Inspired by the many people he encountered at his mother's daycare center for severely disabled children when he was a youngster himself, multi-instrumentalist Dan Daily began working on a digital music system that anyone can play, regardless of ability or physical capability. Several prototypes later, along with some vital technical input from Lockheed Martin subsidiary Sandia National Laboratories, and MidiWing 1 is ready for release.

Learning to play traditional instruments like the guitar, piano or trumpet is tough. Throw in a physical disability to the already steep learning curve, and playing music becomes an activity reserved for the privileged few. Daily says that his MidiWing electronic instrument "reduces or eliminates the technical difficulties related to playing a musical instrument," while also opening up music creation to disabled players.

Six years after moving to Taos, New Mexico in 2000, Daily started working on a microcontroller-based system that sent hex commands based on the widely-used MIDI standard to a sound module or computer via USB, which subsequently converted the signal into synthesized sound output. After the first prototypes appeared in 2004, the project hit a development stumbling block when manufacture of the device's chip brain was halted and Daily didn't have the resources to seek out another for his next prototype.

A helping hand came in the shape of the New Mexico Small Business Assistance Program, which offers free technical assistance to small businesses. Daily was paired with Sandia microsystems/electrical engineer Kent Pfeifer, who luckily also had an interest in music.

"The idea was to build an instrument that has a whole bunch of different types of interfaces with the ability to run off a mouse, joystick or other kind of device that can be configured to the abilities of somebody with a disability," Pfeifer said. "You can play it with your mouth, your feet or a single hand."

Pfeifer took the basic MidiWing concept and developed a new chip that gave the instrument more inputs, more configuration options and more ways to control it – while also reducing the overall bulk.

The stand-alone MidiWing 1 includes a special interface with various inputs for hooking up switches, sensors and gizmos (joystick, mouse, slider/fader, pressure pad, for example) appropriate to the player's physical abilities, plus an amp/speaker combo and an onboard synthesizer. There's also a small box with three buttons to the top that works alongside whatever continuous controller the player has chosen to use, to grant users access to a digital vault packed with numerous sounds, timbres and tunings.

Where a traditional guitar requires the player to press down a finger at a certain position along the neck to produce a particular note, or the combination of skilled mouth and valve manipulation to create smooth wind instrument sounds, digital instruments don't need to follow a strict set of layout or note assignment rules.

"With traditional instruments, note selection is intricately connected to the way the instrument is devised," said Daily. "With electronics you can divorce those."

As such, MidiWing benefits from all that a traditional instrument has to offer, but with ergonomics which are purposefully simplified and controls that can be specifically adapted to the player. It also doesn't require the kind of intensive physical exertion associated with some traditional instruments, such as drums.

Pitch range can be widened or narrowed, depending on how challenging the player wants the experience to be, and the system is capable of simulating frequencies that are normally produced by musician technique – such as varying pressure of a player's lips on a brass instrument. Since the instrument is actually loosely based on a trumpet, music teachers can make use of existing pedagogy, and simple visual feedback is incorporated to help students better visualize the notes being played.

Daily has created a company called Musicode Innovations to bring his system – which includes proprietary software that caters for parameter adjustment and sensor/interface tweaks – to market, and sees MidiWing being particularly useful for schools, hospitals, therapy and rehab centers. Pricing for the MidiWing 1 starts at US$1,000. More instruments are currently in development.

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