The Future of Music is Visual

The future of music is visual

I used to hate bands that put more time into their stage than into their music. I loved seeing punk bands because they were raw and had no pretensions about their work; it was all about the energy, anger and lyrics. No one was making million dollar stage productions. Other folks love lavish spectacles and who am I to begrudge them their right to do so?

Recently however, I have been changing my opinion, but not on lavishness. Rather, I changed my opinion on the need for a visual aspect to live music. What made me change my mind after decades? Simple. I looked at my collection of electronic instruments and realized the choices I made in instruments involve a lot of me moving my fingers or hands and pulsating lights. And seeing bands like Chemical Brothers live… well ’nuff said, but remember that while I love the Detroit Electronic Music Festival, I am neither DJ nor raver so glow-sticks will not be part of this article.

I asked notable electronic musician, Mark Mosher about the connection between visuals and electronic music as he is a strong proponent of both. Here’s what he had to say:

“I’ve found without a doubt that visual controllers such as the Percussa AudioCubes and grid controllers like the Tenori-On makes it easier for the audience to correlate my performance with the music and sound coming out of the speakers. Ultimately this deepens the connection between the performer and the audience, and the audience quickly becomes aware of the musicianship required to perform experimental electronic music live and makes them appeciate the music even more.”

Roland and the D-Beam Controller

Roland EG-101 and D-Beam Controller

I have one synth that dates back to the ’90s, a Roland EG-101. It was a fairly standard Hip-Hop synth, really nothing outstanding except for one feature; the D-Beam. This is an infrared beam that is still being added to current Roland synths. Moving the hand near it and around it interrupts the notes and warps them in unpredictable ways. No two performances could be the same (unless you have robotic limbs).

Novation Ultra Nova

Novation UltraNova

I haven’t purchased the Ultra Nova yet, but it’s my next buy (after my wife and I get settled in our new home). Novation added some beautiful lighting effects to the display of this synth. The Pitch Bend and Modulation wheels are internally lit in a pleasing blue and the entire GUI glows like a suit from Tron.

Korg Kaossilator ProKaossilator Pro
This is an odd little beast. Is the Kaossilator a synth? A beat box? A sequencer? A light display? Yes. Using a glass pane interface like an iPad, this square piece of magic from Korg allows your hand movement across the X/Y axis of the glass interface to affect the sound, pitch, volume, speed, effect, etc. of your song phrases. You can basically “draw songs” with this device. Not only is it interesting to watch someone use one, the lights under the glass seem faery-like as they dance near your fingers and glide away.

Audio Cubes
I’ve written at length about Audio Cubes and finally broke down and bought four of them after seeing the amazing work Mark Mosher is doing with them.

There are dozens of “controllers” available for electronic musicians but they all seem to have a visual aspect to them. From the myriad number of Ableton Live controllers (hardware) to the iOS tablet versions (software) to the Tenori-On that Mark Mosher mentioned above, controllers all seem to combine function with beautiful light displays that make them easy to use in a dark bar or concert hall, and fascinating for the audience to watch.

iOS Apps
Finally, I would be remiss to neglect mentioning the plethora of iPad and iPhone apps that are for music creation. Because iOS devices rely on finger movement and gesture-based commands, the software instruments on iOS naturally require a lot of finger dancing to operate. I have a huge collection of them and there are frankly to many to mention. Some of my favorites (in no particular order) include:

  • Curtis
  • Arix-303
  • Shapemix
  • Soundrop
  • Magic Piano

What about you? Do you like seeing lavish displays onstage, simple light and gesture-based performances or just raw and dirty? Please leave a comment below with your thoughts.

Photo Credits: Synthtopia, VIEP, Newecho Productions, Korg.





4 responses to “The Future of Music is Visual”

  1. Michael Newton Avatar

    Great post Dave!  Very near and dear to my heart.

    While I have yet to delve into making electronic music (it’s on my bucket list), I definitely appreciate and enjoy it.  I have to say that the visual component of a performance is very frequently a game-changer.  Some very good friends of mine have a band called Ella Riot (formerly known as My Dear Disco) and when they made the change from straight stage playing to a “performance”, the level of their shows exploded. 

    I’ll use another example to help illustrate the point that comes from an unlikely source: the Army.  I play guitar for a local Army Reserve band and we’re working to integrate visuals into our concerts–and not just our rock shows.  Powerpoint presentations shown on screens are becoming a big part of our performances.  Patriotic images help the audience connect to our music in a serious way because we’re engaging multiple senses and tapping into multiple emotions.

    Anyways, sorry for getting a little long-winded; I get passionate about this kind of stuff.  Thanks for the post.  I really enjoyed it.



    I Like the visual aspect of music, especially of life music. To be aware of the visual part of making music having a performance (through all genres) is for me an essential thing of Music Thinking #musicthinking 

  3. Dave Peckens Avatar

    Synths are cool, as are the multiple ways they could be used during performance. Always a place for the acoustic in life, too.

  4. Ben Avatar

    People with synesthesia and humans in general have cortical association pathways that integrate info about sound and sight.