The headset settles onto my head. For a brief moment the world is blank. Then a cheery voice rings in my ears, “So the screen is about to come up. Most people go to the drums first but feel free to play with whatever you want. You’ve got five minutes.” Hovering drum pads, shining cables, and a grid of flashing lights populate the previously empty space. My mind races with possibilities of the musical smorgasbord before me. Not sure how to begin, or even where to start, I reach for the sticks resting on top of a big drum pad. I lift a stick and bring it down on the virtual drum. A resounding note reverberates. I can’t help a grin spreading across my lips.
“Sometimes it’s just fun to make noises and know you caused them,” Logan Olson, developer of the VR experience SoundStage, says as he explains the inspiration for the project. SoundStage replicates the sensation of being in a full scale music studio complete with drum pads, speakers, maracas, synthesizers, and other music production equipment. Users interact with the virtually generated items via the HTC Vive virtual reality headset. This requires intentional physical movement, a core aspect of SoundStage.
“If you go watch old 1960’s or 1970’s concert footage or any of that old classic rock you’ll see that guy who’s playing the keyboards surrounded with this wall of wiring and cords and dials, and those are like the old school synthesizers. When you hear electronic music now it’s usually coming from a computer or laptop or tablet but back then it was these giant tube driven electronic machines like moog synthesizers. They literally look like the cockpit from Aliens. When we shifted to desktops, and tablets, and phone based electronic music obviously all that power is still there and you can make the same sounds, but I thought some of the physicality was lost. So while the end result is the same it just seemed less fun.”
There’s a timer displayed in one corner of the screen. I keep track of it out of the corner of my eye as I move between the various instruments. Over two minutes have passed and, after struggling to become comfortable with the virtual drums and playing with a few other instruments, I reconcile to the fact that I will not have time to create much of a coherent song. Deciding to explore something new I navigate the menus and pull a keyboard out of thin air. As I tap out notes along the board and fiddle with the signal processors, I suddenly realize how comfortable it feels to navigate the virtual space. I return to the drums and tap out a quick beat as the timer continues to run down.
“Turns out most people don’t really care about analog synthesizers,” Logan quips, referencing early builds of the game. “But the appeal of having a physical, virtual, room scale music studio, I think people got that and so it slowly transitioned into being a more full featured, all-encompassing music studio.”
This discovery of the project’s future development informed the way he approached its functionality. “I would say early on it became clear there were two different audiences with very different desires. One is the person who knows nothing about music and for them you just want, initially, something that’s fun to play with. The much more vocal audience is professional musicians and [you want] to give them a new way to think about making music and enable them to make music in a way they haven’t before. For the first audience, there’s a secondary goal to give someone who’s getting their feet wet the ability to make something that sounds cool. But that is a much more difficult task to achieve.”
To many, and indeed to myself, this idea would seem to be facilitated by the inclusion of tutorials. Surprisingly, Logan found these to run counter to SoundStage’s central purpose. “I looked at doing tutorials for quite a while. I think when you’re designing a sandbox experience or an experience that is freeform and unstructured, applying a structure to that is incredibly brutal. Even people who didn’t know it was a sandbox would try to force the tutorial into being a sandbox.” The nature of this “sandbox” is one of discovery, of learning the tools at your disposal.
“Alright dude, looks like your time is up.” I had dreaded the voice for five minutes that had gone by far too fast. I let go of the drumsticks which float back to their place on top of the drum pads. Taking off the headset, I return to the world of IndieCade. Crowds of people huddle close to dozens of monitors and a line of people wait in the space next to me. I’m supposed to get back into the swing of the event but my head is filled with synthesizers, drum pads, and waveforms. I could have spent an hour in there, I think, as I hand the headset back to the developer.
“The number one thing I think I can do, as far as teaching someone about music, is giving them a better mental model of how audio works and a way to think about audio and sound,” Logan continues talking about what SoundStage can offer both practiced musicians and new players. “Sometimes it takes awhile for a user to learn how to use a certain interface. You could shortcut that error by trying to intuit what your user is going to do and make the tool smarter…But then you’re trying to make a tool that’s smarter than the user. I try to keep the interfaces pretty brain dead simple so people have to learn them. I think by keeping them simple like that you open up the possibility of interesting emergent behaviors. When people learn how to use a simple rule set they can then abuse it. The drums are a perfect example of that.”
Logan is referencing a YouTube video that demonstrates some “experiments” a user conducted with the drums in SoundStage by utilizing the unique rule set to trigger multiple pads at once and to create a “windmill” of pads that can replicate a drum roll. This occurs because the pads activate when they detect the “stick” crossing a boundary line. Logan explains that he could have done something more complex but, “rather than doing something ‘smart’ with detecting accelerometer spikes to figure out when the drum triggers or using different collision boxes it has a very simple rule and because of that the user could utilize the system in a very arcane way.”
An Evolving Sandbox of Sound
“There are very different expectations for a tool than for a game,” Logan explains as he reflects on how the project compares to traditional games and other music production software. “A game doesn’t have to have nearly as many features, but everything has to be very polished and look sharp, and be fun. A tool does not have to look sharp and it doesn’t have to be fun, but it does need a boatload of features. As a product that is in early access and still evolving, I wanted [SoundStage] to start off as a toy and then add features so that it would one day become a tool.”
At the moment Logan focuses on that evolution by considering the integration of features to increase the power and potential of SoundStage as a music creation tool. The main thing he is working on are VST’s, software programs that simulate the signal processing functions of recording studio hardware to alter sound and add effects. “A lot of musician’s want VST’s and, rather than casually look into it, I’m actually employing a contractor to evaluate the technical feasibility of that. So if it’s not in there it’s not because I didn’t look into it.”
Ultimately, however, it is important for the features to be fun. When discussing the early concept of a virtual guitar Logan offered, “You have to ask, ‘What’s a guitar when you’re wearing boxing gloves?’ Is that still appealing for a person to use, and if so why?” Due to the Vive’s controller set up and inability to translate intricate finger movements, the guitar couldn’t be a literal translation in the way the drums are. In Logan’s words, “it would probably be stylistic and weird,” in order to give users the freedom to interact with it in the exploratory manner the rest of the project encourages.
This cuts to the heart of SoundStage. It is not simply a game and it is not just a tool. It is a sandbox of sound, something that invites the user to learn about it, to discover something cool. Logan Olson’s comment on the project’s capabilities encapsulates this sentiment: “Ultimately that’s where you want to get to. Not tell someone what it does upfront, but let a person who actually plays with it understand the deeper meaning of what’s going on.”