There is a playfulness which threads Sarah Belle Reid's work together -- whether she is duetting with a Serge system, collaborating with Hainbach through Instagram, or controlling a boutique Max patch with an interface of her own design.
Sarah's myriad interests (and talents) have helped her develop a diverse body of work, including her stunning debut album with trumpet and electronics ('Underneath and Sonder') released on pfMENTUM earlier this season.
At the core of 'Underneath and Sonder' is MIGSI (Minimally Invasive Gesture Sensing Interface), which was developed in Max/MSP by Sarah and her longtime collaborator Ryan Gaston. MIGSI isn't just an Arduino on top of a trumpet -- it's closer to a language, reliant on other tools and mechanisms to transmit ideas and emotion. MIGSI is an expression of Sarah's deep understanding of the gestures that drive interacting with a trumpet, but it's also an opportunity for the centuries-old instrument to morph its identity.
While Sarah is incredibly driven and sharply talented, it's important to keep this in mind: when she started developing MIGSI, she didn't know anything about how to create this kind of system. She didn't have an engineering degree, she had barely any exposure to coding under her belt, and she didn't spend her youth circuit-bending. So often, we assume these experiences are prerequisites to creating a remarkable patch or instrument or album or [fill in the blank].
During my two hour call with Sarah for this article, her story proved a fantastic model for all artists, of any discipline or experience level. From what I can tell, Sarah's success came from learning what questions she was trying to answer, discovering where and how to find answers, and treating people with respect and kindness.
To help apply this approach to your own work, here's an annotated guide to our conversation. I hope it inspires you to pivot how you view your capabilities and potential.
It helps to have a project in mind, even if the goals are lofty or the path toward execution seems vague. Nailing an endpoint down can direct your study and explorations. Through this approach, you can fill in knowledge gaps by simply asking yourself "what do I need to know next?"
Rather than completely overwrite or ignore her developed skills, Sarah began with what she already had.
It all started with wanting to increase the capability of the trumpet. The original goal was that I have this thing that I love that makes sound and I interact with it in a way that I'm really familiar with -- and now I want to enhance or augment that. It's more focused on how can I expand the trumpet, to add to that sonic world, and less focused on how can I add another tool.
This last bit is critical -- it created a gut check for Sarah's explorations. By choosing to explore new ways of applying her virtuosity (versus finding new things to supplement it), Sarah stayed in tune with her goals when imagining new possibilities.
I was starting to get introduced to modular synthesis and audio programming -- Ryan (Gaston, from Burnt Dot) was playing modular synth and I was playing trumpet. The sounds [of the modular] were so compelling to me that when I was practicing over the next couple weeks, instead of playing the things I was supposed to be playing on trumpet, I was trying to play "modular synth sounds" on my trumpet! I realized if you change the shape of your mouth when you're blowing air through the trumpet you can kind of copy the formant-y filter-y noise sounds. If you play one pitch and sing another pitch at the same time and sweep that pitch up, you can make yourself sound like a vocoder. You can do all these electronic-y things and I got really obsessed with that! And I explored that for a while and then was like, ok -- I need to officially add the electronics.
Learning From Others
Modular synthesis opened Sarah up to new sonic worlds, which she then used as a waypoint for interactions with her trumpet. Especially in the current Eurorack market, it's very easy to feel you need certain modules in order to explore certain sounds. But what Sarah's approach highlights is that often, our reasons for liking certain sounds are more interesting and sustaining.
I realized almost immediately that I was not satisfied with how silo'd [electronics and trumpet] were. I would go to my computer or into the studio to do the electronic sounds and I would pick up my trumpet and be in a totally different headspace using a totally different vocabulary and making very different sounds. I was [also] immediately dissatisfied by the lack of integration and thought it'd be so cool to smoosh these things together. That was the immediate musical goal and honestly, it hasn't really changed too much since then -- that propelled me to develop MIGSI, which opened up a whole new universe for me to explore.
One of the coolest things about MIGSI is that though Sarah made it to address her specific needs, it speaks to global concerns about performance with electronics. What are our performance gestures as electronic artists? How can we recycle virtuosity from acoustic instruments? How "legible" does a performance need to be to the audience?
I was reading papers that had been written by other people long before me who were doing augmented instrument design on acoustic instruments. And there was a lot of insightful writing about how playing an acoustic instrument requires enough focus and cognitive bandwidth and energy that if you add too many bells and whistles and knobs, it can be really ineffective. I learned that lesson early on and was really interested in just seeing what I could get by using the gestures that I already used when I played the trumpet -- things like pushing the valves down, the ebb and flow of how my horn moves when I breathe. I became interested in using these things as control information as opposed to the more obvious path of sliders and knobs. It's all about playing the trumpet in the way you normally would play it and having that data become control information for other things, so they're deeply linked.
Another foundational element at play is Sarah's curiosity and her willingness to find influence across time. By allowing a range of ideas and concepts to play alongside her vision, Sarah iterates on established ideas in fresh ways.
The software side of MIGSI was all built in Max and we were really inspired by Buchla's approach to design: thinking about user interaction first and then working from there. There's this interview Don did with Polyphony Magazine and he's describing how he thinks about a musical instrument as having three parts: the input structure (the user input end), the output structure (the sound generator), and the part that connects those two. And that sounds really simple but when I first read it, it kind of blew my mind because dealing with acoustic instruments, those three parts were all absolutely, inherently linked. You buzz or blow into a trumpet and you use the valves: that's the input. But the act of doing that also vibrates air and metal and sends sound out of the bell: that's the output structure. It's all one part. So what become really interesting to us about electronic music is that you can separate those things. Input does not have to directly lead to output. Or one input can lead to many outputs. Or it can turn back over on itself first and then go out. Or it can never go out at all, it can just stay in the system and be used internally. MIGSI is half-electronic and half-acoustic. Some things happen immediately and are tied to absolute time and some of it's not -- some of it's in the control domain and can be manipulated in time however we want.
As you refine your project's goals through trial and error, your priorities change. If you're an improviser like Sarah, you might start with the belief that on-the-fly patching is the best way to remain in an improvisational headspace:
We were finding that every time we wanted to make sound, we would start from scratch and say, "ok, what do we want it to do?" And we'd cobble together a [Max] patch for that particular piece, so they'd be purpose-built and very specific -- but that also meant that they were a bit limited in scope. Especially because I'm primarily an improviser, I like to build a sonic world to start and to be able to abandon it on a dime and have it be ok. I don't want the world I created to break if I decide to go on a musical tangent. So over the course of a few years, we realized that was a shortcoming. So we worked on an app that was more multi-purpose, inspired by modular synths. We looked at modular synth design, how the synth itself is not necessarily the instrument until you create a patch with it. Until you hook up your control and sound sources and modulation sources. You could say that's where the piece is created, but I like to think that's where the instrument is created -- forming those connections -- and the piece is what actual sound comes out of it.
Through experimentation and gut checks, Sarah revised her earlier assumptions and found that intentionally designing a few core elements ahead of time actually kept her more open during performance. So, she made an inventory of starting points to help define the shape of MIGSI.
We knew we needed a basic data handler for the incoming MIGSI data, so we built that as part of the patch. We knew we needed a way to condition that information (scaling, thresholds). We wanted a granular processor. We wanted a sound generator that was not the trumpet. We didn't want to necessarily always process the trumpet sound but to use the data from the trumpet to influence completely separate synthesis. So we were able to make these individual sound sources and utilities/functions, embedding them all in this modular app. When I'm performing with it, sometimes I'll use 20% of it, sometimes I'll use 80% -- the same way that you would with a modular system. But the exciting thing about it for me was I was immediately able to start improvising and composing and exploring in a way that felt so much more like I was playing an instrument. You know how you pick up a guitar or sit at a piano and you can kind of just play? You don't necessarily need to know what kind of sound you want to make before you do it -- you can just play and explore. That's what this approach allows me to do.
Faith in Yourself
By this point, you've hopefully noticed that building a Max patch or instrument that is wholly your own is not the result of having a coding or mathematics background. In Sarah's case, it is a continuing process of inquiry, curiosity, openness, and intention. Having an idea is actually the hardest part. The "how the heck do I make this?" stuff can be taught and learned. Inspiration and perspective are the more precious commodities.
I'm the first to always say that 9 times out of 10 I have no idea how to do the thing I want to do. My whole life is "Oh, I want to do this thing, now what?" From the very beginning, that's how MIGSI was created. I'm telling this story as if it's linear, but it's really been five years of going back and forth. Little pieces, learning new things -- I'm a big bookworm. If we discover an article about Rob Hordijk and the logic of the Rungler, that will inspire something and we'll see if we can try it out [in Max]. It wasn't "I sat at a modular synth one day and then I went to Max" -- it wasn't that delicate. I didn't know about Computer Science, I had no Engineering background, I didn't know how to solder, I didn't know how to create a basic circuit -- all the stuff that's absolutely necessary if you want to create something like MIGSI. But I was able to figure it out step by step. I spent a lot of time just Googling ("what's a sensor?") and luckily that whole world of markers and Arduino is so accessible online. A lot of it is open source, so we were able to get tutorials and sample code to get us started when we really truly had no idea what we were doing. And we'd sit in the studio all night long, just poking at things until something would blink -- and that was the coolest thing in the world! And it was one thing like that after the next. It's hard to imagine all the steps you take to get there when you see the final product. But really, it's a million tiny little steps -- an entire week getting a signal out of one sensor, because we were learning it as we went.
Something I always recommend to people when they've got an idea and they're trying to get past not knowing all the skills yet or where to begin is, if possible, to seek people out to collaborate with. I know that's not always as easy as walking down the hall to your friend's door, but the open source community online is so eager to share what they've learned. We were collaborating with each other, but we were also tapped into this online community -- and in terms of mindset, we were like "Wow, we can figure this out. Even if we don't know how to find the answer or what the answer is, we know there's a way to find it." And that was really empowering.
And just in case you got this far and still have doubts, I'll leave you with these final words:
A lot of people are deeply interested in this stuff and curious about it but, for whatever reason, have this belief that they're not smart enough to do it. But that's just not true -- it's a limiting belief. There's a learning curve but if you're playful and you explore, then everything's a success and you can get more confident. None of us know everything, we all make apps that break, we don't have all the answers. Once you realize we're all in it together and that we can pool our collective resources, we can explore and see what we can come up with.