Last year, I did one of my regular Google trawls for new MIDI devices and came up with a crowdfunding page for a hands free controller called a MIDI blaster, produced by a company called thisisnoiseinc. In the past I made regular use of an Alesis airFX which allowed you to control 3 preset parameters by moving your hand in an XYZ fashion. It was a brilliant and creative device but unfortunately did not feature MIDI out so you were limited to presets for what you could control. I wrote to Alesis suggesting some ideas but they said they had no plans to develop the product. The MIDI blaster seemed to offer exactly what I was looking for – four separate sensors which detected the distance from your hands and sent out related CC messages. It was compact, cool as **** and so I signed up as an early doors purchaser. In the end it was, 312% funded on Indiegogo and so overcame the first hurdle.
A month or so a compact package was delivered and I eagerly plugged it in and began to experiment. In essence it is a simple device, for continuous controllers for which you can set the MIDI channel CC number and assign in your DAW (In my case Ableton) in the usual way. Each sensor has an LED for which you can either set a fixed or variable colour with the brightness reflecting how far away your hand is. It can also send MIDI notes but I haven’t looked into that yet.
It’s worked perfectly straight out-of-the-box and I launched it at a recent gig. It uses a USB C cable and the only change required by my setup was the addition of a powered USB hub, since my laptop only has three USB ports (grrr) and they were used by my audio interface, Launchcontrol XL, and Launchpad Mini. As with any new device it’s taken a little while to get the best from it and I’m still learning.
As it stands, it’s difficult to easily send minimum or maximum values, but if you’re looking for dramatic changes of parameters then it’s perfect – for example with a delay plugin you can alter the delay rate, time, feedback and mix all at the same time. It’s not possible to accurately control each parameter since the sensors are close to each other – you can quite easily bring your hand in from left or right or towards the unit, but accessing the upper middle control without affecting the others requires your hand to come in from the opposite side, this requires some dexterity! However, they have built in a feature to get around this issue – you can set a range of heights for each sensor. For example, you can have the nearest three sensors operating between heights of 50 to 200 and have the furthest sensor only detecting between 300 and 500. Thus, if you lift your hand up and wave it overhead, the nearest sensors are ignored and vice versa with your hand lower down.
As well as the four sensors, you have two buttons which can be assigned either to “hold” the settings for the current position of your hand, or to advance through the three presets. Editing is carried out through an online web app, but at present there is no way to load or save presets so you need to make a note of them somewhere or you will forget what they are! I’ve been in contact with the developers raising this issue and they say it will be addressed in future updates. In situations like this it’s a massive boon when the company are keen to develop and extend their hardware.
This device has huge potential for expansion of control features. Due to the joy of “firmware”, regular updates are possible and as users give feedback, it can only become a more powerful product. It’s also fair to say that any crowdfunded idea, however brilliant, requires hard choices about what they advertise, how it’s priced and when/how they will deliver it. I have created several Arduino based MIDI controllers relatively easily, but if I then had to produce them commercially it would require massive upskilling in a range of complex areas such as production, shipping, marketing, accounting and so forth. My admiration for the people who launch crowdfunded products, even if they fail, is enormous. Many will sink all their money and most of that time for several years to make a success of an idea they believe in.
So, what suggestions have I made to them? Firstly more presets, which they have said is already in the pipeline. As mentioned above, an upgrade to the editor also taking place. I’d also like the controllers to optionally function as toggle switches so one controller could switch an effect on or off on the other three control parameters. At the moment I’ve assigned a launchpad button for on/off so that having waved my magic wand overhead I can defeat the whole process with a single click rather than try to reset each parameter to where I want it as I would have done with the Launchcontrol. I’ve also requested functionality similar to the airFX where the hand movement seems to be “spring loaded” so that as your hand moves away, it always sets the values to zero.
In closing, I think it’s an amazing piece of hardware, cleverly designed and able to create changes in your sound that would otherwise be impossible. It’s like the Roland D-beam on steroids. The compact size of the unit makes it perfect to fit next to your laptop – It has four rubber feet and is heavy enough to stay where you put it. It’s never going to replace a set of knobs for fine control but that really isn’t the point of it. With ongoing development of the firmware and editor I can see it becoming a must have for any creative musician. It currently retails at $150 which is by no means unreasonable. Pop along to https://thisisnoiseinc.com/pages/midi-blaster and check out the video!
Here’s a short video of it in action at a recent Das Rad gig, more to come as I get it properly integrated into my setup.