The Magic of Making Music

An interactive electronic system puts musical performance at just about anyone’s fingertips, regardless of disability

Raelyn Kanak plays the Laser Band by passing her hands through low-intensity laser beams within the controller attached to her computer.
Article Highlights:
  • Laser Band’s hardware/software combo makes it possible to create beautiful music even when physical abilities are limited.
  • Modified from the original Beamz C4 model to be more disability friendly, the Laser Band can be controlled by moving a hand or other object through low-intensity laser beams, or by using your computer's mouse or keyboard.
  • The Jamboxx — a hands-free, breath-controlled, computerized music-maker — is described in a sidebar.

     

by Richard Senti on September 12, 2012 - 9:45am

QUEST Vol. 19, No. 4
Update (Nov. 9, 2012): A trio of entrepreneuers recently announced the development of an adaptive, hands-free digital musical instrument; they are currently raising capital to fund their first production run. For more information on the Jamboxx, see the sidebar at the end of this artcle.

You might think that making music is an activity that’s not available to those with muscle weakness in hands, arms and shoulders. But you may rethink that notion once you experience Laser Band, an interactive music system played through a personal computer.  

Made by Beamz Interactive and adapted for greater accessibility by PlayAbility Toys, the hybrid system was invented by southwestern rock musician/songwriter Jerry Riopelle. The DVD software is chock full of recorded songs, music clips from numerous instruments and a wide variety of sound effects. The hardware is a laser controller, elegant in its simplicity. If you can lift your hand (or any kind of reacher) and move it forward a few inches, you can make music. And even if you can’t, there are still options (more on that later).

You say you’ve never played an instrument in your life? Not to worry. The beauty of the system is that once the interface software and music/sound library are installed on your computer, there’s virtually no learning curve. The Laser Band places an entire orchestra at your fingertips, and you decide how to arrange the composition. Let’s start at the beginning.

About the Laser Band

Note: Click on photos to enlarge.
Laser Band Interface Screen

Laser Band’s on-screen interface mimics the controller hardware, informing the operator which instruments or sounds will be activated when the corresponding laser beams are broken. The interface also allows you to control volume and tempo, access the playlist, and record and save your compositions.

Sean Masters operates Laser Band

Sean Masters operates the controller while watching the Laser Band interface on his monitor.

An adapted version of the Beamz player, PlayAbility Toys' Laser Band was created for adults and children with physical and/or cognitive disabilities. Although both devices are operated the same way, there are design modifications to the hardware and repackaging of the software and user guide that make the Laser Band easier to use. For instance, a mounting bracket makes the controller more stable, and tactile labels help visually impaired users. Laser Band also includes more extensive music and sound selections, along with specially written lesson plans and activity guides to coordinate with particular songs.

Laser Band is designed for Windows 7, Vista or XP computers. (If you own a fairly recent Mac with an Intel processor and 10.7 or higher operating system, you should be able to play Laser Band after installing Bootcamp and purchasing a Windows license). Laser Band costs about $300.

The system’s hardware — the player, or controller — with a desktop footprint of about 20 inches wide by 4 inches deep, and a height of about 16 inches, is in the shape of a giant “W” (see photo, right). It connects to the computer with a supplied USB cable. Four low-intensity lasers beam cross from the outer legs of the W to the center post. Breaking one of these beams with a hand or other solid object triggers one of many musical loops, or sound effects. These sounds, which can be played one at a time or in combination, can be integrated into the professionally produced background songs or rhythms now residing in your music library. Essentially, players collaborate with the original tune, embellishing it with notes or phrases or loops, using up to four sound sources at once.

In the original Laser Band bundle, there are around 50 songs or background rhythms from all genres (rock, jazz, classical, Latin, dance, etc.), with online access to many more. Some of the songs are well known, such as “Billie Jean” for pop fans and “Hotel California” for rockers. And for kids, there are classic titles such as “Old MacDonald” and “Under the Sea.”

Play up to 12 instruments in one song

Let’s take a step-by-step look at playing one of these songs — “Hotel California” — with the Laser Band.

Double-clicking the Beamz Player icon on your desktop opens the program and a user friendly interface appears on the screen — a stylized diagram of the actual player next to your computer (see photo above). The four red beams are labeled to tell you what instruments or sounds you’ll hear if you break those beams on the player. With “Hotel California,” for instance, your upper-left beam triggers an acoustic guitar; the upper-right beam triggers an electric guitar; the lower-left beam triggers a Rotor guitar; and the lower-right beam triggers tom-toms.

You can play two, three or all four instruments at once, and in fact there are two more four-instrument units waiting in the wings (for a total of 12). By clicking the “Swap” button, you’ll bring up Unit 2 with guitar strums, cabasas, cymbals and timbales. One more push of the swap button brings up Unit 3 with maracas, cymbal crash, conga drums and a shaker. A very nice feature is “Custom Layout,” allowing you to rearrange your sound units. For instance, you could put all your guitar options in Unit 1, and all your drums in Unit 2. And if you want to see all 12 options at once, a mouse click will bring up two smaller windows, displaying Units 2 and 3, right next to Unit 1.

Ease of operation

As stated above, if you can lift your hands slightly and move them forward a bit, you can break the laser bands to trigger instruments and sounds. If forward motion presents a problem, a reacher (such as a long-handled wooden spoon, ruler or back scratcher) also can work.

But if physically reaching for the laser beams simply is not possible, two other options are available. The Laser Band can be controlled entirely on-screen via mouse or trackball; the one downside is you can point to only one instrument at a time. The keyboard also can control the device, allowing various instruments to be triggered simultaneously when multiple keys are pressed at the same time. The QWERTY keys, and the two rows of letter keys directly under them, all correspond to different instruments, sounds or controls displayed on the monitor interface, so the Laser Band can be controlled entirely by keyboard and mouse, if that suits you better.

Making music

Now that you understand how the individual sound sources work, let’s get back to “Hotel California.” By clicking the “Rhythm” button, the background song begins. This is where the fun begins. Whenever it suits your musical fancy, trigger an instrument, say the electric guitar. If you break the beam and keep it broken (or press and hold the appropriate key), you insert an ongoing riff into the song. Simply passing your hand back and forth through the beams inserts individual notes; fluttering your fingers through the beam gives a more free-form result. Try anything and everything — there are no mistakes. The individual sound sources are designed to work with the original music, so no matter what you do, it’ll sound like you know what you’re doing, even if you don’t!

Although it’s fun to personalize and embellish a well-known classic like “Hotel California,” you might feel more like a professional composer or arranger by selecting one of the unknown jazz or Latin background songs. First of all, you’re less likely to feel restrained by the familiar tune; jazz is a more free-form genre anyway, so by the time you’ve finished laying down a conga beat, inserting sax solos and blending a trumpet loop with slide guitar, you have a song that’s all your own.

And yes, you can record and save your masterpiece. Just click the “Record” button before you start your background song, and click it again when you’re done. Yet another click will save your high-quality WAV file anywhere you choose; you’ll then be able to play it back with Windows Media Player, QuickTime or other playback software. Create your own personal playlist; burn your own CD; unleash musical talents you didn’t know you had! Budding disc jockeys should check out the collection of crazy DJ sound effects included in the sound library.

Disability designs

The Laser Band system software includes a number of activities designed for people with physical and/or cognitive disabilities. Physical and occupational therapists use the device to stimulate their clients’ simultaneous motor functions, range of motion, hand-eye coordination and short-term memory recall.

In addition to young children’s songs like “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and “B-I-N-G-O,” the Laser Band library includes games that can be played matching animal sounds to corresponding pictures and a series of music appreciation games called “Simon Says” that challenge the player to repeat rhythms and melodies.

For people with moderate to severe physical challenges, the Laser Band can re-open the door to musical expression. It makes creating music an easy task — even for a nonmusical person. And it’s just a heck of a lot of fun for everybody!

To see the Laser Band in action, be sure to check out the video below.

Raelyn and Sean

We asked two young people with neuromuscular disease to play with the Laser Band system for a week or so and then tell us what they thought of the device. Raelyn Kanak (left), 16, who has nemaline myopathy, is an accomplished harpist. Sean Masters (right), 9, who has spinal muscular atrophy, has very little musical experience. The Laser Band offers a variety of ways to play music, and the two testers developed decidedly different playing styles. Masters preferred using the controller almost exclusively, while Kanak combined keyboard strokes with controller hand motions. Although their playing styles were different, their opinions of the Laser Band were virtually the same: It was very easy to operate and a whole lot of fun. But why talk about it any further when you can see them in action? Click on the video below and check it out!

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Raelyn’s Laser Band Compositions

Here are three arrangements created by Raelyn Kanak, using the Laser Band system: one classical composition and two jazz pieces. Just click on the song titles to enjoy.

Brass Knuckles

Café Carnival

Classique

Other Musical Options

Beamz/Laser Band is probably the most user friendly and easiest-to-use music-making software currently available, but there are a number of other applications that allow nonmusicians to create, record and save their unique musical compositions. 

  • GarageBand: This program for Macintosh computers is bundled in the iLife suite that comes with new machines, or can be purchased separately for $49.  
  • Mixcraft, by Acoustica ($75): This software for Windows computers requires users to be fairly adept at using the mouse, as there’s lots of pointing, clicking, dragging and dropping required.

Both applications allow you to preview myriad instrument loops and sound effects in every music genre, then drag and drop them onto multiple tracks. Essentially, you “build” a song with beats, bass lines, guitar, piano, trumpet — each on its own track. These loops can be repeated, added to other loops, and manipulated individually or together. And if you can play a keyboard or sing, simply plug in your keyboard or microphone, and add your personal music to the mix.

Be aware that both of these applications do much more that what’s described above — they’re virtual recording studios. So when you first open the program, you may be intimidated by what you see, as there will be a learning curve.


Although it’s not yet in production, there is a very interesting new adaptive musical instrument being developed called Jamboxx.  Modeled after a harmonica, this digital, breath-powered controlling device can be played hands free, using only the head and mouth.  Attached via USB cabling to a Mac or PC system with special proprietary software, the user can access and play virtually any synthesized instrument, from trumpet to guitar to piano to drums.

Originally designed and developed by two upstate New York friends, one of whom is a quadriplegic with very limited use of his hands, a beta version of Jamboxx is being tested by a limited number of musicians around the world, including Tobias Koslowski, a German saxophone player with Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Check out this video of him playing the device.

If you’d like to help get Jamboxx off the ground, or even reserve one of the first production models of this unique musical instrument, you can pledge support at Kickstarter.

Jamboxx attaches to a computer
via USB cable.

 

Jamboxx on-screen software interface.

 

Tobias Koslowski, who has Duchenne
muscular dystrophy, is beta testing the
hands-free music system.
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