Photonic Rock

This is an invited post by Johnny Russell, who contacted me some time ago about an intriguing “photonic” guitar he’s been developing, as demonstrated in the video below. (Subscribe to Johnny’s channel if you want to find out more.) I’m always intrigued by new approaches to music technology so I’ve been keeping an eye on what Johnny’s been doing.

Over to you, Johnny…


Just imagine you had a choice, between hail or snow; for one hour everyday for the rest of your life, regardless of the actual climate, it would hail or it would snow. Which would you choose? Easy decision, right?

Hail is interesting, exciting and even scary when it does come, but snow… snow is beautiful and magical, each snowflake a unique and fragile mathematical pattern that suggests some deeper and profound meaning of the universe in which we exist.

But actually I’m going to talk about music, so why the snow or hail metaphor?

Well it seems in the last ten or so years popular music has become exactly the choice we wouldn’t make – constant hail, every single day. You see, just as water can take on the spatial structure of hail and snow, sound can take on the temporal structure of electronic dance music or Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. Just as the spatial structures of hail and snow have different formation processes, so too does the temporal structure of music, but with music the distinction is quite easily defined: was the temporal structure generated by a computer or created by a human.

And what is one thing missing from computer generated music? Groove.

Music is fundamentally one of the most important aspects of culture. And from the bird’s song to the very heartbeats that give our bodies their constant rhythm, all of it follows mathematical patterns that give rise to groove. These fractal patterns are called long-range correlations, the mathematical name that describes the respective spatial and temporal structures of both snowflakes and groove music.​ These groovy patterns have existed all throughout the history of evolution, as they are an intrinsic part of the universe in which we live. But, for the first time in human history, as the music industry aims for “perfection” and producers have taken the role of musicians, these patterns have largely been removed. The vast majority of music on the radio mathematically contains little groove, resulting in melodies that don’t remain with us as there is little human fluctuation, no groove that we can inherently and fundamentally relate to; hail.

A big part of this trend is that with music tech, there remains one last problem; the guitar, the number one rock star instrument cannot be made to produce MIDI in real time to create these fractal patterns. This problem has been around for decades, but for each attempted solution, something has to be sacrificed from a true guitar style to achieve this. The problem here is simply because string dynamics are complicated, there are many frequencies bouncing around at any instant. To know the frequencies you then have a problem which is analogous to the quantum mechanical Heisenberg uncertainty principle: the more accurately you know position, the less accurately you know momentum.

With string dynamics the trade-off is that to know the fundamental frequency node of the note on the vibrating string, you need time; the more time you have, the more precisely the frequency can be calculated. This is done by a mathematical process called a Fourier Transform. This is what current systems work with, which means that the MIDI note can’t be calculated and played without some latency. The other approach is to redesign the guitar completely, but these systems lose the subtlety and speed of the string dynamics themselves. The one consistent thing across all these systems is that they are completely electronic.

The Russell Photonic Guitar is the first REAL guitar to produce chords, note slides, hammer-ons and pull-offs with MIDI sound in line with the natural or electric sound coming out of the guitar, simultaneously, in the moment. Finally, a next generation instrument that can sync with the flow of human emotion. With this, not only will electronic and rock music have a new tool in which to explore the vast MIDI landscape, but also classical music will have piano that can also do all the unique guitar string tricks, and here also new musical landscapes will be opened up for musicians to explore, and everyone to enjoy.​

Lastly, and possibly most importantly; contrary to music dividing people due to the attachment of egos or identity to so many separate splintered genres, music still has an overwhelming power to bring different people together. It all has to do with groove. A remarkable scientific discovery on the power of groove is outlined in this paper, in which the authors studied beat fluctuations between two musicians, and, to quote, “…the next beat played by an individual is dependent on the entire history (up to several minutes) of their partner’s interbeat intervals.” Which means that two people can be locked into the same groovy fractal pattern.

Why is that so significant? Well, do you know how if you look at the stars, due to the finite speed of light, you are looking into the past? The same thing happens on a much smaller scale if you are interacting with a fellow human being; you’re interacting with a moment that has already gone. We are all islands of isolation separated by the finite speed of light, the speed of causality. So how can we bridge our islands of isolation? If we essentially all get on the same groove (sometimes referred to colloquially as a “groove train”) by way of fractal patterns, we are temporally locked, and isn’t that truly experiencing the same moment together? If that is the case, then that is truly Zen.

This is the power of groove, and why the Russell Photonic Guitar will be so significant for all of music.

 

Author: Philip Moriarty

Physicist. Rush fan. Father of three. (Not Rush fans. Yet.) Rants not restricted to the key of E minor...

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