Digital lead: SoundLab for Heart n Soul

The creative challenge

Unthinkable has been working with the amazing arts organisation Heart n Soul for some time. We’ve helped the organisation move digital technology to the centre of what they do, particularly in their approach to music making and how to make it more accessible to people with learning disabilities. When Nesta, Arts Council England and AHRC got together to create a new fund designed to support digital R&D projects in the arts, we knew we should put together a proposal. The proposal process took around nine months, during which we further cemented a partnership between Heart n Soul, the Department of Computing at Goldsmiths University and the games development company Public Domain Corp.

Unthinkable were responsible for defining the project and then leading it if we won the funding, which happily we did. The primary aim of the project was to identify which digital music technologies can best help people with learning disabilities to make the music and sound they want. People with learning disabilities continue to be isolated and excluded from mainstream society, despite the desire to be better connected. The SoundLab project looked at how we can improve the expressive potential of affordable digital tools (e.g. mobile phones) so that people with learning disabilities are included, empowered and able to live more independent creative lives.

This video conveys some of the flavour of the project – playful, inventive and expressive.

Our approach

The central activity of the project was to design a series of SoundLab workshops to be delivered over the course of a year that brought the team together through research and co-design processes to create four outputs. We created the SoundLab guide website to provide information on the best technologies and approaches to music making for people with learning disabilities. It is a practical resource for music makers, teachers, music facilitators and arts organisations aimed at helping to create great digital music making experiences. We were extremely pleased that our guide won Best SEND Resource award at the Music Teacher Awards For Excellence 2016.

We worked closely with Public Domain Corp and Goldsmiths to coordinate the development of two new pieces of software. The SoundLab Device Mapping Framework, or DMF, is a programming library that was developed during the project that is designed to make it easier to integrate and configure various off-the-shelf devices within a piece of music software, commonly called a Digital Audio Workstation.

We decided to test the use of our new Device Mapping Framework by creating a SoundLab App with it. The team built a native Mac OSX program that allows real-time physical control of Ableton Live, a very popular music making application. The first version of the software was designed to work with the Sony Playstation Move Controller, which we chose because it is cheap, highly available and easy to use. The SoundLab App enables the Move Controller to control playback and selection of individual tracks, and the ability to adjust and ‘live-remix’ effects on those tracks while playing, using a simplified interface.

The SoundLab Play Space event

Throughout 2015 work continued to raise awareness of the project’s outputs and findings, culminating in an innovative learning event in November 2015 on which we collaborated with Nesta. We created an event that was inspiring and useful for diverse audiences and participants, including people with learning disabilities interested in how they can make music with digital technologies, music technologists, arts organisations and music teachers and facilitators. We chaired a discussion panel with Lilly Cook from Heart n Soul that looked at some of the big questions around designing inclusive music making technology.

Now in 2016 we are just starting an exciting new venture to develop a new type of SoundLab event that software and hardware developers can learn from to improve their designs and user experience.