Iterative Design in DMIs and AMIs: Expanding and embedding a high-level gesture vocabulary for the T-Stick and GuitarAMI



John Sullivan

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Eduardo A. L. Meneses

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Ph.D. Thesis, McGill University


Digital and Augmented Musical Instruments (DMIs/AMIs) are created using sensors, actuators, and sound production (synthesis) units. Mastering instrumental techniques require developing expertise in any instrument, including DMIs/AMIs.
A critical difference between DMIs/AMIs and conventional instruments is that the user controls and sound production are not acoustically coupled. Because of this, DMI/AMI mappings between instrumental gestures and synthesis units are arbitrary, and performers cannot rely on sound output to create and practice instrumental techniques transferable between performers or pieces. One possible solution is to create a set of techniques based on high-level gestural descriptors, effectively building intermediate mapping layers to expose the DMI/AMI’s gestural vocabulary. This high-level gestural vocabulary is created from processed sensor data and organized by movement rather than sound output.
This dissertation aims to investigate two interrelated research questions about the performance and development of expertise with DMIs/AMIs: 1) how do instrument designers, composers, and performers develop and expand gestural vocabularies for AMIs and DMIs; 2) how these vocabularies impact performance and pedagogy with DMIs/AMIs.
I employed iterative design to investigate aspects of instrument exploration directly related to the reliability, controllability, playability, and longevity of DMIs/AMIs to answer the first question. A high-level gestural vocabulary emerged from the identified parameters and gestural exploration and was embedded into the employed DMIs/AMIs.
I proposed two research-creation projects to explore how composers and performers learn to play specific DMIs/AMIs and create instrumental techniques based on gestures to answer the second question. I also explored how high-level gestural vocabulary accessibility impacts the engagement of the performers.
The observations carried out during this research allowed us to verify the role of an already established gestural vocabulary for the engagement of the performers and this vocabulary’s impact on the learning process. I found that embedding high-level gestural descriptors into the controller firmware and providing them as available mapping parameters facilitated access to the instrumental techniques and communication during ensemble performances.
This dissertation contributes to performers, composers, designers, and music technology researchers understanding how performers and composers engage with DMIs/AMIs and how designers can facilitate the use of digital instruments by providing and promoting the creation of a high-level gestural vocabulary.

Publication Details:

Ph.D. Dissertation
McGill University
Montreal, Qc, Canada

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