Awesome Stuff: New Digital Instruments Done Right

from the bleep-bloop dept

A couple weeks ago, I discussed how some bad implementation choices raised serious questions about an otherwise-cool digital crossfader for DJs. This week, we’re looking at OWOW, a set of digital music controllers that are far more robust and actually make a lot of smart, musician-friendly choices in their design.

The Good

The OWOW devices all look pretty cool, even if they aren’t all revolutionary. One essentially serves as a theremin, one as a tiny drum pad, two as neat handheld motion controllers, and the most innovative of the lot: a scanner that converts lines you draw freehand on paper into music. All of them are extremely compact, and the scanner is (to my knowledge) entirely unique. None are standalone instruments, though — they serve as controllers for digital music software. But unlike the aforementioned crossfader, these devices are designed for maximum compatibility with everything in that world (they appear to use MIDI-over-USB) rather than being tied down to a proprietary, platform-specific app. When combined with studio software like Reason or Ableton, these might be very powerful and would at least be a lot of fun.

But perhaps the most interesting thing about OWOW is the choice to offer two versions of the devices: one full formed with a sleek aluminum casing, and one at a lower price that is just the raw circuit board on its own. The open circuit will work just fine by itself (and many aficionados of synthesizers and other gear are happy to work with some exposed boards around), and the designers are also supplying free schematics for 3D printing your own casing. The OWOW instruments, like all such devices, aren’t cheap — and the DIY offering is a great way to help out musicians operating on a budget and support the maker-musician community.

The Bad

Funky-looking little high-tech MIDI controllers actually come along quite often, and only a handful turn out to be truly useful. Based on the video and the norm for such controllers, there’s a good chance there will be some responsiveness issues, but whether these will be “occasionally annoying” or “crippling” is uncertain. With a new digital music device like this, you can never be entirely sure whether it’s a tool or a toy until you’ve tried it out yourself. It remains to be seen whether some or all of the OWOW instruments are really worth the price — but, so far, they are ticking all the boxes and then some.

The Clever

There’s one other thing worth noting about the OWOW: a creative approach to Kickstarter fundraising that I’ve never seen before. While most projects for higher-price devices like this fill out their lower backer tiers with stickers and T-shirts and other secondary gear for people who want to support but not buy, OWOW is offering up a five-euro mobile game for iOS and Android. The hook? The player with the top score in the mobile game at the end of the campaign will get a complete set of all five instruments for free. That strikes me as a fantastic way to engage backers and offer low-budget supporters a good reason to buy, and I won’t be surprised if that tactic starts to catch on in the world of crowdfunding.

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