Pi synthesisers

On the road back from Wales this weekend, we listened to Liz’s Playlist for Driving Long Distances. Gary Numan’s Cars came on. (I am nothing if not literal-minded.) We started talking about the incredible depth and complexity of a lot of 80s music; and how the discipline of only having a limited amount of polyphony and a limited number of tracks brought about music that was, when at its best, so tightly and elegantly arranged that it keeps all of its impact today.

Cars was recorded using only four synth tracks (three monophonic and a Polymoog, I think, having just listened again – but I’m ready and willing to be corrected!) and a real live drummer. Held up against your high-falutin’ Reactables with billion-note polyphony (note: I have no idea how much polyphony is available on a Reactable, I’m just guessing) and clever-clogs plastic brick interfaces, Gary Numan knocks it out of the park every time. I spent the 1980s listening to the Pet Shop Boys – actually, I seem to be spending the 2010s listening to the Pet Shop Boys too – Erasure, New Order, Soft Cell and Depeche Mode, all of them engineering their music within technical boundaries that’d make some of today’s musicians run away and hide under the piano in horror.

Turns out, of course, that I’m not the only person with a Pi and a terrible and burning nostalgia for old synthesisers. Some of you, though, have actually done some work on this stuff rather than, like me, sitting around and thinking idly about it. There’s far, far more functionality available to you with a Pi than there was with an 80s synth, but the fundamental feel of the thing can remain the same with some considerate engineering. First up, here’s Marc Girard’s TronPi.

Marc says:

The TronPi is a Mellontron Emulator based on the 35$ Raspberry Pi computer. It has the 4 classic Tron sounds: Choir, Strings, Brass and Flute. The TronPi is controlled with a standard USB/MIDI Keyboard and doesn’t have any perceptible latency.

All the audio in this video was taken straight from the Raspberry PI’s audio output, no further processing was added to the source. It’s straight out of the computer. The reverb ambience you hear on the recordings is built in the sampler and adjustable.

The computer boots in 30 seconds or so. It supports MIDI program changes and once loaded, program changes are instant, no lag.

Back in Blighty, Phil Atkin has been working on Piana for about a year now. We featured it here last summer, and Piana has made some appearances at Raspberry Jams. Since then, Phil’s done more work on the project, and has produced this video to show off how far it’s come.

And earlier this week, I was sent some more video by Servando Barreiro, who has made a Pi-based Looper: a sort of polyphonic Korg monotron. He’s using Satellite CCRMA, a platform designed at Stanford University for embedded musical instruments and art installations – check out their homepage for a download, examples and ideas for getting started on your own project.

Here’s the Looper in action. Feel the depth and warmth!

You can find out much more about the Looper and see (and hear) more video at createdigitalmusic.com – CDM is a great resource if you’re interested in this stuff, and you’ll find lots of inspiration and ideas there.

There’s enormous education potential in electronic music too. The Raspberry Pi Foundation is currently working with Dr Sam Aaron, a researcher at the University of Cambridge, on Sonic Pi, an experimental school curriculum for teaching Computing through digital music. Kids use the Pi to build synthesisers and create music – acquiring a range of fundamental computer science concepts and basic programming skills while they’re not looking. We’ll have much more on that project at a later date; it’s a prime example of our concept of Computing as a creative subject which appeals to the kids who prefer to hang out in the music department and the art block just as much as it appeals to the kids we tend to treat as the usual suspects.

If you’re working on a musical project with a Raspberry Pi, give me a shout at [email protected]. We’d love to hear about what you’re doing.