Introducing the Nashesizer

The Nashesizer

Back in 2015 Drake Music launched their DM Lab project in Manchester. The aim was to nuture a community of hackers/makers/coders interested in developing new musical instruments, ideas and technology to remove barriers experienced by disabled musicians.

As a sound artist, I was intrigued by the proposition of meeting like-minded people, so I went along to the first few sessions at Madlab and enjoyed meeting the group.  The sessions continued on a monthly basis, and over time we all got to know each other a bit better.

Two years later, DM scored some funding to develop the project further. They launched a commission opportunity, dubbed the DM Lab North West Challenge, designed to stimulate further cross-pollination of disabled musicians and the hacking/making community.

4 commissions of £700 were up for grabs. These would be awarded to 4 new teams to create a new accessible instruments or tech. Each team had to be made up of at least one disabled musician and one hacker/coder/maker. The teams were tasked with coming up with an idea, and then a proposal to submit to the team at Drake Music. 4 winning teams would be commissioned.

Following on from conversations I’d had in the group DM Lab sessions, a team grew around me (Lewis Sykes – technologist/musician, Mike Cook – electronics expert, James Medd – musician/educator and technical coordinator at Eagle Labs and Craig Howlett  – sound engineer) and the idea for the Nashesizer emerged.

For a while I had been frustrated by the digital audio workstations I had been using due to their inaccessibility. I have cerebral palsy, and this means fiddly mouse movements, swipes, taps and other commons gestural control actions can be a barrier for me.

For normal computer use, I use a trackball instead of a mouse and was hoping that for the DM Lab Challenge we could develop a MIDI controller/ DAW interface that may, for example, feature a trackball, as well as other more accessible controllers, so I can move freely, and quickly around the screen. No one wants their creativity hampered by clunky equipment.

This marked the beginning of a fascinating journey for myself and the team. In the first instance, we put the proposal into Drake Music and won one of the 4 commissions of £700. The only catch was we only had 4 weeks to make it!

An early version of the Nashesizer was showcased at a public launch for the DM Lab Challenge at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation.

The response we got at this event was fantastic. We garnered a number of questions from audience members that gave us pause for thought, and helped us to understand the potential the Nashesizer might have for other producers with similar barriers. Not long after this, I put an application in to Sound and Music, and successfully scored a further £5k to develop our idea.

Prior to my involvement in the Nashesizer project, I had favoured Studio One as a DAW, but for a while I’d been wanting to explore Ableton Live, and so it is primarily Ableton that the Nashesizer has been designed to interface with.

Our first proof of concept, therefore, featured a joystick that could be moved to select tracks in Ableton and move around the screen easily. There is also a rotary encoder (chunky dial) that can be used, for example, to increase/decrease volume, pan left to right and increase/decrease signals to sends when using effects such as reverb.

Both these ‘knobs’ have been designed using the 3D printers that were kindly made available to us by the DM Lab group’s current home Eagle Labs, Salford.

Eagle Labs have been an important part of this story. They are an organisation, sponsored by Barclays Bank, with a commitment to ‘fostering innovation and facilitating inclusive, shared growth for all across our communities’.

James Medd, who is on the Nashesizer team, runs the community space at Eagle Labs used by DM Lab, and has been a very positive influence on the project so far.

In addition to the joystick and rotary, we are also aiming to give the Nashesizer some form of gestural controller i.e. a sensor that would respond to hovering hand gestures, rather than touch. We have also talked about a touch screen, although this would have to be large to work for me.

Early idea for part of the Nashesizer
Early idea for part of the Nashesizer

The grant from Sound and Music has allowed us to purchase much needed materials to test, and the process is very much one of trial and error. Each iteration will take time for me to experiment with and report back on.

Stayed tuned for more developments soon!

The Music Learning Revolution: Can we do better?

Google Classroom at Music Learning Revolution

After singing pop songs Amy Coombe’s interactive ‘Google classroom’ session at this year’s Music Learning Revolution conference, Shawn Mendes’ ‘Treat You Better’ has been on loop in my head. However ‘Treat you Better’ was certainly not the only memorable aspect of this years MLR.

 Meet, make music and network …

MLR is a conference for anybody working in music education, and prides itself on being somewhat of an Unconference, providing a creative setting for practitioners to meet, make music and network.

From a keynote speech by Radio 1 DJ Hew Stephens to a flamboyant fast paced ‘Gareth Malone’ style ensemble by pianist Adam Saunders, inclusion was a common theme throughout the conference. However I’m not sure the needs of disabled children were always considered when presenters talked about ‘inclusion’ – which is ironic given that inclusion is a term championed by disability rights advocates.

Hew Stephens, Music Learning Revolution, 2016

Very few of the workshops I attended made reference to the needs of disabled children – for example, Adam Saunders’ ‘On Cue’ ensemble. This 7-step approach to learning musical content utilises body percussion, vocalising, singing and playing by ear.   And whilst this session certainly addressed some inclusion problems, as it didn’t require either note reading abilities or instrumental skills, it involved robust physical and mental abilities.   In it’s current format, this would present disabling barriers for many of the children Drake Music work with.

So, it was good to see Drake Music’s Open Space Session – Imagination and Rigour – which was about overcoming disabling barriers within music education.  Led by Jocelyn Watkins and Jonathon Westrup, this session focused on how to assess and accredit music in Special Schools. Jocelyn and Jonathan spoke about the Compose and Perform music qualification developed by Drake Music.

Compose, perform and include …

An Open College Network qualification, Compose and Perform has three levels. The highest level, level two is equivalent to GCSE grade A-C.  Students complete four units: Music Skills for performance; Creating Soundtracks for Films; Writing Music Down and Composing Music using Chance Methods.

The qualification is very much part of the Think2020 initiative which aims to increase musical opportunities for disabled children and young people through strategic and sustainable partnership work in the music education sector.

For me, the Drake Music Open Space Session almost felt like a bit of a fringe event, unintentionally isolated from the other sessions. This was a shame because the participants obviously enjoyed the session, and there were people there who hadn’t necessarily been to a Drake Music workshop before.

I wonder if maybe a way to attract a bigger audience to this session, would be for Drake Music to run a workshop in collaboration with another organisation with a more mainstream appeal?

Choose ‘the arts’ or ‘the sciences’ …

David M Howard. Music Learning Revolution, 2016

One of the presentations I found really interesting was David M Howar’s talk on music, creativity and engineering. Howard spoke about how children often have to choose between arts or science based subjects at A-level.  He believes that this ‘choice’ exacerbates our dwindling number of engineers. He also spoke about the lack of female engineers, and how mixing up subjects like Music and Engineering, make Engineering more appealing to a wider number if students

The false dichotomy of choosing between ‘the arts’ or ‘the sciences’ is in many ways nonsensical, when in Howard’s own words ‘creativity underpins ingenuity which sparks invention…’

Although the talk wasn’t specifically referring to disability, I could relate to the limitations of having to choose between perceivably different subjects because of my physical impairment. When talking to other disabled artists, this is quite a common problem across a range of abilities, and continues to be the case.

Which is why initiatives like Drake Music’s ‘Compose and perform’ qualification are so important for achieving real inclusivity and ‘doing better’.

Blog commissioned by Drake Music, October 2016

Cause I know I can treat you better than he can
And any girl like you deserves a gentleman
Tell me why are we wasting time
On all your wasted crying
When you should be with me instead
I know I can treat you better
Better than he can
Better than he can
Better than he can

Lyrics by Shawn Mendes

Autistics are square pegs re Music Education
Quote from Jocelyn Watkins presentation