I got the Tascam Porta-07. It's smaller. Four tracks with big rainbow-colored buttons. [laughs]
    So you started learning to record, doing your own recording?
    Yeah. I had an amp and an electric guitar. I was saving up for an acoustic guitar so I could get some other alternate layers in there. Of course I thought, next, I'm going to save up for a bass, so I could layer even more. Then it was, "I need a drum machine". I ended up doing a lot of drum-machine programming when I was around 19. I was really pushing those four tracks to the absolute max. People would say "What? This is only four tracks? How many bounces did you do, this sounds like at least twelve layers in there." Yeah, I did do a lot of bounces...
    Tell me about your very first Max experience. Do you remember the first patch you made? Did you think it was just too bizarre or did you think 'cool... I can get into this!'?
    I got to Dartmouth with this background in engineering and programming, which no one else really had. So when they introduced some of the software, the Max software, I thought 'ooh, yeah, this is fun, this is my style, it totally inspired me right away.' I think I was into the randomness it could create. I like John Cage, his chance operations, and his theories around silence in music. I really was into it, and using chance in Max is pretty easy, there are a bunch random number generator objects. But I also wanted to have some kind of control over the randomness. I like to compose a piece of music, by applying constraints around what is basically a random process. So my hand on the piece was guiding the randomness. What inspired me is that Max made that so easy. I think one of the first things I did, aside from little projects just making crazy things happen in a reckless way, was a piece, that I actually finished and composed, was a MIDI piece that output MIDI to a big synthesizer that was just producing piano-like tones. The process would start with a lot of random notes, and every once in a while one would stick and there'd be tempo adjustments, and finally you'd hone in on this chord that was playing for a while, and then these sine waves would kind of sweep in and nail the chord, then move on to another chord... then the randomness started all over again. It ended up being this cool evolving piece that I ended up recording for an hour or so, just to see what I thought of it, how it sounded. Quite frankly, it is interesting if you really actively listen to it for a while, but the nature of this piece, because it's all sine waves and piano tones, is that it kind of finds its way into the background as an ambient piece, especially because it's an hour long--[laughs]--I mean, how can you sit for an hour – well... I guess they do do that in that in the electro-acoustic scene.
    A colleague of mine, Mike Frengel - we actually moved here together, then he went off to get a PhD in England – now that guy was inspiring, he had a total love for the rock-music side of things, as well... I related to him a lot. He introduced me to a lot of everything across the board. He and I composed a few performance pieces together on Max, where we were using the mouse coordinates, x and y on the screen, to do an assortment of different things. So in this corner, you're getting these industrial engine sounds, and cranking, clucking sounds, and as you move, changing a number or parameters, it would totally change the sound of things. So we performed, like, "OK, GO!"... and we would just play, and react and do this whole piece. We kind of had a rough score, like, alright, we're going to one minute of this over here, and then we're going to switch and go crazy for ten seconds, and then slowly sweep from this corner to this corner of the patch over 30 seconds. So we did have a score that was put together, but we performed it using the mouse. All in all, the sound was really distorted and nasty... I think he actually had a Rat distortion pedal hooked into his loops there.
    I bet your teachers loved that... [laughs]
    Oh yeah... I think they understood Mike's aesthetic for combining a rock-music mentality and this whole experimentation with making music in the electro-acoustic vein. Mike was, from age seven, in rock bands with his brother, so they knew where he was coming from, and they understood it. Then they saw me kind of jumping in and joining him with a lot of pieces, and I think they were thinking, "OK, nice, mm-hmm..." That was the beginning of Max for me.
    How did the Guitar Zeros come about?
    Well, it was an inspiration that was born inside of my crazy brain. The drummer is an old friend of mine, we've been making music together ever since we decided to try it. These other two co-workers if mine, kept saying, "We should start a band, we should do 'something'." I asked "Well, what do you want to do?” I was watching some people play Guitar Hero one day, and it dawned on me, man, it would be cool to make a band around actually synthesizing sound out of these things. I was so excited, thinking this is going to be awesome... I think can really actually make this happen. These guys in the band are in the video-game industry, we all came from working at a video-gaming company. I just thought that they should be so into this. So, I asked them... and they were so, "What? Really? You're going to do what? That sounds so cool, yeah, sure." A friend had an event coming up, so we thought, hey, we can make this our first gig. They needed some musical entertainment, so I figured, OK, we have two months to write the software, write some tunes and perform. Let's go for it! I really just wanted to set up a deadline... that really does help make stuff happen. So I said, "OK, we're in." I sat down and worked intensely on the software, to make it workable. I had a couple modes, I got an acoustic-y sound going on, where you can strum acoustic sounds, and then of course, a single-note mode, where I could actually do two-handed tapping with the five buttons. That is so fun, Eddie Van Halen style, just shredding on the thing. Then I thought, we need a power-chord mode, which on a guitar is usually a first and a fifth, so I created that mode so we could play rock and roll. That was the idea, let's just take this back a few decades, to like the '70s, and do some Stooges-inspired rock and roll!!
    I've never played Guitar Hero. How did you hack into it? Is their code open? Or does it talk external MIDI?
    Basically it's a video-game controller, sending button states, like On or Off, like it's a one or a zero, to the Playstation 2. So the Playstation 2 adapter is kinda weird. It's a proprietary adapter that you have to plug in. I did some looking on line and thought, 'All right, I gotta get this into the PC somehow, because I know once it's in the PC, Max knows just how to read human-interface device button states'. The human-interface device object in Max will read any joystick, and basically it just reports, "OK. Gotta device number... here's the button number. On or Off?" With these guitars, we've got five buttons and then the flipper, which is pretty much like hitting up and down on the joystick pad. The other buttons, Start and Select, are just more buttons, like those five.
    So how'd you get the Playstation to talk to the computer?
    I found an adapter. There's a $10 adapter out there that takes the controller jack and turns it into a USB signal. This adapter is built so that people can use their Playstation controllers on PC games. This is really just a Playstation controller in a different shape, so it was perfect. Then I got Max reporting all the button states. So it actually isn't MIDI, it's leaping directly into Max without having to go through MIDI protocol, thus incurred latencies, so it's a faster driver, a faster clock rate.
    What's your sound source?
    Synthesized and MSP'd, fully. In the actual Guitar Hero game, these dots come down a fret board image. There's a little line at the bottom and when those dots cross the line, you have to hold those buttons and strum the strummer. It's all synchronized to songs, so you're really not actually 'performing' anything, it's just a timing the notes game. If your timing sucks, they have these 'bad' sounds, so you're hitting it wrong, and then as soon as you're in, it engages the tracks, you're playing the song, and your points are going up. So the idea is that the game is really like lip-synching is to singing. Like, if you're not lip-synching in the right time, people are going to realize, "Hey, you're lip synching." But if you lip synch right, it can be kind of believable. So you get good at Guitar Hero, and it's the phenomenon of "this is kind of fun. I could be on stage right now. I could play in this." So that's the phenomenon to me. That's why I think people really dig it, because "yeah, oh my gosh, it feels like I'm actually playing it." Even as a guitar player, I was like, "all right, this is totally fun"... but there is something to master, as well. You can get better at it, and it gets more difficult. There are levels, and it gets pretty hard... you really have to fly your fingers on this game. So what I've done is change it around and turn it into an actual instrument - forget the game and following the little notes. Now it actually synthesizes the sound. That's what Max is good at, reading the controller, and instantly synthesizing. I wanted to make some pluck-string guitar exultations, so I went right to Percolate, which is a plug-in set, an object set from Dan Truman and Luke DuBois. So that got me well under way getting some string sounds out of these plastic guitars.
    So you guys played at Maker Faire?
    So you took something that's somewhat unimaginative and you turned it into an actual creative tool, and creative thing... and you see that the kids really got into it!
    Yeah! That was the main reason to form a band around it, to showcase it, to do it right and kind of blow people's minds. Like 'whoa', they didn't just make five sounds out of the five buttons, and write punk songs that only deal with five chords. I had a vision, I saw the possibilities. I mean, we all agreed that we were not going to take ourselves too seriously, but we're going to write original songs, we're going to have fun doing it. Then I wanted to make the software freely available. I wanted people to see a You Tube video of us, and think, "Whoa, what is that?” look into it, and see you can download it, using the Runtime version of Max.
    People sometimes challenge the idea, and say, "So this isn't really a real instrument, it can't be a good instrument, because it's not very expressive." But I say, "Well, of course, we're talking about big, meaty buttons versus six vibrating strings with your fingertips on them where you can bend them, and you can play dynamically on a real guitar of course. I'm not trying to replace the guitar here. I'm just trying to make a new kind of Keytar. There are over three million of things out there. There are more of these in the world than there are actual guitar-playing people. I think the survey poll was something like 70 percent of 'all people surveyed' that had played Guitar Hero, only about 30 percent had actually ever played a real guitar. So it's obviously pretty important to recognize that. If this could be turned into a playable instrument in some capacity, I might be inspiring 'somebody'... that was the crux of it. Expressively, there is something that this has that a guitar doesn't have, and that is that it has a tilt sensor in there, it detects this as well. So you can apply that to some sound parameter, like changing a filter or effect or something. This defiantly ads to the expressiveness it can attain.
    So, are you a virtuoso on this by now?
    Oh yeah, definitely... [Laughs.]
    Do you still play regular guitar?
    Yeah. Actually, more than ever lately, because I've been wanting to get back to recording on actual tape again. I want to start recording real guitar again." I mean it's fun writing songs on these things, I've gotten a lot of different sounds, and different approaches to songs. They can sound pretty unique, most of them... they really don't all always sound the same.
    What's your patching style?
    My patching style is chaos [laughs]. I did try to make it sort of pretty on the outside, to some degree, because I want to make this available for others, other Max users, to have fun, edit it, tweak as they want. Only a few other Max people have really contacted me and said, "Hey, so I took a look at your programming, and I see where you're generating certain frequencies, and this certain note map. How do I save that?" I'm like, "OK, in this patch, it's embedded into the file, and you can redo it if you want, but all the chords are based on that thing, and it's going to jack all your chords....". I didn't really make it super primed and ready for people to really modify it and make improvements on it. One person gave me a patch, "Here, add this. It'll allow you to record the audio and save it." So, of course I responded, "OK, yeah, right on, that's cool" I'll put that in.
    Do you know many people have downloaded it?
    I think the number's up to 40,000+.
    No way! How do you get the word out?
    Well, we have stuff up on You Tube; CNET did a bunch of coverage on it and Current TV as well. The Maker Fair was our most recent outing. We've gotten a lot of good press. Of course, that's how many actual downloads of it; I don't know how many people have actually tried to really utilize it. It's not that I particularly wanted to make it hard to use, but it is kind of difficult. You have to download the Cycling '74 Runtime engine, and install it... then you have to get the Percolate objects, and have to copy them into the right directory and all...
    So, the interface between the Playstation and computer... do they have to buy that. Can you tell them where to go and acquire that?
    Here's the thing. I strongly endorse the newer version of the guitars, which are actually USB guitars...period. They just plug right in, there's no cable, they're wireless. How are you going to connect that to USB? What you do is you get this little $12 dongle that Microsoft sells, and you plug it right in, and it will receive one of these wireless controllers. So that's what we use on stage, because on stage we kind of hide the computer - well, we put it to the side. This way, we can get pretty far away, and can ROCK without having to worry about a cable that might yank your computer over.
    Now that you've updated to Max/MSP 5, will you be adding any new and/or improved features to your Fretbuzz app?
    Oh yeah... I do intend to add some key-changing features and to integrate some custom DSP effects. I think the most obvious thing that the new version 5 has inspired in me though, is to really improve the user interface... A LOT! [Laughs... Hard]
    ROCK ON Owen!
    Video and text interview by Marsha Vdovin and Ron MacLeod for Cycling '74.