Good Thinking

Bash out an email with the MIDI drum keyboard

Alec Smecher has created a text input system that translates combinations played on a digital drumkit into onscreen characters in a computer program such as a word processor
Alec Smecher has created a text input system that translates combinations played on a digital drumkit into onscreen characters in a computer program such as a word processor
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At the heart of Smecher's MIDI drum keyboard system is a Pintech digital drumkit with a Yamaha DTX drum trigger brain
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At the heart of Smecher's MIDI drum keyboard system is a Pintech digital drumkit with a Yamaha DTX drum trigger brain
The Pintech digital drum rig with character set
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The Pintech digital drum rig with character set
The off-the-shelf MIDI-to-USB adapter used to connect the brain of the digital drumkit to a laptop running custom code
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The off-the-shelf MIDI-to-USB adapter used to connect the brain of the digital drumkit to a laptop running custom code
Smecher's character set was designed in Rosegarden and formatted with Lilypond
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Smecher's character set was designed in Rosegarden and formatted with Lilypond
Alec Smecher has created a text input system that translates combinations played on a digital drumkit into onscreen characters in a computer program such as a word processor
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Alec Smecher has created a text input system that translates combinations played on a digital drumkit into onscreen characters in a computer program such as a word processor
The character set is a mix of Morse Code, the QWERTY keyboard layout, sound puns, economy of motion and letter shapes
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The character set is a mix of Morse Code, the QWERTY keyboard layout, sound puns, economy of motion and letter shapes
The custom code that translates the various drum combinations into characters on a computer screen
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The custom code that translates the various drum combinations into characters on a computer screen

As input methods like the Gauntlet, Kee4, ASETNIOP and the back-type prototype from AlphaUI effectively demonstrate, there are many novel ways to enter text into a computer system. I'll wager that few (if any) Gizmag readers would consider using a set of drums to type out messages, though. But that's precisely what Alec Smecher has done. He readily admits that it's not the most practical typing solution but it is helping him to hone his skills as a bucket banger.

"For this project, like pretty much everything else I've made, practicality is not foremost on the list," the drummer with The Elixxirs and dedicated Free Geek IT recycler told us. "I was amused by the idea and interested in the transfer of skills across media that would be impossible without computerization ... plus improving my drumming by typing an email seems like a pretty weird possibility."

The character set is a mix of Morse Code, the QWERTY keyboard layout, sound puns, economy of motion and letter shapes
The character set is a mix of Morse Code, the QWERTY keyboard layout, sound puns, economy of motion and letter shapes

At the heart of Smecher's MIDI drum keyboard system is a Pintech digital drumkit with a Yamaha DTX drum trigger module that's connected to a laptop via a MIDI-to-USB adapter, plus a little bit of coding magic to translate the various drum combinations into characters on a computer screen. He told us that the "character set was cobbled together from several sources."

"Foremost is Morse code: E and T are single-pad patterns, other infrequent ones like W, X, and Z are more complicated," said Smecher. "I learned Morse code as a kid while earning my HAM license, and I admit that I doubted I would ever use it. Finally, I'm proven wrong."

"Another source was QWERTY keyboard layout. For example, the spacebar is the kick pedal – right at the bottom of the keyboard. Backspace involves the top-right cymbal pad (with a kick pedal thrown in; backspace isn't so commonly used as to deserve its own pad). A third source was sound puns. S, for example, is two cymbals at once; T is a single hit on the hi-hat."

"A fourth source was economy of motion; common motions in drumming (for what I play, anyway) are snare/cymbal and foot/cymbal combinations and naturally those will be easy to remember and play. The last source is letter shapes; X, L, Y, U, and others suggest the shapes of the letters."

To fire a capital letter, Smecher simply repeats the same character pattern at speed. The tempo setting on the DTX brain can also be adjusted to accommodate improvements in overall typing speed.

Smecher's character set was designed in Rosegarden and formatted with Lilypond
Smecher's character set was designed in Rosegarden and formatted with Lilypond

Smecher reckons that the source mix works pretty well, but he may have to fine-tune a few characters to improve "typing" efficiency (the letter J, for instance, is said to be proving particularly annoying at the moment due to a worn floor tom pad that's hard to trigger).

At the moment, the MIDI drum keyboard doesn't require much in the way of error checking as "the digital drum brain does a fairly good job of de-bouncing the pads, and unrecognized symbols are ignored. I added a threshold minimum below which the pad is not considered to be triggered, as there is some crosstalk (mostly mechanical, where hitting one pad accidentally triggers an adjacent one because of the vibrations). Mis-recognition of patterns hasn't been a problem."

"I didn't code any predictive or corrective capabilities either (beyond backspace) because they haven't been necessary so far, and also because I hate being second-guessed while I'm typing. I have another small project which explored this. You give it a piece of text and it'll tell you how T9 might possibly misunderstand it. For example, I type well enough so please don't correct me might come out as I tyre yell enough so em Nov correct of".

Midi Drum Keyboard

Smecher told us that he's hoping to demonstrate the system at his exhibit at next month's Vancouver East Side Culture Crawl but will need to get in some serious practice beforehand.

It may not be the most intuitive text input method we've featured in Gizmag, but it looks to be a good way to improve speed reading of drum notation and may even help with dexterity, too.

Future tinkering could result in songs with secret messages hidden within drum patterns, timed output signals being sent to a speech synthesizer that allow the drummer to actually talk to the audience, or the sending of commands to a synth controller from the drums during a set.

Source: Free Geek Vancouver Volunteer Blog, Alec Smecher

1 comment
Fritz Madden
So is this opensource? I WANT THE CODE. I'm sure we could write some sort of driver that would treat it like a normal keyboard and work with any application that will run on the platform.
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