SOUND ON SOUND REVIEWS
SOUND ON SOUND magazine Vol.16 No.12. Oct 2001
Review by Chris Carter
EMS SOUNDBEAM 2
AN INVISIBLE EXPANDING KEYBOARD IN SPACE
The Soundbeam2 is not in itself a musical instrument - it’s an alternative way of playing any MIDI controllable instrument and to describe the SB2 as just a MIDI controller is a little like saying a Moog modular system is just a synth.
The SB2 is more than just a simple controller, it is a unique and extremely versatile performance instrument which translates any physical movement into MIDI controller messages. Although there will be comparisons with made the Theremin and the Roland D-Beam the SB2 uses sonar technology, an entirely different technique to either of the above that allows performers to accurately play musical phrases without physical contact.
The award winning Soundbeam concept may be unfamiliar to many SOS readers but it first saw the light of day in 1989 and has built a well established and dedicated user base with more than 1500 systems now in use world-wide. The Soundbeam 2 (and its earlier incarnation the original Soundbeam) was designed by Robin Wood and the EMS team (yes, they of VCS3 fame) for Edward and Judy Williams of the Soundbeam Project and so far it has primarily been used in special schools and in conjunction with children and adults with disabilities or restricted physical movement.
For the technically minded amongst you the SB2 is a distance-to-volatge-to MIDI device and works its magic by firing off a constant stream of directional 50 kHz ultrasonic tone-bursts, and simultaneously listening for their echoes. In different reverberant environments and rooms these tone-bursts decay at different rates and the Soundbeam 2 Controller measures the variations and translates them into MIDI information in real-time. Because rooms vary so much, some may contain hard shiny surfaces while others might have irregular shaped soft furnishings and carpets, the Soundbeam 2 sensors need careful setting up to avoid the system seeing ‘ghost’ echoes which could degrade its performance. However once correctly positioned all manner of dancing, prancing and arm waving can produce some truly amazing responses, least of all from your bemused friends and colleagues.
CAUSE AND EFFECT
The system supplied for review was a Two-Beam kit with optional 8-input Switchbox and two low-profile foot switches, also included was a Yamaha MU50 Tone Generator. Although any MIDI compatible gear can be controlled by the SB2 the factory presets have been specifically programmed for an XG compatible MIDI sound module such as the MU50.
The SB2 Controller is capable of controlling up to four beams and twelve switches or variable controllers simultaneously (via the optional 8-input Switchbox). These can be used to activate and control any MIDI compatible device via note and controller data.
Each beam (or control source) can be programmed to respond to almost any MIDI controller message including velocity and note values and a beam can be programmed to trigger up to 64 individual note pitches over its entire length (up to 6 metres), forming a keyboard-controller in space.
As you can probably see from the photos the main Controller has a sort of 1950s retro come 21st Century look about it. As David Jackson a long time SB2 user commented “it may have the looks and shape of the Dan Dare era, but I love the way it handles.”
The Controller console has a minimalist feel with plenty of space for the user to rest their hands while adjusting or programming. The buttons have an agreeable ‘click’ action and the large rotary control wheel is stepped yet fluid. There are four large LEDs which show beam activity, and also aid trouble shooting, and the 32 digit backlit LCD is large enough to give informative feedback rather than abstract hieroglyphics. All the controls are clearly labelled and logically laid out, all of which makes changing presets, saving user setups and generally finding your way around relatively painless, so most MIDI savvy types will be winging their way around the system without much reference to the instruction manuals.
Getting into the inner workings of the system though, which are many and not for the feint hearted, will require studying the instruction manuals (all three of them) and some patience.
The Switch box and Sensor Drivers are metal cased and surprisingly weighty for their sizes. All the units are coated in the same metallic blue finish but, the Controller (30 cm x 27 cm x 8 cm) is constructed of an ABS type plastic and is a quite a lightweight considering its size. The rear of the Controller is resplendent with connectors: four DIN sockets for the Sensor Drivers, separate MIDI in, out and thru sockets, a multi-way ‘D’ type socket for the Switchbox and a PSU input. The chunky 12v power supply is almost as big as, and certainly as heavy, as a brick.
The Sensor Drivers are connected to the Sensors and the Controller via 4 metre leads and locking heavy-duty metal DIN plugs, not the longest cables in the world I know but 6 metre and 12 metre extensions are available as an option. Also included in the kits are heavy-duty boom stands for mounting each Sensor on.
All the parts of the system are well constructed and feel as though they could easily cope with a life of setting-up and dismantling. Though I have to admit if I were using an SB2 kit regularly ‘on the road’ the first thing I would invest in would be some custom flight cases for safe transportation.
A typical Soundbeam set-up would consist of an SB2 Kit plus a MIDI sound module and speakers. And although not essential, a separate MIDI keyboard could be included for entering chords or pitch sequences into the User Set-Ups, though this can be achieved using the Controller.
Setting up the system is quite straight forward as all cables and sockets are clearly labelled, tagged and cross referenced with the ‘Getting Started’ manual. If only all manufacturers were this methodical about their products.
A seasoned SB2 operator could probably get everything up and running in about 10-15 mins. The crucial part however, is correctly positioning the SB2 sensors to get effective results, which of course will depend on the type of area you are in, the kind of MIDI sounds you intend to manipulate and the way you wish to interact with the beams. Setting up the SB2 system to play synth effects and pad sounds would probably need less critical positioning than arranging the beams in way necessary to trigger individual or specific notes, pitches or percussion sounds.
If the SB2 is being used in new and unfamiliar locations even a well trained operator would need to spend some time getting the sensors in their optimum positions. (see box for examples).
For the ultimate in user interactivity the Sensor beams respond to proximity, distance and speed (velocity) of movement and these qualities are showcased well in some of the preset Set-Ups. The SB2 has a permanent store of 30 factory preset Set-Ups plus 97 User Set-Up memories. When used with a suitable XG sound module the presets cover all manner of styles including:
No.P05-GM Drum Kit: Each beam has 4 divisions, one beam triggers BDs and snares, the other HH and cymbals. The speed at which you ‘play’ the beam determines the panning of the drum sounds. The foot switches trigger high and low toms.
No.P10-Jazzer: Beam One has 20 divisions and controls a clarinet sound using Pitch Sequence 018/Chord. Beam Two has 5 divisions and triggers piano chords using Pitch Sequence 001/Jazz scale. The foot switches trigger a bongo and a triangle.
No.P15-Cine Dream: Beam One uses 8 divisions to trigger layered choir samples using Pitch Sequence 018/Chord. Beam Two has 16 divisions to control a horn sound using Pitch Sequence 007/Pentatonic. The distance of movements determines the reverb level. The foot switches trigger a low reverb drum and an arpeggiated flute.
No.P21-Arabian Knights: Beam One uses Pitch Sequence 018/Harmonic Minor to play an eastern sounding clarinet, the speed at which you interact with the beam determines how much portamento is applied and foot switch one introduces vibrato. Beam two triggers a filtered synth pad chord using the Cine Dream Pitch Sequence. Your distance from the Sensor adjusts the synth panning and foot switch Two transposes the sound 1 octave down.
No.P23-Africa: Each beam has 4 divisions and uses the Cine Dream Pitch Sequence to give an arpeggiated drum roll effect . Beam One triggers low log drum sounds through a slow delay, beam two triggers higher sounding log drums though a faster delay. Both beams use the re-trigger mode, so entering and exiting the beams cause the drums to sound. Foot switch One also triggers a reverb bass drum and Foot switch Two successively steps a low vibe sound though a preset sequence of notes.
These are just a few examples of the different kinds of preset Set-Ups available and although there aren’t as many as I would’ve liked to have seen they are all well thought out. Most users will find they also serve as a good starting point for developing their own Set-Ups as any of the edited presets can be saved to a User position.
A DIFFERENT LEAGUE
Used in gigging or touring situations the majority of Soundbeam installations would need to be put together from scratch at each venue. With a little care there’s no reason why a well positioned and accurately set up Soundbeam system shouldn’t enable performers or musicians to accurately repeat previous movements and gestures to reproduce notes, scales, chord progressions and sequences of sounds. We take for granted that guitar strings and keyboard notes are always in the same positions, well something similar can be achieved without physical contact using the Soundbeam and your body movements entirely in thin air.
The Soundbeam style of playing is also well suited to improvisation, particularly when there is a separate console operator and performer or performers and more than one beam. Ideally you would use four beams, two or more performers and a Controller operator.
In recent years we’ve seen Roland putting their D-Beam controller in all kinds of synths and samplers and the Alesis have just launched the airFX. Both perform similar functions by translating physical movement into control data but using different technologies.
I haven’t tried the Alesis yet but I have used the Roland D-Beam both in a studio and live I can tell you that while it is fun to use it can be a bit of a hit and miss affair, particularly if there are strong lights or lasers nearby.
The Soundbeam however, is in an altogether different league, and price band. Its range, sensitivity and accuracy is quite astounding. It is quite literally possible to play a MIDI instrument just by facial activity using your mouth and slight movements of the head. And yet at the other extreme you can accurately trigger multiple sounds using your body, hands and feet from across a large room.
THE WORLD OF SOUNDBEAM
Unfortunately, yet understandably, the cost of entering the world of Soundbeam doesn’t come cheap. A basic One-Beam SB2 kit starts at just over £1600 while the top of the range Four-Beam SB2 kit will set you back a not inconsiderable sum of £2865 (both prices include VAT). But these prices are without shipping, the optional Switchbox, switches or an XG sound module. However, I should emphasis that the SB2 is a professional system that comes with a pro price. Build quality is excellent and buying a system includes access to a dedicated telephone help line. You also get to own and use one of the coolest pieces of British built performance technology to be produced in years.
As I said in my intro sales of the SB2 have primarily been into education and special schools. With a concept this unique and versatile the Soundbeam also deserves to reach a wider mainstream audience and users who not only embrace MIDI and technology but who I’m sure will find new and unusual applications for it. Part of the SB2’s appeal is that it crosses boundaries (pun intended), requiring static musicians to become animated performers while allowing arm waving dancers and performers to become seemingly virtuoso musicians. Now that I think about it most musicians aren't adverse to a bit of theatrics anyway.
If you are seriously interested in the Soundbeam 2 I suggest you go their informative web site, check out the CDs and videos available made using Soundbeam 2 systems and possbly go to one of the Soundbeam Project workshop weekends. You really need to experience it to fully appreciate what a great instrument it can be.
In the couple of weeks I have been using the SB2 I tried it with almost every MIDI device I own and I was constantly surprised at how I could get sounds to go through the most convoluted transfomations, even with relatively basic body movements. There are other alternative controllers available but I guarantee none are as versatile or respond in quite the same interactive way the Soundbeam 2 does.
Oh yes before I forget, if anyone is interested I have a rather natty collection of a suitably theatric poses and dance steps I could show you to match those sounds.
Unique and versatile.
Ultrasonic tone-burst is audible.
More presets would be useful.
The Soundbeam 2 is a wonderfully versatile and unique performance instrument capable of allowing the user some outstanding MIDI manipulations and interactions. A breath of fresh air.
PRICES (ex VAT)
All Soundbeam 2 Kits include: Controller, Sensor/s + Driver/s, stand/s, leads, PSU and full set of instruction manuals.
One-Beam Kit £1380
Two-Beam Kit £1733
Three-Beam Kit £2086
Four-Beam Kit £2439
Additional Soundbeam Sensor £85
Soundbeam Sensor Driver (for above) £230
Soundbeam Switchbox (8-input) £145
Low-profile switches (for above) £45
Yamaha MU50 XG Sound Module (Recommended) £365
Yamaha MS50 Powered Speakers (Recommended) £130
Unit 3, Highbury Villas,
St Michael’s Hill, Kingsdown.
Bristol. BS2 8BY
Tel: 0117 974 4142
Fax: 0117 970 6241
BOXES / SIDE BARS
As I mentioned elsewhere the SB2 Sensors use inaudible 50 kHz ultrasonic beams (to humans anyway)and using a technique known as tone-burst they fire the beams into a room or space and measure the returning echoes. The drawback with this method is that the Sensors emit an audible buzz, a bit like mains hum only sharper sounding. Unfortunately there is no mention of this phenomenon in the manual and when I first used the SB2 I was worried the Sensors may have been faulty, but a quick call to Robin Wood at EMS belayed my fears.
Hopefully in a most spaces the buzz won’t be too obvious but perversely the bigger the space the more you need to increase the Range parameter and the louder (and slower) the buzzing becomes until and at the maximum 6 metre setting it becomes a very audible clicking. Even cutting edge technology has its shortcoming I suppose.
ECHO ECHO ECHO
An interesting useful spin-off of the tone-burst ‘echo’ phenomenon mentioned in the review is when you intentionally direct the sensors at each other or use them in a room with particularly shiny surfaces and mininal dampening meterial. Doing this can set up a kind of ultrasonic feedback loop which results in the Sensors reading each others signals and the SB2 in effect playing itself. You can still interact with the Sensor beams by moving around or in front of them to alter the intensity of the loop but it is a useful way of, for instance, sustaining a constant synth pad which can then be modulated and transformed by your movements around the sensor space. Alternatively you could program a Set-Up that triggers a chain reaction of different Pitch Sequences which can be altered or transformed by moving around the beams.
Let’s not forget the optional 8-input Switchbox and large (20 cm x 12 cm) colour-coded, low-profile Switches. Using these switches performers can (as with with the beams) touch, stamp, jump and generally interact with them to trigger (via MIDI) samplers and synths, computers, mixers and even MIDI controllable lighting rigs.
The instruction manual explains that channels 1-4 of the interface are optimised for use with foot switches while inputs 5-8 are optimised for use with variable controllers. As well as the supplied switches I tried Korg, Roland and a variety of unnamed foot switches and even an old Colorsound foot pedal, all worked perfectly with the Switchbox. You could in theory connect the Switchbox to all manner of switches and contraptions such as joysticks for use as MIDI trigger sources or alternative MIDI controllers.
My only complaint with the low-profile Switches is the short 1 metre cables which necessitates them being placed close to the Switchbox.
Apparently when the SB2 is used for the first time many musicians want to try it out as a controller for drum sounds, and funnily enough I did too. The factory preset Set-Up No.5 ‘GM Drum Set’ is a good place to start but I found it a little sluggish to respond, which is due to a default MIDI latency of 200mS. This figure was chosen to help overcome some residual errors that occasionally occur when using the beams in Re-Trigger mode. Thankfully there is an adjustable Global Latency parameter: 20mS-250mS. I found a setting of 40mS to be about right most of the time but I occasionally had to increase it to avoid spurious re-triggering. At present the MIDI Latency parameter isn’t saved with a User Set-Up but this should be rectified with a future software update.
The SB2’s MIDI specification is very comprehensive and it transmits and responds to pretty much every MIDI controller message under the sun. As well as the non-volatile 97 user memories User Set-Ups can be saved and reloaded as MIDI bulk dumps and being able to remotely change SB2 Set-Ups using program changes from an external MIDI sequencer or computer will be a useful feature for solo users. Recording Sensor and Switchbox activity into an external sequencer is just a matter of connecting the relevant MIDI ins and outs to each device.
the ultrasonic transmitter/receiver for detecting movement.
A collection of all the settings (Pitch Seq, Range, divisions, trigger mode, MIDI settings etc.), 128 are available in memory.
Equal divisions of the length of a Beam over which a Pitch Sequence can be mapped - variable between 1 and 64.
a sequence of notes mapped to consecutive Divisions in a Beam.
Pitch Sequences can play from the beginning or end of a Beam.
The user can trigger notes by moving both toward or away from the Beam and its Divisions.
A Trigger Mode in which each separate interruption of the Beam activates a note which is sustained until the next interruption in the Minimum Range area.
Ascending or descending 5 note sequence.
SB2 kit supplied for this review:
Soundbeam 2 Controller
Two Sensors + leads
Two Sensor Drivers + leads
Two Boom Mic stands
Two low-profile switches
Instruction Manuals x3
Yamaha MU50 sound module
24-note polyphony per beam.
Multi-timbral, any Beam or Switchbox input can be set to any MIDI channel.
Beam range: 0.56m - 6.0m.
Beam divisions: 1 to 64.
Pitch Sequences: 30 Preset, 97 User.
Up to 4 Sensors
Up to 8 switches, or variable controllers.
30 Preset Set-Ups
97 User Set-Ups
Copyright © 2001 Chris Carter / SOS Publications.