For musical souls trapped in non-musical-instrument-playing bodies, Mogees may be the answer to achieving those rock star (or at least electronic music star) ambitions. Invented by London-based computer music researcher Bruno Zamborlin, the Mogees technology combines a contact microphone with an app that analyses the vibration of objects and turns that data into musical sounds.
As the newly launched Kickstarter for the product proclaims, “Mogees turns the everyday objects around you into unique and powerful musical instruments. Play the world!”
Plaid and Zamborlin's "EL EX," which acts as a trailer for Mogees. Video: Bruno Zamborlin/Youtube
It’s pretty easy—you stick the sensor onto an object, plug it into your smartphone or tablet, and then “interact” with your new musical instrument however you please. British electronic duo Plaid collaborated with Zamborlin to make the above video, which demonstrates some ways you could use it: tapping coins on a table next to the sensor, shaking and plucking at a wire fence, and swiping the bars on a radiator like a kid playing xylophone on street railings.
You can choose the kind of sound you want to use from a default selection in the app, or record your own. Alternatively, you can pre-load a tune and it’ll play the notes as you gesture, so you can pretend you’ve got magical musical fingers or something.
Zamborlin first started work on the project a while ago, but with the Kickstarter campaign he plans to actually get them into production so anyone can plug in and play. I picked up the phone to ask some questions about his musical innovation before he sets off on a busy year of exhibitions, tech festivals, and Plaid's upcoming tour.
Motherboard: So you’ve been developing Mogees for four years and now they’re finally available via Kickstarter. What did it take to get to this point?
Bruno Zamborlin: It has been a long journey. I started as a PhD student, and I am a musician as well; I play the drums and I also do lots of performances. I kind of merged my passion for electronic music with my technical background, which is as a computer music researcher, and then I came up with this idea of basically turning every tangible, physical object into a musical instrument.
I wanted to do it in the simplest way possible, so just with one single sensor. It was really important for me to find a way to really update, to refresh the whole concept of electronic music performance, where a man is stood behind a machine. I don’t think keyboards or MIDI mixers are the best way really to communicate with a computer in a large performance, where human expression is really important. So I started to think of a device that allows for more human and expressive gestures.
Bruno Zamborlin, Mogees inventor.
And how come the sounds always sound nice and tuneful?
From a technical point of view, what happens is that this sensor converts the vibrations we make when we touch the physical object the sensor’s plugged onto into an electric signal. This is what a contact microphone does, basically. And then the app analyses that signal, and it extracts some acoustic properties from the signal—so like the spectrum and the timbre and the time decay, and all this information about the physical and acoustic properties of the object and the sound produced with this object. And it basically modifies in real time these properties, so as to make them musical.
So as a user, how much influence do you have over what it sounds like?
Quite a lot, actually. You can actually do all the acoustic parameters, you can alter them. So if, for example, you’re playing on a table, you can change the time decay of that table to make it more resonant or the inharmonicity so to make it more harmonic or less harmonic—all these kind of properties. So it’s kind of a more natural, acoustic approach to music. Instead of setting the parameters of software, we’re basically trying to work with the acoustic properties of the object itself.
The user has quite a lot of freedom because you either select to play an object with one of the sounds already available in the app, but you can also use a function called “capture” to basically capture the sound of a specific object and then save the sound of that.
So imagine if you stick the Mogees onto glass or something, and then you press capture and you touch the object, and then the app basically captures the sound of that unique glass. And then you save it and then you go in a park and you want to play a tree—you can decide to play that tree using the sound of the glass, so using the sound you captured from the glass. You can create a sort of hybrid object where the tree actually sounds like glass.
And you can play a real object not just by tapping but if you use other forms of gesture, like if you scratch it with your nails, or fingertips, or whatever you want; all these combinations will make a completely different sound.
What’s your favourite sound you’ve made with the Mogees, or heard someone else make with them?
There’s so many. There’s a huge glass window in the Hoxton Hotel and if you stick the Mogees sensor on it it’s quite impressive because the size is really, really big. What’s quite impressive is when you find a surface that is really resonant… A very big glass wall is quite impressive.
Watch Zamborlin play his bike in a TEDx talk, about four minutes in. Video: TedxTalks/Youtube
Another object I love playing is my bike, for kind of the same reason really—the fact that it’s really resonant. You stick the Mogees on the bell and then no matter where you play it, it actually makes a sound, so you can play it on the wheels or every other part and it will work, and every single part has a completely different acoustic property because of the complexity of the bike itself. It’s much more interesting to me than playing a table, for example.
I saw your video with Plaid, and I understand you’re playing with them on their upcoming tour as well. How did that collaboration come off?
We have a common friend called Sarah Nicolls, she’s a researcher at Brunel University and she also organises a festival called the BEAM festival, which is the Brunel Electronic and Analogue Music festival. Basically, she proposed that. She introduced me and Plaid literally just less than a week after I uploaded my first video on Mogees two years ago and they were so excited about this technology.
They’ve made electronic music for about 20 years, they were one of the first artists to publish on Warp records, and they always performed in the kind of Kraftwerk stance behind a computer, and kind of highlighting the machine in a way. They wanted to update this performance and they really wanted to perform onstage and show the audience the interaction between the performance and the sound.
If you watch the video, it’s quite impressive how the sound—it really sounds as if it were a normal Plaid song, but it has been made with a completely different technique and a completely different performance. So what we both really like about this idea is the fact that it somehow brings electronic music from the laptop out to the real world.
Last question: Why are they called Mogees?
No specific reason, really. I like the sound; I like that people don’t know how to pronounce it.