How Shitty is Motion Controlled DJ Equipment?
A closer look at the latest motion tech advancements in mixing and production.
To say that Pioneer and Native Instruments are kingpins in terms of the production of high-quality controllers and mixers, both commercial and non-commercial, would be stating the obvious. But when it comes to new technologies, both companies have shied away from pushing boundaries. Who can blame them? With such limited competition, the pace of product innovation is moderate at best. Neither company needs to pour money into experimentation when they already have a healthy bottom line. Four months ago Pioneer made headlines for the announcement of the XDJ-RX Controller which, to be fair, is actually a bit of a game changer by eliminating the need for a laptop.
Let's face it though, there's always going to be some nerd, somewhere, building tomorrow's cool shit in a basement. Except sometimes that nerd is a multimillion-dollar startup working with Armin Van Buuren, and sometimes that basement is actually a special projects facility in Kitchener, Ontario.
If you're a big Armin Van Buuren fan you probably already know what we're talking about. The Myo Armband made its dance music debut during Armin's Ushuaïa residency in 2014. Developed by Thalmic Labs, the armband allows its wearer to control a wide variety of technologies, including sound and lights, using muscle activity and preprogrammed gestures. While this may be the most significant showcasing of motion controlled DJ equipment to date, there are numerous products out there that share similar concepts.
Crystall Ball by Naonext
As Thalmic Labs slowly begin to ship out the Myo Armband, a French company by the name of Naonext has established itself with a special MIDI controller called the Crystall Ball. The bulky device is ultimately an attempt to remove a DJ's hands from behind MacBook screens and offer audiences a more revealing and interactive performance. Each of the five configurable infrared sensors allow the user to scratch, control effects, play notes, and alter basslines using the proximity of their hands. The accompanying 32-button pad-grid plays host to 24 memory banks that can each hold up to five control sets.
It's critical to note that it will take a certain mastery of the product in order to make something this inventive sound good. However, based off various YouTube demonstrations (including this clip from a Jukebox Champions show) it's clear that the device is both reliable and responsive. And incredibly gimmicky. But the most impressive attribute is how indestructible this thing is. Naonext goes out of their way to show us that even running over it with a goddamn car won't phase the device's performance. A handful of retail stores worldwide carry the Crystall Ball, but you can order this wondrous object online as well. It works with any MIDI-compatible software and will run you approximately $600.
Verdict: A fun buy for loaded DJs who want to see the future and look like a huge dweeb at the same time.
Imogen Heap's Mi.Mu Gloves
Imogen Heap began pulling gesture technology into the music scene years ago. I would even go so far and call her one of the greatest pioneers since Léon Theremin. The Grammy-winning digital diva's love for music and technology began at the tender age of 12 on an Atari computer. Twenty years later, her passion had evolved into an endeavor that demanded hours of coding, a nine-person team and, unfortunately, a failed Kickstarter campaign that aimed to move the project into the production phase. Imogen's gestural music-ware setup consists of gloves, armbands, mics, and a harness to hold the Bluetooth hardware that communicates with gear backstage. It's capable as both a controller and multiple instruments, making for an intriguing and captivating performance. You can watch her full Wired 2012 demonstration below.
Other innovators have followed in Imogen's footsteps with comparable aspirations. Tomash Ghz, a computer science student at the University of Nicosia, Cyprus, has designed his own gloves dubbed the Aftertouch MIDI Gloves. It cost him a mere 60 Euros and a few hours to build them, and he's even been kind enough to share the source code he used for Traktor mapping. Many more independent glove projects can be found on the MiMu Blog.
Verdict: If you have the resources and expertise to commit to a DIY Minority Report gimmick, I say knock yourself out. If you're not that into gloves, make something like IK Multimedia's iRing or Source Audio's Hot Hand USB.
Byron Mallett's Pensato
Most recently, Byron Mallett is taking things to a new level with a project titled Pensato. It combines Ableton, an Oculus Rift, and custom VR gloves to create a liberating production experience. Everything from launching clips to shaping effects can be done with the gloves via a virtual interface. There is a small amount of perceived latency in the demo, but this is too cool for me to care. It's also important to consider the fact that this is still in the very early stages of development.
Verdict: I have to say it's not quite as fascinating as virtual reality porn, but most definitely a concept that is worth keeping an eye on. Think of it like if Tron met Daft Punk. Oh wait, that did happen. This is just better in every way.
Numark's answer to motion MIDI control is the Orbit, a wireless handheld controller reminiscent of something you might find in a Toys "R" Us. It has been on the market since 2013 and won a DJ Mag Tech Award for Innovative New DJ Product the same year. I'll let you decide for yourself if that lends any more credibility. Jokes aside, I'd say the device performs well enough, albeit not perfectly. Four control banks and 16 pads add up for a total of 64 assignable triggers, with two accelerometers adding the motion control dimension. A single charge will give you up to eight hours of wireless usage time and, being a MIDI controller, the Orbit can talk to any MIDI software. The price tag reads an MSRP of $149.
Verdict: This thing is like a Bop It for adults. A great purchase for anyone seeking a wave of underwhelming nostalgia.
Real Booty Music with AIAIAI
Obviously, I've saved the best for last. Real Booty Music was a creative collaboration with the goal of composing a track made entirely from twerking movements. A Danish audio design company known as AIAIAI was the driving force behind this curiously erotic undertaking. They enlisted the help of another design and technology company, OWOW (Omnipresent World of Wizkids), along with producer Branko and Twerk Queen Louise. Two accelerometers attached to Louise's booty would trigger samples, turning the dancer into the musician. I dream of the day when this eventually becomes a purchasable setup.
Verdict: Major Lazer could learn a thing or two from these guys. I watched this like I was 14 again.
So, if you're still asking yourself "How shitty is motion controlled DJ equipment?" my answer is: Not entirely that shitty but there is still a lot of room for improvement. It's not outlandish for DJs and producers to seek out new expressive means that add value to their shows and creative processes. As music inevitably evolves, so will the instruments and technology behind it. There is no doubt that we can expect to see more public use of such technologies as these ideas and experiments gain traction. With already-popular motion-based merchandise like Leap Motion, Kinect, and even your phone, it's only a matter of time.
Parker Buckley is a SoundCloud junkie.