Hackable Instruments

Page in progress; more info coming soon!
(Update 25 November 2014: software link below; stay tuned for hardware info)

This project investigates novel design practices for "hackable" digital musical instruments (DMIs), which let the performer deliberately subvert the designer's intentions for creative ends.

Musicians often use instruments in unexpected ways. This is so common that many instruments are primarily associated with performance techniques which were not part of the original design, for example jazz saxophone pitch bends, distortion on the electric guitar, and scratch DJ use of the turntable. Some performers even make physical modifications to their instruments to adapt them to their personal needs.

The "black-box" design of modern DMIs often prevents musicians from making arbitrary modifications or personalisations. The first objective of the Hackable Instruments project is to explore and enhance appropriation in the context of DMIs, studying how design constraints influence the development of unexpected playing techniques. The project also seeks to enable modification (even possibly destructive modification) of the original instrument to suit the performer's personal taste. This component includes the study of prevailing hacking and circuit bending techniques and the design of new DMIs which are specially suited to them.

The hackable instruments are self-contained boxes, using an embedded BeagleBone Black ARM computer running Linux and a new ultra-low-latency sensor/audio platform. Although technology plays a fundamental role in the project, its scientific and artistic contributions are closely tied to collaboration with musicians and music hackers.


As part of the Hackable Instruments project, we have developed the BeagleRT ultra-low latency real-time audio and sensor environment for BeagleBone Black. BeagleRT provides hard real-time performance with latency as low as 90 microseconds. The software is freely available for download at the BeagleRT SoundSoftware repository. Design plans for a custom hardware board featuring stereo audio, 8 analog inputs, 8 analog outputs and onboard speaker amplifiers are coming soon!

This project is funded by the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) under grant EP/K032046/1 (2013-14).

Top left: the hardware used for the design platform. Top right: a performer playing a first simple instrument designed for the study on appropriation. Bottom: various playing styles and techniques from 10 different performers.

References (Collected)

  1. V. Zappi and A. McPherson. Design and use of a hackable digital instrument. Proc. Live Interfaces, Lisbon, Portugal, 2014. PDF
  2. V. Zappi and A. McPherson. Dimensionality and appropriation in digital musical instrument design. Proc. New Interfaces for Musical Expression, London, UK, 2014. PDF
  3. J. Topliss, V. Zappi and A. McPherson. Latency performance for real-time audio on BeagleBone Black. Linux Audio Conference, Karlsruhe, Germany, 2014. PDF