The Soundbeam's ability to translate physical movements into MIDI messages, in a sophisticated and customisable way, makes it unique among alternative MIDI control systems.
The award‑winning Soundbeam sonic MIDI controller system may be unfamiliar to many SOS readers, but it's now over a decade old, having first seen the light of day in 1989. It has built a well‑established and dedicated user base, with more than 1500 systems now in use worldwide. The Soundbeam 2 (and its earlier incarnation, the original Soundbeam) was designed by Robin Wood and the EMS team (yes, they of VCS3 synth fame) for Edward and Judy Williams of The Soundbeam Project, and so far it has primarily been used in special schools, and in conjunction with children and adults with disabilities or restricted physical movement.
What Is Soundbeam?
Described somewhat confusingly by The Soundbeam Project as "an invisible expanding keyboard in space", the Soundbeam 2 is not in itself a musical instrument — it's an alternative way of playing any MIDI‑controllable instrument, although saying the SB2 is just a MIDI controller is a little like saying a Moog modular system is just a synth. The SB2 is more than a simple controller; it is a unique and extremely versatile performance instrument which translates any physical movement into MIDI controller messages. Although there will be comparisons made with the Theremin and the Roland D‑Beam (as used on various Roland MIDI instruments, such as the MC505 Groovebox), the SB2 uses sonar technology, an entirely different technique to that used in either of the above devices, which allows performers to accurately play musical phrases without physical contact.
For the technically minded amongst you, the SB2 is a distance‑to‑voltage‑to‑MIDI device that works its magic by firing off a constant stream of directional 50kHz ultrasonic tone‑bursts, and simultaneously listening for their echoes. In different reverberant environments and rooms, these tone‑bursts decay at different rates; the Soundbeam 2 Controller measures the variations and translates them into MIDI information in real time. Because rooms vary so much — some may contain hard, shiny surfaces, while others might have carpets and irregular‑shaped soft furnishings — the Soundbeam 2 sensors need careful setting up to avoid the system seeing 'ghost' echoes which could degrade its performance. However once the sensors are correctly positioned, all manner of dancing, prancing and arm‑waving can produce some truly amazing responses — not least from your bemused friends and colleagues!
The system supplied for review was a two‑beam kit with optional eight‑input switchbox and two low‑profile footswitches. Also included was a Yamaha MU50 Tone Generator, although this was only supplied for the SOS review and is not usually part of the system. Although any MIDI‑compatible gear can be controlled by the SB2, its factory presets have been specifically programmed for an XG‑compatible MIDI module such as the MU50.
The SB2 Controller is capable of controlling up to four beams and 12 switches or variable controllers simultaneously (via the optional eight‑input switchbox). As you might expect, the SB2's MIDI spec is very comprehensive, and it transmits and responds to pretty much every MIDI controller message under the sun. To augment the 97 non‑volatile user memories, User Setups can be saved and reloaded as MIDI bulk dumps. Being able to remotely change SB2 Setups using program changes from an external MIDI sequencer or computer is also a useful feature for solo users. Recording sensor and switchbox activity into an external sequencer is just a matter of connecting the relevant MIDI Ins and Outs to each device. Each beam (or control source) can be programmed to respond to almost any MIDI controller message, including velocity and note values, and a beam can be programmed to trigger up to 64 individual note pitches over its entire length of up to six metres.
As you can see from the photos above and left, the main Controller console has something of a 1950s‑retro look about it, whilst simultaneously managing to look modern — rather like something Dan Dare might have used in the original Eagle comic. It's constructed from a tough, ABS‑type plastic, and is quite light considering its size (300mm x 270mm x 80mm). It has a minimalist feel, with plenty of space for the user to rest their hands while adjusting or programming. The buttons have an agreeable 'click' action, and the large rotary control wheel is stepped yet fluid. Four large LEDs show beam activity, and also aid troubleshooting, and the 32‑digit backlit LCD is large enough to give informative feedback rather than abstract hieroglyphics.
The rear of the Controller is packed with connectors: four DIN sockets for the Sensor Drivers, separate MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets, a multi‑way 'D'‑type socket for the switchbox, and a power supply input.
All the controls are clearly labelled and logically laid out, which makes changing presets, saving User Setups and generally finding your way around relatively painless; most MIDI‑savvy types will soon be winging their way around the system without much reference to the instruction manuals. Getting into the inner workings of the system, though, which are complex and not for the faint‑hearted, will require studying the instruction manuals (all three of them) and some patience.
The switchbox and sensor drivers are metal cased and surprisingly weighty for their sizes. The sensor drivers are connected to the sensors and the Controller via four‑metre leads and locking heavy‑duty metal DIN plugs, though six‑ and 12‑metre extensions are available as an option. Also included in the kits are heavy‑duty boom stands for mounting each Sensor.
The parts of the system are well constructed and feel as though they could easily cope with a life of being set up and dismantled — though I 0000000have to admit that if I were using an SB2 kit regularly on the road, the first thing I would invest in would be some custom flightcases for safe transportation.
A Typical Setup
A typical Soundbeam setup would consist of an SB2 Kit plus a MIDI sound module and speakers. Although it's not essential, a separate MIDI keyboard could be included for entering chords or pitch sequences into the User Setups, though this can be achieved using the Controller.
Setting up the system is quite straightforward, as all cables and sockets are clearly labelled, tagged and cross‑referenced with the 'Getting Started' manual. If only all manufacturers were this methodical about their products! A seasoned SB2 operator could probably get everything up and running in about 10 to 15 minutes. The crucial part, however, is correctly positioning the sensors, which, of course, will depend on the type of area you're in, the kind of MIDI sounds you intend to manipulate and the way you wish to interact with the beams. Setting up the SB2 system to play synth effects and pad sounds would probably need less critical positioning than arranging the beams to trigger individual or specific notes, pitches or percussion soun ds. If, on the other hand, the SB2 is being used in new and unfamiliar locations, even a well‑trained operator would need to spend some time getting the sensors into their optimum positions.
Styles In Space
For the ultimate in user interactivity, the sensor beams respond to proximity, distance and speed (velocity) of movement, and these qualities are showcased well in some of the factory Setups. The SB2 has a permanent store of 30 of these, plus 97 User Setup memories. When used with a suitable XG sound module, the presets cover all manner of styles. Presets include:
- 'P05 GM Drum Kit': Each beam has four divisions, and one beam triggers bass drums and snares, while the other triggers hi‑hat and cymbals. The speed at which you 'play' the beam determines the panning of the drum sounds. The footswitches trigger high and low toms.
- 'P10 Jazzer': Beam One has 20 divisions and controls a clarinet sound using 'Pitch Sequence 018/Chord' (see the 'Soundbeam Glossary' box below). Beam Two has five divisions and triggers piano chords using 'Pitch Sequence 001/Jazz scale'. The footswitches trigger a bongo and a triangle.
- 'P15 Cine Dream': Beam One uses eight divisions to trigger layered choir samples using 'Pitch Sequence 018/Chord', while Beam Two has 16 divisions to control a horn sound using 'Pitch Sequence 007/Pentatonic'. The distance of movements from the sensors determines reverb level. The footswitches trigger a low drum and an arpeggiated flute.
- 'P21 Arabian Knights': Beam One uses 'Pitch Sequence 018/Harmonic Minor' to play an eastern‑sounding clarinet, the speed at which you interact with the beam determining how much portamento is applied. Footswitch one introduces vibrato. Beam two triggers a filtered synth pad chord using the same pitch sequence as the 'Cine Dream' preset. Your distance from the sensor adjusts the synth's panning, while footswitch two transposes the sound one octave down.
- 'P23 Africa': Each beam has four divisions and uses the 'Cine Dream' pitch sequence to produce an arpeggiated drum‑roll effect. Beam one triggers low log‑drum sounds through a slow delay, while beam two triggers higher‑sounding log‑drums though a faster delay. Both beams use the retrigger mode (again, see the Glossary below), so entering and exiting the beams causes the drums to sound. Footswitch one triggers a reverbed bass drum, and footswitch two successively steps a low vibe sound though a preset sequence of notes.
These are just a few examples from the preset Setups available. Although there aren't as many as I would have liked to see, they are all well thought‑out. Most users will find they also serve as a good starting point for developing their own Setups.
Used in gigging or touring situations, the majority of Soundbeam installations would need to be put together from scratch at each venue. With a little care, there's no reason why a well‑positioned Soundbeam system shouldn't enable performers or musicians to accurately repeat previous movements and gestures, to reproduce notes, scales, chord progressions and sequences of sounds. We take for granted that guitar strings and keyboard notes are always in the same positions, but something similar can be achieved without physical contact using nothing more than the Soundbeam and your body movements.
The Soundbeam style of playing is also well suited to improvisation, particularly when there is a separate console operator and performer or performers, and more than one beam. Ideally you would use four beams, two or more performers and a Controller operator.
In recent years we've seen Roland putting their D‑Beam controller into all kinds of synths and samplers, and Alesis recently launched the AirFX and AirSynth. Both perform similar functions, by translating physical movement into control data, but using different technologies. I haven't tried the Alesis units yet, but I have used the Roland D‑Beam, both in a studio and live. I can tell you that, while it is fun to use, it can be a bit of a hit‑and‑miss affair, particularly if there are strong lights or lasers nearby. The Soundbeam, however, is in an altogether different league (and price band). Its range, sensitivity and accuracy is quite astounding. It is literally possible to play a MIDI instrument just by facial activity, using your mouth and slight movements of the head. And yet at the other extreme you can accurately trigger multiple sounds, using your body, hands and feet, from across a large room.
There's also an interesting and useful spin‑off of the tone‑burst 'ghost echo' phenomenon mentioned earlier. When you intentionally direct the sensors at each other, or use them in a room with particularly shiny surfaces and minimal dampening material, you can set up a kind of ultrasonic feedback loop which results in the sensors reading each others' signals and the SB2, in effect, playing itself. You can still interact with the sensor beams, by moving around or in front of them to alter the intensity of the loop. The 'feedback loop' is a useful way of, for instance, sustaining a constant synth pad, which can then be modulated and transformed by your movements around the sensor space. Alternatively, you could program a Setup that triggers a chain reaction of different Pitch Sequences, which can be altered or transformed by moving around the beams.
As I familiarised myself with the system, I did start to notice one minor drawback. As mentioned earlier in this review, the SB2 sensors use 50kHz ultrasonic beams, which are inaudible (to humans, anyway). The drawback with this method is that the sensors emit an audible buzz, a bit like mains hum, only sharper sounding. Unfortunately there is no mention of this phenomenon in the manual, and when I first used the SB2 I was worried that the sensors might be faulty. A quick call to Robin Wood at EMS confirmed that they were not.
Hopefully, in most spaces the buzz won't be too obvious, but perversely, the bigger the space, the more you need to increase the Range parameter, and the louder (and slower) the buzzing becomes, until at the maximum six‑metre setting, it becomes a very audible clicking.
Unfortunately, yet understandably, entering the world of Soundbeam doesn't come cheap. A basic one‑beam SB2 kit starts at just over £1600, while the top‑of‑the‑range four‑beam kit will set you back a not inconsiderable £2866 (both prices include VAT). These prices are without shipping, the optional switchbox, switches, or an XG sound module. However, I should emphasise that the SB2 is a professional system that comes with a pro price. Build quality is excellent, and buying a system gives access to a dedicated telephone help line. You also have the fun of owning and using one of the coolest pieces of British‑built performance technology to be produced in recent years.
As I said in my intro, sales of the SB2 have primarily been into education and special schools. With a concept this unique and versatile, the Soundbeam also deserves to reach a wider mainstream audience and users who, I'm sure, will find new and unusual applications for it. Part of the SB2's appeal is that it crosses boundaries (pun intended), requiring static musicians to become animated performers, while allowing arm‑waving dancers and performers to become seemingly virtuoso musicians. Now that I think about it, most musicians aren't exactly averse to a few theatrics anyway!
If you're interested in the Soundbeam 2, I suggest you visit the informative Soundbeam web site (see address below), check out the CDs and videos that have been made using Soundbeam 2 systems, and possibly attend one of the Soundbeam Project workshop weekends. You really need to experience it to fully appreciate what a great instrument it can be.
In the few weeks I was using the SB2, I tried it with almost every MIDI device I own, and I was constantly surprised at how I could get sounds to go through the most convoluted transfomations, even with relatively basic body movements. There are other alternative controllers available, but I guarantee none are as versatile or respond in quite the same interactive way as the Soundbeam 2.
- 24‑note polyphony per beam.
- Multitimbral; any beam or switchbox input can be set to any MIDI channel.
- Beam range: 0.56‑6m.
- Beam divisions: 1‑64.
- Pitch Sequences: 30 Preset, 97 User.
- Up to four sensors.
- Up to eight switches or variable controllers.
- 30 Preset Setups.
- 97 User Setups.
Drums & Latency
Apparently, when the Soundbeam 2 is used for the first time, many musicians want to try it out as a controller for drum sounds. Funnily enough, I did too. Factory Setup 5, 'GM Drum Set', is a good place to start, but I found it a little sluggish to respond, because of a default MIDI latency of 200mS. This figure was chosen to help overcome errors that occasionally occur when using the beams in Retrigger mode. Fortunately, there's an adjustable Global Latency parameter, with a 20‑250mS range. I found a setting of 40mS right most of the time, but I occasionally had to increase it to avoid spurious retriggering. The MIDI Latency parameter isn't saved with a User Setup at present, but the plan is to rectify this with a future software update.
A Soundbeam Glossary
- Sensor: The ultrasonic transmitter/receiver for detecting movement.
- Setup: A collection of all Soundbeam settings (Pitch Sequence, Range, Divisions, Trigger mode, MIDI settings, and so on). Up to 128 are available.
- Divisions: Equal divisions of the length of a beam, variable between one and 64 per beam, over which a Pitch Sequence can be mapped.
- Pitch Sequence: A sequence of notes mapped to consecutive Divisions in a beam.
- Play Direction: Pitch Sequences can play from the beginning or end of a Beam, as set by this parameter.
- Retrigger Mode: The user can trigger notes by moving towards or away from the beam and its Divisions, depending on how this mode is set up.
- Poly Sustain: A Trigger mode in which each separate interruption of the beam activates a note, which is sustained until the next interruption within the Range area.
- Pentatonic Scale: Ascending or descending five‑note sequence.
Switchbox & Footswitch Options
Let's not forget the optional eight‑input switchbox and large colour‑coded, low‑profile switches. As with the beams, performers can touch, stamp, jump and generally interact with the switches to trigger (via MIDI) samplers and synths, computers, mixers and even MIDI‑controllable lighting rigs.
The instruction manual explains that channels 1 to 4 of the interface are optimised for use with footswitches, while inputs 5 to 8 are optimised for use with variable controllers. As well as the supplied switches, I tried Korg and Roland footswitches, and a variety of generic ones — even an old Colorsound footpedal. All worked perfectly.
You could, in theory, connect the switchbox to all manner of switches and contraptions, such as joysticks, for use as MIDI trigger sources or alternative MIDI controllers. My only complaint with the low‑profile switches is the short one‑metre cables which necessitate the switches being placed close to the switchbox.
All Soundbeam 2 kits include:
- The Controller, sensor(s) and driver(s), stand(s), leads, power supply, and instruction manuals.
- One‑beam kit: £1621.50.
- Two‑beam kit £2036.28.
- Three‑beam kit £2451.05.
- Four‑beam kit £2865.83.
- Additional sensor £99.88.
- Sensor driver (for above) £270.25.
- Switchbox (eight‑input) £170.38.
- Low‑profile switches (for above) £52.88.
- Yamaha MU50 XG Sound Module (recommended) £428.88.
- Yamaha MS50 Powered Speakers £152.75.
Supplied for this review were a Soundbeam 2 Controller, two sensors and two sensor drivers (plus necessary leads), two boom mic stands, an eight‑input switchbox, two low‑profile switches, a 12V power supply, and a Yamaha MU50 sound module. All prices quoted here include VAT.
- Unique and versatile.
- Packed with features.
- Operationally complex.
- Ultrasonic tone‑burst is audible.
- More presets would be useful.
The Soundbeam 2 is a wonderfully versatile and unique performance instrument capable of allowing outstanding MIDI manipulations and interactions. A breath of fresh air.