Thursday, 6 November 2014

Swoomptheeng's Sonic Pi

Swoomptheeng, the Birmingham-based masked ravers, provocateurs of "Zombie Bass, Rave Craft & Ritualised Punk Technologies" and Audio-Visual Collective I'm involved with, were recently invited to make some music with new software called Sonic Pi. I was interested enough to attend a conference on it, so here's the rundown...

Hosted by Juneau Projects and based at the Cambridge Junction, the "Live & Coding" project drew together artists, techies, teachers and students, to get together and "live code" music on a computer priced around £30 a piece - The Raspberry Pi.

As part of the project a group of artists were asked to write music and create a video to inspire children. The Sonic Pi code is available for students to download and tweak from here. Checkout, Swoomptheeng's triple threaded mashup.

Other artists included the wonderful Sam Underwood and Figs in Wigs, but my favourite has to be this bizarre offering from Lucy Pawlak.

The Raspberry Pi has taken schools and hobbyists worldwide by storm and made computing on a tiny budget a reality. You can now pop the bonnet and de/re-construct a complete computer without wrecking your precious work laptop or dad's iPhone. But... it's not actually that easy to set-up initially, and many a teacher (some I spoke to at the conference) have been stumped before even booting to the desktop (If this is you, continue reading - as I'll be trying to help demystify the process of getting a Pi going, and explain a few things in future posts based on my experiences).

Sonic Pi is a piece of software that runs on the Pi (as well as a mac, and now PC) and utilises the beautifully clean and compact Ruby Programming language. Ruby was developed for simplicity in Japan by Yukihiro Matsumoto and forms the backbone of the Sonic Pi platform along with a library of synths and musical elements. Sonic Pi was developed in The Computer Laboratory at Cambridge University by Sam Aaron and offers schools an attractive and inexpensive introduction to computer science by promoting students as electronic composers.

Another aspect of Sonic Pi is 'tweaking' the music live, by altering the code as a  performance. For example a filter's cutoff value could be reduced, an effect added, a note changed, or a sample played in reverse. In reality this is somewhat of a hack, and many a Sonic Pi user has been confounded by how to actually go about doing it without the Pi going into meltdown, but Sam is a keen developer who's blistering pace of improvements seem to be ahead of most of the documentation, so expect improvements on this.

There are a few events emerging that feature "live coding" as an artform becoming known as Algorave - one recently happened in Birmingham at Fierce Festival, although as a coder and ex-raver, I can't say I'm aching to be at an event - coding and partying seem at complete odds in my world, but there are interesting aspects none the less.

At the conference on October 4th it was inspiring to hear of children becoming interested in communicating and controlling digital technology at such young ages. I myself have successfully helped student's between 16-18 build interactive websites using Flash and Dreamweaver, so known that catching students' interest in code can be tricky.

One thing I did notice at the conference was there was a certain amount of confusion about what a Raspberry Pi is and how they work among teaching staff and newcomers, so in part 2 of this blog I will document my experiences with the Raspberry Pi and try to give you some pointers on what it's all about and how to get yours working!

More very soon...

What? Can't wait? Here's a good Pi resource to set you off then...

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