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“Our best protection is our openness”

An interview with Kelli Cain and Brian Crabtree, the designers of a grid based musical interface called monome.

Author: Christophe Stoll
Date: 9. July 2008
Monome 256

The logical consequence of DIY could be establishing a product based on your own research and experimentation and making it accessible for the rest of the world. This is how the monome 40h, an “open instrument” from Philadelphia has come to life a while ago. Instead of protecting it with patents and hiding it behind marketing facades, all decisions and processes are documented and even constructional drawings are available to the public. As the past few years have proven, this is a great starting point for an ever growing community of musicians, designers and programmers.

This interview was done for an article called 10 Jahre Lötkolben: DIY 2007 for Issue 115 of german magazine DE:BUG. Further information: monome.org. All images in this artcicle © monome.org

The basic concept of the monome 40h is as simple as a 8×8 grid of backlit buttons. Did you first sketch and develop it on paper, as software or directly as a hardware prototype?

Upon creating my first performance sequencers with max/msp it became apparent that the amazing flexibility offered by this environment would always be limited by the means of getting data in and out of the system. In the most simple terms, i wanted to be able to click ten places simultaneously while finely adjusting other continuous parameters. Secondarily i wanted to avoid staring at a computer screen.

The absolutely most important element of these grid devices is that input (the keypads) and output (led feedback) are decoupled– the computer listens for keypresses and sends out led data. It allows for infinite adaptability and a very intuitive and responsive interface. This was immediately apparent the first time i got the prototype 16×16 working with mlr (an elaborate sample-cutting patch that displays playback position). A completely new level of performance and exploration became possible.

Brian Crabtree and Kelly Cain
Brian Crabtree & Kelly Cain

I know you have very ethical motives in your business model‚ such as only using components from local suppliers etc. Does this mean a lot of extra time and effort for you and how does it behave in relation to your creative concepts?

We (Kelli and i) were reluctant to enter the world of business, which we perceived to be uncompromisingly driven by profit (for the most part we were not incorrect). The form that monome has taken is a direct reflection of our values: economic and ecological sustainability with an emphasis on supporting domestic production and labor.

Using local suppliers hasn’t been difficult for us. If anything it’s made communication easier and as a result we’ve managed to keep high quality standards in place. Transportation is faster and cheaper. We’ve been able to easily tour facilities and know first hand we’re not supporting questionable labor or environmental practices. While being potentially more expensive, we see the tradeoffs of cheaper parts made in mysterious ways in facilities unknown as both unacceptable and irresponsible.

The design and manufacturing decisions reflect our creative methods directly in that they highly emphasize process.

The design and manufacturing decisions reflect our creative methods directly in that they highly emphasize process. the final product is only one element– the numerous small choices and extensive research along the way establish real knowledge. we are always learning.

This business model is still quite unique in the music gear industry. Do you believe it will become more popular among many other people starting their own little companies to develop special gear for special demands?

With regard to open source being adopted by large companies, i’d say that’s a virtual impossibility. If such a company designed an open-ended, user-modifiable product that was built well enough to last for decades, that company wouldn’t have repeat customers. They’d certainly have a loyal following, but there’s no money there.

I’m hoping that the approach monome has taken inspires more individuals to do the same. Sharing information and encouraging exploration has shown only positive results. The cultural reward makes up for the occasional financial strain. We stay small, live within our means, and try our best to spend money on things we actually support. (If only we could determine how our tax dollars were spent!)

Do you think conditions to create your own electronic music instrument, to maybe even start a small but effective enough business out of it, has changed/become better during the past couple of years? And how do you think things will move on within the next few years? How could these conditions be actively advanced?

Making anything in general is easier than ever. Sharing knowledge, methods, and skills has increased dramatically over the last few years.

Making anything in general is easier than ever. Sharing knowledge, methods, and skills has increased dramatically over the last few years. Making a business, i’d judge, is also easier as the internet allows collaboration and product exposure in ways previously impossible or prohibitively expensive. The means exist. People simply need a good idea and the ambition to see it through.

I’m uncertain where things will be in the next years. I’m definitely hoping that designers take matters into their own hands (start their own small companies) and avoid some of the ruining effects of big business’ inherent bureaucracy.

There are millions of electronic music controllers on the market. Regardless, many users seem to be unable to find a setup that is “just right” for them. Naturally, there’s no perfection, but do you think the model of developing modular open source software or hardware for yourself or for a constrained and specific target audience has the potential to become a serious counterbalance to the current industry? Or has it arrived there already?

40h – zerlegt
Monome 40h – taken apart …

I believe it’s certainly already arrived, and has been around for some time. Those who seek customization eventually find solutions (undoubtedly after using tons of commercial equipment).

This is not a market that is easy to commodify or mass-produce, as once there are ten thousand of something, it surely loses its appeal. There are only so many fancy knob boxes you can truly get excited about. More and more people may find themselves delving to lower levels, learning basic electronics, microcontrollers, or some programming environment. These tools are not music industry specific of course.

With this trend should be considered two things: first, spending all of your time designing tools means you’re probably not making as much music or art; secondly there will always be a demand for specialized and inventive devices. Those who discover their inventive potential will hopefully supply inspirational tools to those who choose to keep their focus on music or art. DIY will never be all-encompassing, nor should it be. Many tools don’t need to be re-invented.

Have you ever thought about the possibility of some “big” manufacturer stealing your ideas, incorporating them into their own products and selling them with another name? Or did this even happen to you?

Our best protection is our openness.

it seems remarkably unlikely as there’s not a profitable incentive. We believe the intellectual property system is broken. Our best protection is our openness. We’re also quite confident in the build quality of our devices.

Similar products on the market (and upcoming) we don’t see as being absolutely derivative, and they really missed the main point. It’s not just about blinky buttons.

How hard or easy do you think it is for technically unexperienced musicians to develop their own musical interface prototype (assumed they have ideas, obviously)?

You’re basically talking about crossing realms of knowledge. I’d imagine it’d be as difficult for an electrical engineer to write some music? There are so many tools and resources now for both writing music and making interfaces that neither is insurmountable.

That said, making something versus making something great are worlds apart and require serious dedication.

The fastest way to a “custom controller” is probably by using Doepfer Pocket Electronics Kit. uCApps is a complete open-source modular MIDI system and more.

There’s quite a vivid community around monome and everything is very well documented. You, as the “manufacturer”, provide all necessary plans, the logic board and many of the components needed to build your own monome-inspired piece of hardware. What was the most barefaced request that was posted towards you in that context? Could you please build a tilt sensor into my 40h for free?

A great majority of discussion has been very positive. The primary misunderstanding that we encounter is a tragic lack of perspective for how much a device cost to produce and how much personal time we invest in the process. Our market economy has conditioned us to expect low prices for everything, even when these low prices come at a high cost to the domestic labor force and increasingly high US trade deficit. We also are accustomed to things having short lifespans. We often don’t hold companies accountable when things break or when they’re made so cheaply – obviously engineered for obsolescence. Some barely flinch when buying the same object the second or third time around. (Some cell phones come to mind).

We try to meet demand without over-saturating the market.

Monome is clearly trying not to follow these practices by choosing not to overproduce. We try to meet demand without over-saturating the market. Short runs make sense to us. Our designs will hopefully survive and retain value. All of the inner-workings are publicly available so that in the case of trouble you can fix it yourself or find someone with the right skills who can. It’s an infinite warranty of sorts.

Monome 40h
monome 40h

I own a 40h and started using it for music production and live performances. Although it is in a way the most generic (or call it maybe “open”) piece of equipment I use, I can feel a noncomparable inheritance of “the monome idea” in every result. What do you think about that? Are many people telling you that?

I’m hoping “the monome idea” is that the device imposes no specific usage. There exists an unfortunate reality that buying a device is synonymous with buying a particular flourish or trick (like adding a lens flare in photoshop to your wildlife photo). “The monome idea”, i’m hoping, is the equivalent of exploring numerous possibilities while learning a bit more, adapting the device to your needs, and sharing your experience with others.

I’m certainly impressed with the monome user base and their continual support and invention. It keeps me very optimistic.

Did the monome concept in some way (re)(re)(re)refine your personal way to consider interface? Or your music production? Or your perception of music in general?

Absolutely. Now it’s time for us to start making art and music and film again. After we finish up the new series of devices, of course.

Brian Crabtree aka tehn am monome 256
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Oh, there are 6 comments so far

  1. [...] Ein Interview mit Kelli Cain und Brian Crabtree, den Designern des rasterbasierten Musikinterfaces monome. Autor: Christophe Stoll Datum: 9. July 2008 English version [...]

    Unser bester Schutz ist unsere Offenheit ∞ precious forever on 17. July 2008
  2. rock and roll is dead!!!
    monome lives!!!!!!!
    long live the kingdom!!!
    haha

    nic on 3. August 2008
  3. I’m waiting one of these for october
    I’m making a monome clone with RGB leds!

    long life to minimalism !!!
    long life to open source concept !!!

    http://www.julienbayle.net/diy/LiveInterface/

    julienb on 10. August 2008
  4. [...] but we should think about it more profoundly. An example that comes to mind is the monome (we did an extensive interview with monome founders Kelly Cain and Brian Crabtree in 2007). The monome is an open source hardware [...]

    Tablet Innovation Race II | precious forever on 3. January 2010
  5. [...] monome’s evolution since 2005 has been recorded over the years in various reviews and interviews, including these on cycling74, sound on sound, andprecious forever. [...]

    Monome | sloane on 4. May 2013
  6. Imperial Advance…

    “Our best protection is our openness” | precious, strategic design & visual language…

    Imperial Advance on 2. March 2015

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