Take Ableton Live, one of the most versatile composition and performance tools ever created by man; then take a whole array of weird and wonderful electronic devices, either intended for musical use or not; and finally add a good dose of ingenuity and devil-may-care.
What do you get? A bizarre, idiosyncratic and often brilliant array of custom Midi controllers that creative DJs and producers use to express themselves in new and exciting ways, that's what! Here's our pick of the best:
Sasha's now legendary Ableton controller cost £15,000 to make. And he has two!
Custom specced from the best components they could source, the milled aluminium frame and faceplate house a MIDIbox open-source Midi processing unit, internal power supply and a Firewire interface.
Sasha may have moved on to Pioneer's top of the range CDJs, but the Maven paved the way a new generation of digital DJs and helped inspire some of the best controllers on the market today, namely the Vestax VCM600 and the Akai APC40 and APC20.
2. Monodeck II
Another custom controller with more lights and pots than you can shake a stick at! Some readers might recognise the name "Robert Henke" from the Ableton Live credits: He was one of the founding members of the Ableton company, and he also performs as Monolake. It was he who hand-built the Monodeck II controller to help with his live performances.
In Robert's own words:
“I started with first sketches for Monodeck II in summer 2005. The hardware was finished one year later, the development of a new Monolake live show took another six months.”
Hardware wise, Monodeck II is quite similar to the Maven, using a MIDIbox module for the brain. Where hand-made controllers stand out is in the quality and implementation of the parts.
Monodeck II was designed from the ground up to play a very specific part in the Monolake performances. The aim was to give the band intuitive visual feedback as well as have everything in the performance on one surface. Each LED is not only able to glow in seven colours, but can fade using software.
What Henke ended up with was a unique and powerful musical instrument to complement the band's performances. The significance of controllers like these is that with time and a bit of money, anyone can build a surface to suit their needs. It can be daunting, but it can be done.
This one's a little bit wackier. A Theremin is an early electronic musical instrument controlled without contact from the player. As an instrument in itself, the Theremin sounds straight out of a rubbish 50s science fiction movie, but can be used to control parameters of any Midi-enabled application using clever trickery and magic dust (or something like max4live).
Alternatively, some clever soul has managed to build a working Theremin Midi controller, which can be mapped to functions on most software synthesisers and music software. As with all things Midi driven, it can be mapped to any functions - see the video for a demo:
This one is just too cool to leave out. Released late in 2010, Kinect is a motion-sensing add-on for the Xbox 360 costing $150 (€130). Before it was released, equivalent equipment would cost upwards of $10,000.
Kinect brought extremely powerful tools at a very affordable price. The hacking community threw themselves at a project to let the device communicate with a PC or Mac. Microsoft, in a move generally out of character, backed the projects and is now releasing official software to help the community.
Off the back of this, all sorts of crazy ideas were born, including ways to connect to Traktor and Ableton Live. The sci-fi fantasy shown in countless films and TV shows such as Star Trek and Minority Report is on the horizon, and the digital production community is embracing it with open arms.
Sony also recently announced it was creating a hobby development kit called move.me for the Playstation Move controller. This alone shows the impact of Microsoft's new controller on the consumer market.
Want an example? Check out this Kinect-controlled dubstep "wobble" video:
The Monome is in here simply because of how beautiful it looks. All you get is a box with buttons on but this is the Rolls Royce of controllers. The Monome comes in three flavours: the two fifty six (16x16) the one twenty eight (16x8) and the sixty four (8x8), representing the number of buttons available.
These controllers are not for the faint hearted as not only do the pre-built ones come at a premium, to get the most out of them requires knowledge of applications such as Cycling74's max/msp. Each one is hand made individually, and there are often long waiting lists for every model. Nevertheless, these are beautifully crafted controllers that blur the lines between useful tools and hand-crafted art.
Bonus: iPad / smartphones
Bonus points go to the touchscreen revolution. Seriously, who would have thought, 10 years ago, that the DJ booth would look like the bridge of the starship Enterprise?
From the now-discontinued Jazzmutant Lemur to the iPod Touch and larger tablets, the technology has matured rapidly over the last few years. Many people are quick to point out some of the disadvantages of the medium - mainly that there's a lack of feedback to the controls - but that won't stop these becoming more and more common in DJ booths across the world.
Since the middle of the last decade, there's been an explosion in the number of Midi controllers available, with every conceivable control need catered for. There are so many oddities, as well as commercial products from companies such as Monome and Livid Instruments, that the possibilities are endless.
The DIY community has kept pace with commercial offerings to bring often wild and unique Midi controllers, as well as crazy experiments to push the boundaries of what Midi can do. One thing is for certain: choice is only going to increase. The hardest part will be deciding what to use!
• Dan Morse is a London, England-based DJ who runs his own DJing blog, It's a DJ's life!
Do you find the new ways of controlling music and DJ software exciting or irrelevant? Have you seen DJs and producers using devices to perform with that we've not covered here? Let us know in the comments.