Art, Learning & MIDI: A Tribute to Dave Smith

On June 1st, Dave Smith passed away. For those who have never heard of Smith he was/is known as the “Father of MIDI” for his role in the development of MIDI. In 1981 Smith set out to create a standard interface protocol for communication between electronic instruments. With the proliferation of tiny computers or microcontrollers came the invention of devices that just about anyone can use to create sounds. This includes Bare Conductive’s Touch Board is a microcontroller with 12 capacitive touch sensors and an MP3 decoder.

On the Touch Board, sounds are triggered when you touch the device with your fingers (or toes). You can even use it to create a theremin, an electronic musical instrument controlled without physical contact by the performer.

Without Dave Smith we wouldn’t have Touch Boards that also have an On Board MIDI Mode that allows users to convert just about any object into an instrument (using conductive materials). The Touch Board MIDI has been a part of my life as an educator for nearly a decade. Here are some of my former students (music majors) exploring a Touch Board-enabled theremin:

In a traditional theremin, the instrument is controlled via two metal antennae that sense the relative position of the player’s hands. One of the antennae is for controlling the frequency and the other for volume. The “MIDI” theremin we created was just a spare sheet of cardboard with conductive paint patches (antennae) that were connected to sensors/electrodes on a Touch Board.

In 2015, I worked with Bare Conductive to modify the Arduino code that programs the Touch Board. I wanted to see if I could use the device to trigger videos instead of sounds. My independent study students also experimented with this development as you can see here:

In 2016, I worked with students to help them make their own MIDI controllers using Arduino microcontrollers (Touch Boards are in the same family). I often refer to this learning experience as “purple constructionism” because it builds on the work by Seymour Papert and others, which refers to how people create their own unique ways of knowing through making and computing (and MIDI). In the STEAM Lab I played songs by musical innovators such as Prince during the making process.

In this clip a high school student has just connected his MIDI device to a laptop with GarageBand and realizes that it works. He learned many things along the way including digital fabrication (3D printing), electronics (soldering), and coding.

These examples show how students can use MIDI to make projects that are meaningful to them… and it started with inventors/engineers such as Dave Smith.



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Nettrice Gaskins

Nettrice Gaskins

Nettrice is a digital artist, academic, cultural critic and advocate of STEAM education.