On Loop 2015

I was invited to join a panel about Open Source and Music in Loop, an slightly unusual (for my "standards") event. It wasn't a conference per se, although there were talks. Most of the sessions were panels and workshops, there were very little "individual" talk tracks. Lots of demos, unusual hardware to play with in the hall, relaxed atmosphere, and very little commercialism---really cool!

Before I agreed to join them, I spoke to Juanpe Bolivar, the host of my panel, and made sure he was aware of why I didn't actually want to join a panel, because I had been in a few so far and they were always horrendous due to the power dynamics in place. I explained all my concerns to him, and suggested tons of ideas to make things better, and he listened and put them in practice! So that was really good, and made me feel good about the event. It also helped that I knew some people who work for Ableton or who were connected to them, so I trusted them. Also they mentioned the code of conduct early on and they mentioned it during the opening event as well---with the room full of people.

Their organisation for booking travel and accommodation was super great as well: they helped me be time efficient by booking the most convenient flights, and the hotel they reserved was very good! Which I super greatly appreciated after having been travelling so much recently... the last thing you want is being placed on a crappy hotel!

When I was waiting for the flight to Berlin I noticed that James Holden was on the same flight too, because he was joining Loop as well. James Holden! OK maybe you don't know him, but he's a quite popular DJ who's also an author/producer and instigator of various experimental acts, and also really chill and loves to share how he does things and what his process is. So he was there in front of me eating a croissant, and of course I would NOT tell him anything because eating a croissant is one of life's sacred moments. You don't want to interrupt anyone when they're eating a croissant. It just breaks the magic and everything gets awkward, with pieces of pastry going all over. No, just don't do it.

So I didn't say anything.

But when we landed I got welcomed by a representative from Loop. She was very nice and told me we should wait until we met James and his colleague Camilo Tirado and then we would head out to get a taxi to our hotels. So I had a chance to actually speak to James! I said "hi" like a shy child, and then I told him I had seen him play at a long-closed club in London, many years ago, and he said something like "Ahh yeah when we were young!", and asked me what I did! So yeah, exactly the down to earth person I expected. Camilo was also super nice, and I got to talk to him later on about musical composition, how you play Indian music, universities and schools, etc.

This was just a bit of what was to happen during the event: you would be listening to some artist talk about their process and then it was just very natural to come and talk to them afterwards, and they would also ask what were you doing. The whole event was set up with the goal of getting artists to make connections and not work alone, as the event premise is that making music has turned into a very solitary act nowadays and we spend so much time in front of our computer screens in contrast to playing with other artists, etc. It was a bit funny for me as my "main job" is not as a musician, but I'm "enabling" people's music creations on the web and also make my own music from time to time, so it was interesting to see that they were really accepting of my 'hybrid' situation, and very excited about the notion of me enabling other people on the web, whereas generally people in tech are way more condescending and exclusivist ("oh, you're not a real developer!", etc).

As you can see I was semi unconsciously trying to extrapolate this to our "industry"; my brain was making comparisons all the time. I noticed little things like:

  • the drinks at the bar were not free, and no one batted an eyelid; they just paid for them and also there were zero incidents with drunkards harassing me. Correlation? Causation?
  • there was no t-shirt for the event, the only event themed t-shirts were worn by event people
  • picking the swag bag was optional, they didn't give it to you automatically. And the bag essentially just had a leaflet with the program and a notebook.

The panel

After the opening, Juanpe brought us to dinner to a nice Vietnamese place so we could get to know each other's background a little bit more before the panel happened. I hadn't met my co-panelists before, and I was a bit scared that they would be "more open source than ye" kind of people, as they essentially worked in Linux Audio stuff, but they were excellent people and really easy to get along with. Soon my concerns evaporated.

For reference, they were:

  • Gianfranco Ceccolini, he works on a programmable pedal device called the MOD: it's a device which has an embedded computer running Linux, and you can download effects and install them on it. Their business model consists in that they provide precompiled binaries so they are convenient for musicians that just want to get music done
  • Marije Baalman, she is an artist and also developer for STEIM, a company that builds custom instruments and stuff for artists. They use Super Collider and Linux, and she was also involved in the Linux Audio conference.
  • Paul Davis, he's the lead developer of Ardour which is a very popular open source audio workstation (think Garage Band, but free), and also JACK which enables you to pipe and control audio in your system (without|with very low) latency (like CoreAudio etc, but again, free, and multiplatform). He also happens to be the 2nd employee Amazon ever hired so he's been in the tech industry for a while too! ;-)
We were asked to prepare a 5 minute self-introduction for the panel, here is mine. People seemed to like my succinctness and quick slide-changing game! Also I brought them many tracking memories, judging by the tweets, so I'm happy about that :-)

I think the panel went quite well, specially compared to previous panels I'd been before! We all had the chance to talk and no one super monopolised the time. The only minor nit was that we had to share hand microphones and so it was hard to get 'impromptu' interventions, it felt a bit mechanical. Although you could consider it a good thing too because that meant that no one would talk you over when you had the microphone... so my thoughts are a bit ambivalent in this sense!

Of course we ran out of time and didn't have a chance to discuss many of the ideas that our moderator proposed beforehand (and which we augmented with other ideas), but I think we covered a bunch of interesting topics such as why we'll start seeing more audio stuff happening on the web soon, why distribution and convenience is how open source can win users' hearts rather than just open source per se, what was our setup for making music (answering "just ViM" made me giggle a bit), and then some more "boring" questions such as "which license you use".

Someone in the audience asked how to get started in open source if you are not a developer, and Paul suggested to "write docs", but I sent the ball back to "the developers" and said that they need to provide an entry point, a placeholder, so people at least know where to put the docs, and also that it's not just about developing or writing docs; making a screencast or a tutorial about a thing you found on the internet and like a lot can help in making it better. Or translating existing docs can make a positive impact as well---not everyone has the privilege of knowing more than one language.

People also asked where should they start if they worked in closed source software; should they open it up or...? and where should they start? I said if nothing else, make the file format description open, so users are not doomed if the makers stop supporting the software. Similar questions arose regarding music making software "in the cloud"; my posture is if you can't export it, just don't use it. You don't want your music to disappear when a startup goes out of business or gets acquired.

After the panel and during the rest of the event, random people would come and tell me they loved it and found the discussion very interesting and loved my optimism and enthusiasm because I had given them lots of ideas (!). I obviously have a skewed vision of myself and thought I had been a bit harsh and pessimist about the state of audio in Linux, and about the JACK daemon not playing nice with the rest of things in my system when I was running Linux, so I apologised to Paul, but he said that it had been great and someone had to "tell it like it was", and despite of that, I had been really uplifting! (!)

Well then...!

Music on the web

I also spoke to a number of people who were interested in various aspects of Web + Audio + MIDI.

Someone from a hardware making company said they are su-per-in-te-res-ted in Web MIDI support coming to Firefox, and would maybe even want to contribute code, but the last time they looked into the bug, the WebIDL part wasn't done yet, so they didn't know where they could contribute with their knowledge (they know how to deal with audio code, but not browser code). The importance of placeholders, again.

Audio software writers were concerned about performance and how to extract the maximum 'audio juice' out of a browser running Web Audio code. So Audio Worklets (the latest working name for the concept of "better than ScriptProcessorNodes" custom processors, née AudioWorkers) will come in handy here---same for WebAssembly and SIMD. Yay tying everything together!

When asked about this during the panel ("oh but Web Audio can't run the same thing that I can on my native app!") I suggested everyone to look back to 2005 when Google Docs were starting: people were joking and asking "but WHO would want to run Office in the browser?! HA! HA! HA!"... and now pretty much everyone is moving to "the cloud". So I hinted that perhaps we were going towards a hybrid future, where most people would just choose the web option because it was easy to access (no installs!) and convenient, and if they could export their data (using an open format), then they could continue working locally with their favourite native app.

In contrast, music writers were intrigued and excited about the notion of putting things online and having your audience interact with it. I didn't hear them complain much about performance, and there were also lots of talks on limitations fostering creativity rather than blocking it. As developers we so often are blinded by the desire to perfect our tools that we never actually get to do anything with the tools!

Demos, take aways and ideas

As I said there were lots of demos and interesting take aways. I liked this from the opening keynote: "Successes point to the past, failures point to the future" (as in, a success is something you've done, and that's it, but failing is something that didn't work out, and gave you information on how to proceed in the future). And also: "if all your experiments are a success, perhaps you're not trying the right things".

Here are some vines from panels I attended:

The first one is Jono Brandel demonstrating Patatap, which is running in the browser and the animations are "powered by" tween.js!


Then there's Leafcutter John demonstrating how his light-based custom instrument works, by flashing two lights at an array of light sensors:


The final keynote was the only commercially-strong content in the event, and it was the first time I saw Ableton Live on a big screen. They showed an advance of the new version of Ableton Live in exclusive (thought they didn't specifically say "do not tweet", it was subtly implied). It had newer sampling abilities, and timestretching, better flow...

The most interesting thing to me was when the showed a new protocol they had devised to sync various music apps playing live... which is one of the ideas I was exploring a while back with Firefox OS phones and p2p communications in The Disconnected Ensemble.

I normally don't come back from a conference this excited, but here's just a number of things I heard about during the event and I want to look at:

  • SuperCollider
  • Sonic PI
  • Gibber and Gibberish
  • using the webcam with motion detection in place of a 'grid of light sensors' (like Leafcutter John... but with less soldering)
  • the Leap Motion as an instrument (inspired by what Rebecca Fiebrink showed with her AI-learning based instrument builder)
  • exposing experiments into the window global object so they can be scripted/augmented with bookmarklets or WebExtensions
  • also providing an interactive demo / playground page for some of my open source libraries
  • and clowncore! (or perhaps I don't want to look into that, actually).
Conclusion: if you are interested in music making, and can attend next year, do so!