The synth-a-beam

This is a rare video of a musical instrument designed to be performed in a Las Vegas Show during the 1990’s. The video was shot during a rehearsal. Unfortunately the show that the instrument was designed for never opened so very few actually saw this instrument in action. As one of the performers (it took four people to play the thing), a designer as well as the only sound designer on the project, I thought I would share the video and include some interesting details about the design of the instrument.

You will see columns of light facing up and down with a center horizontal “break point” between them. Each column of light was focused on a light sensor attached to the Horizontal bar and rigged so that when the beam of light focused on the sensor was broken, a midi note, which had been assigned to each sensor and to a Kurzweil K25oo and a Roland JV 1080 would sound. The Kurzweil K2500 / JV1080 combination was routed to three (3)  Motu MTP-Av’s. which were used to essentially hardwire a midi note to a light sensor and then to notes assigned to zones in the K2500 and a “performance” in the Jv1080.

The sensors turned out to by uber sensative and we soon discovered that using our bare hands to “break” the beam of light was nearly impossible.  We ended up wearing oven mittens to make sure that the beam of light was completely cut off from the light sensor as we moved our hands in and out of the beams lights.

This was part of a show so the instrument had to be rolled on and off a stage in less then three minutes … to make this possible the instrument was actually built as five sections which could be connected and dis-connected quickly get it on and off the stage.

When we first started performing the song … it was a visual mess … hands flying all over the place as we tried to play the song as if all four of us were playing a giant piano, It actually sounded pretty good but the producers insisted that we refine our moves …. to choreograph the playing of the instrument as it were … so the music was slowly simplified so that we could concentrate on the visuals as much as the music. Sadly, we got so good at playing the beast that people watching us sometimes didn’t think we were playing it live …. that the music was canned …. I can assure you this was not the case! Listen and watch and you’ll hear melodic and timing mistakes.  Four people … eight hands .. playing one instrument …. still makes me proud that we got as good as we did.

The song is “Rendevous” by Jean Michel Jarre  who pioneered the use of triggering lights in his performances but with fewer lights generally used to trigger special effects. The rest of the time I believe he just stuck to playing keyboards.

None of this would have been possible without he help of the outstanding tech crew that helped put it all together and of course the other perfomers, all of whom spent weeks and weeks putting it all together.

The last I heard the instrument was in pieces in a warehouse in Vegas but that was a long time ago so who knows.

Anyway, just thought I would share this if no other reason than to point out how far we’ve come. It still kinda blows my mind to see all the “off the shelf” midi triggers available today, not to mention the amazing “Live” interconnectivity between music and lighting. Go to any of the major electronic dance music festivals so popular now and you’ll will really appreciate the distance that has been traveled!

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