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A Binary Musical Instrument (ianthehenry.com)
63 points by rcarmo 43 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 24 comments

Cool! Reminded me of playing trumpet. But with trumpet, the 3 valves do -2, -1, -3 semitones. And by adjusting your lips you can play 1x, 2x, 3x, 4x etc the fundamental frequency. So e.g. all 3 valves down together makes -6. The Bb below middle C is 2x the fundamental, and with the valves you can get down from there by semitones to E, -6, the lowest note of the trumpet range. And having valves 1 + 2 = valve 3, there are multiple ways of playing almost every note, which comes in very handy when playing fast.

So maybe having keys for -2, -1 and -3, and possibly using the mouse wheel to control multiples of frequency, would make a playable trumpety experience. Maybe pressing the mouse button while doing all that could actually sound the note. Because you need to be able to stop and start notes without moving the valve fingers. (Also on trumpet you can control volume and vibrato and pitch bend with your mouth.. and also do small pitch bends and change timbre by partially pressing the valves down..)

Oh, wow. I didn't know brass instruments were so... logical!

Another idea, keeping the same "home row" layout as before: Left hand is valves, right hand is "mouth." You can only press one "mouth key" at a time, and that sounds the note. (Brass instruments don't... can't... have any kind of polyphony, right?)

I thought about adding expression by using mouse movements -- wiggle the mouse for vibrato, or use the absolute position of the mouse for volume or something. Kind of only works if you have a trackpad, though.

> Brass instruments don't... can't... have any kind of polyphony, right?

Well...If you sing another note you can get 2 or 3 notes at the same time e.g. James Morrison on trombone https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OEXCBYuInnQ

p.s. Coltrane playing 2 notes at once on saxophone, several times, in this Round Midnight solo from 1960. I've never heard him doing it apart from this solo, no idea why not, sounds awesome! https://youtu.be/eXJ31iveJbw?t=233

Roland Kirk is just cheating here, playing 3 saxophones at once. /s https://youtu.be/ZIqLJmlQQNM?t=101

(Bonus: 10 assorted Roland Kirk videos https://insheepsclothinghifi.com/10-roland-kirk-live-perform... )

I used to be able to whistle 2 notes at once and sing a 3rd, but haven't tried in years as it sounds so silly hehe. I had an idea for getting a choir all doing that...

Thanks for your comments in this thread (ex sax player here). You probably are already aware of this but on the off chance that you are not:


Thank you! I think I watched that video years ago (Anna-Maria Hefele's overtone singing) but forgot all about it, thanks for reminding me, I checked out more of her music just now. She's pretty amazing huh!

Mindblowing, really. There is that famous Fifth Element song, which is faked to some degree, if I had to name one example of alien music this one would definitely set the standard. It sounds otherworldly.

Yes! I love y-position of mouse for volume, further away is louder, and wiggle sideways for vibrato. Maybe mouse x-change since current note started can be added to pitch, then player could simulate vibrato and lip pitch-bending, max mouse movement left and right should be about a semitone (maybe 2) up or down. Sounding good :-)


>I didn't know brass instruments were so... logical!

Not so logical is that trumpet players call a Bb a C. When they read a C in their music, they play a "C".. but it's a Bb. (Eb instruments like alto sax call Eb "C"! French horns call F "C", etc. Crazy.) I have perfect pitch so no way I will or could call a Bb a C. So reading trumpet music I'd have to transpose everything down a tone - see a C, play a Bb. Kind of irritating.

I started on trombone as a kid, played in a marching band where some of the charts (usually in bass clef) called a Bb a Bb, other charts (usually treble clef + transpose down an octave) called a Bb a C! and some was in tenor or even alto clef. Tenor clef uh.. you pretend it's treble clef, transpose down an octave and play a written C as Bb. Alto clef you pretend it's bass clef, transpose up an octave and play a C as Bb. Luckily the other trombonists explained all this to me! So after that, merely transposing treble clef down a tone for trumpet was relatively no problem hehe. Pretty crazy mess though.

> Not so logical is that trumpet players call a Bb a C.

But this has nothing to do with the instrument itself, it's just a stupid quirk in the notation. I hate the concept of "transposing instrument", as if it was a property of the instrument. People who play these instruments by ear will never find any difference with "non-transposing" instruments.

I played tuba for six years in middle school and high school, which has the same valve fingerings as a trumpet. I don’t think anybody ever explained your first sentence to me. Was I supposed to just figure it out myself? My music theory was always quite weak…

Hehe. Don't some tubas have a 4th valve too, which I guess could be -4.

Edit: I looked it up, they're -5. With that you could play all the way down to the fundamental, and far below!

That sounds like Fibonacci coding [1] to me: you can express anything up to -13 semitones with just two fingers.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fibonacci_coding

Yes, but all I remember being taught about the fourth valve was that it was “the same” as playing the first and third, but with better temperament. So you can play a C with it, or even a B if you also press the second valve.

Ah I see. Hmm maybe, since the 4 valves cover the whole octave from Bb down to B, you could give every octave that same valve fingering, and control the octave and other things with the other hand. Also, I think everyone fingers trumpet valves with their dominant hand! I couldn't play very fast at all with my non-dominant hand. So the keys for the valves on a keyboard might have to cater to both handednesses.

In addition to keys, there are also tuning slides to "fix" notes that the keyed fingerings don't quite agree with. It's fascinating to watch a good tubist play.

That is the best explanation I’ve ever read for what’s going on with trumpets - even a flutist can follow ;)

Aw thank you. :-D

I went down the QMK keyboard rabbit hole a few years ago. I ended up with four Leopold FC660C keyboards with topre switches and Hasu QMK controllers, and a closet full of unused mechanical keyboard alternatives I should sell.

I never took to full chording; few people have. However, nearly everything I type that isn't a simple letter involves holding a key near home row with one hand, while tapping a key near home row with the other hand. This is a quadratic expansion of the address space, in direct conflict with N-key rollover. QMK support for "tap/hold" is imperfect, as is human dexterity, but for me this "one finger each hand" chording is a complete game changer. I've learned and unlearned keymaps such as Dvorak, which get all the attention but only matter if one is typing a novel. For programming and interacting with many programs that expect "control-xylophone" combinations, mapping all actions to finger pairs wins. It's inconceivably natural (as in, why hasn't this been the standard since electronic keyboards?) once one gets used to it.

Electric pianos are now prevalent, yet they're modeled on an ancient physical device that maps keys to single notes. People joke about the inertia of the QWERTY typewriter layout, but the standard piano key mapping is the elephant in the room here. Where is the experimentation corresponding to the thriving QMK keyboard rabbit hole?

For HN readers like me who would learn piano mid-life from scratch, what are the best electric pianos that can be fully hacked via open source software, in the same spirit as QMK?

>>The standard piano key mapping is the elephant in the room here. Where is the experimentation corresponding to the thriving QMK keyboard rabbit hole?

There has been some experimentation with Isomorphic keyboards on and off over last 150 years. But like with QWERTY, the legacy of what grouchy old white Austrian males left us with in the 18th century is hard to shed :O

(I've started fully nerding out about learning music late in life, and it's been a mix of enlightenment and frustration. The clefs & notation system, the piano keyboard, they're all seemingly designed to beat any sense of intuition and understanding out of you, and have you memorize by rote things that you could have otherwise just understood. )

I linked to some isomorphic keyboards in production at the end of the post. A couple more that I'm aware of:



There's also the "thummer" from many many years ago, but I don't think it ever went anywhere.

> For HN readers like me who would learn piano mid-life from scratch, what are the best electric pianos that can be fully hacked via open source software, in the same spirit as QMK?

I don't have an answer for this question, but you can go pretty far with playing around in software. MIDI is basically just an event protocol like `{ note: 23, velocity: 99 }`, and you can respond to the events however you want from music synthesis software. I've used a SuperCollider front-end called Overtone to remap my Axis-49 into various layouts -- it's fun having a full programming language available so you can do dumb things.

There's a pretty big community of people making Arduino-powered MIDI controllers as well, so lots of resources if you did want to hack your own from scratch.

Also, regarding chording the other kind of keyboard: you might find this older project of mine interesting.


Ah, isomorphic keyboards. I have spent a lot of time in that particular internet rabbit hole.

Anyone have any resources they'd recommend for the basics of building something like this? I've always been fascinated with wave synthesis, but I have no idea where to start.

Do you mean building something like this software demo, or turning it into a real instrument?

In software, honestly the MDN docs for the web audio API is a pretty great starting point. Assumes very little prior knowledge, and goes into a lot of detail about how to do things.


I've used a software synthesizer called SuperCollider through a wrapper API called Overtone.



Lots of resources on those as well, if you're interested to learn.

In hardware, if you want to do the actual wave synthesizing... you've got analog and digital options. Pretty big DIY community around both, depending on your leanings. I find adding "arduino" to search terms gives lots of examples and tutorials of building instruments that you could adapt to non-arduino contexts.

In case you are looking for introductions to the musical basics, here's one:


Finally, something to do with my n-key rollover keyboard.

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