Global Observer

In Berlin, 3D printing instruments to produce 'Beat Jazz'

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BERLIN -- With his gestural sound design system, Onyx Ashanti wants to enable electronic musicians to improvise live.

BERLIN -- To understand Onyx Ashanti's work, it might help to see him at home, where the work happens.

"You have to get it just right," he manages to utter, closely eyeing the nozzle of his 3D printer. The nozzle moves slowly over the surface of the printing plate in the shape of an invisible figure, while Onyx tinkers delicately with screws.

He is printing a new piece for his handheld sound controller -- a small plastic unit that looks like it could belong to a video game console. The controller functions as part of the full-body instrumentation he wears to perform "Beat Jazz" -- a kind of music incorporating jazz improvisation and live looping, all controlled by gestures made with the body.

The entire system -- which Onyx designed, 3D-printed and assembled himself -- consists of a second hand-held controller, a head unit complete with a microphone and mouthpiece that senses air pressure, all tied together by a wifi connection that links to computer software on a laptop.

"It's this ability to build a structure with your own voice, your own instrumentation," Onyx said. All of his designs are open source, meaning anyone can download them and print most of the parts on a 3D printer.

"The idea [of layering] has been around since the 70s, but the tools that are available now let me integrate live looping with other elements of the music, and when each layer captures itself, you have something completely new," he said.

Though the ensemble looks (and sometimes sounds) like something out of Star Wars, Onyx's dedication to the convergence of creative elements like jazz improvisation and a rigid medium like electronic instrumentation is both original and native to a city drenched in electronic music history:

"There has been a very strong movement in Berlin for more than a decade -- not only for electronic music, but also in working with digital technology," Malte Friedrich, author of Urban Sounds: Pop Music and the Imagination of a City, told SmartPlanet.

Friedrich pointed out that a series of music production companies are getting in on the action too, including Berlin-based Ableton, whose software Live has been patched to work with Xbox360 Kinect in creating soundscapes through body movements. The result is a physically engaging -- if not downright epic -- experience in music creation.

"Ableton created this tool, and now the whole world is trying to figure out whether this is a new kind of music. It's just a black plastic box with a button, and people go crazy for it because even though you can't create completely new music, it's still an instrument."

The fascination with new instrumentation in electronic music, Friedrich added, stems from the difficulties of "playing" it live compared to other kinds of music. He says the key to a live experience is communication between an audience and the musician, which is why there seems to be constant pining on the part of DJs to do something different and brilliant every night, as with jazz.

"I think the situation is quite ripe for new companies to develop digital music instruments," the author said. "If a company asked me where to go, I'd say Berlin because the workforce is there, all the clubs, all the musicians. We're seeing the beginning of a cluster here, which will continue."

Still, Friedrich asserts that developments don't happen because of technology alone, but because of people in the city and how they're interacting with each other. Mississippi native Onyx confirmed that Berlin is where he found the combination of space and stimulation he needed to develop Beat Jazz:

"Iteration is where the power of this city is coming from. It might not even have to do with art or music, but the scientist, the programmer, somehow manages to cross-pollinate the artist and the other way around. That's when amazing things happen."

So, where to next for Onyx's Beat Jazz project? Apparently anywhere but the market.

"I don't want to sell it, I want to give it away. I want this to be a new way to interact with sounds," Onyx said. "It's open source: Someone else can go make it and sell it. By the time they get it packaged and shelved, I'll be further down the line."

PHOTO: Flickr/campuspartyeuropa and Flickr/SparkFunElectronics

Shannon Smith

Correspondent (Berlin)

Shannon N. Smith has written for WNYC's The Takeaway and TheLocal.de. She holds a degree from the University of Texas at Austin. She is based in Berlin, Germany. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure