A sound design: our clever inventors
Unexpected partnerships across the University campus are producing innovative and successful collaborations, as Evana Ho writes.
Back pain was the trigger for an ANU invention and cross-university collaboration.
You would just expect great things to happen – I think that’s what’s happened here.
The story began when saxophonist and School of Music lecturer John Mackey started playing the saxophone at age 12. He went on to accumulate the stress of more than three decades’ worth of 6–8 hour daily practices with 3kg of weight around his neck.
Around four years ago, he began experiencing pains during gigs. “Being male, I went, ‘I’ll be fine, it’ll fix itself’,” he says.
But it didn’t. “It kept getting worse and worse and after playing 10 or 15 minutes, I wasn’t able to stand up straight.”
His pain led him to the Research School of Physics and Engineering mechanical workshop. “I said, ‘I’ve got this problem – can someone help me?’” he says.
Technical officer Stephen Holgate is also a musician and understood the impact a musical instrument can have on the body. With his mechanical design background, he was able to offer a practical solution.
However, the list of requirements was long. This explains why what Mackey needed – and what would help so many other saxophonists – had yet to be invented.
“They hadn't gotten the mix right, in terms of the overall design and functionality of it, and the aesthetics,” Mackey explains.
“There are devices out there which you can place on a stand and play. But you're locked in to a certain position and most of the users will end up crouching over the stand to use it, which creates its own problems. And most of the products out there still have the body taking some part of the weight.”
The partnership between John Mackey and Stephen Holgate resulted in an ergonomic saxophone stand that ticked all the boxes – the stand takes the weight of the instrument entirely, while being lightweight itself.
It’s simple to construct – essentially two single pieces – but adjustable for saxophones of different weights and for players of different heights. Users have freedom of movement, and the stand blends in onstage.
The stand is being piloted by a number of saxophonists and has attracted the interest of researchers in Australia and overseas. It’s with an industrial design company at the moment, but Mackey is also waiting on more funding to take the stand to the next level.
“The long-term plan is to maybe set up a spin-off company that specialises in ergonomic aids for musicians,” he says.
In the meantime, he is able to play again for 8–10 hours a day. “I think if I hadn't asked for help I would’ve had to take prescription pain killers to enable myself to play,” he says.
“But luckily I didn't have to do that. Now, the only thing that gets tired is my lips.”
Reflecting on his collaboration with John Mackey, Stephen Holgate says: “I think it’s undervalued or underrated what can be achieved on a university campus when you have in one small area, a large collection of talented, intelligent people from different genres or different fields of expertise.“If you draw on all the skills and scope of what a university might provide, you would just expect great things to happen – I think that’s what’s happened here with this saxophone stand.”
We’re trying to build a better bridge.
Music for video games
Nearby on campus, academics have implemented a new program of cross-disciplinary collaboration between the Schools of Music, Art and Design, and Computer Science.
Music students are currently composing music and doing the sound design for video games created by students at the Academy of Interactive Entertainment in Canberra. However, what they’re learning goes beyond just creating the sound to accompany a product – they’re being equipped to play the role of both the audio producer and the programmer who codes the audio into a game.
This applies to generative music and non-linear sound – music and sound effects that respond to what the player in a game is doing or the situation they’re in.
Dr Alexander Hunter from the School of Music is a key figure in this new program.
“We’re trying to build a better bridge between what's going on in industry and what we're doing here, and not just shouting into a void or continuing to train people for something that either doesn't exist or exists much less predictably,” he says.
“If you get really good at sound design and, for instance, can make a convincing sword sound, that's interesting but it's not the part of the industry that's growing quickly.”
Knowing how to implement interactive music and sound effects in real time is the key to keeping students at the cutting edge, he says.
School of Art and Design Lecturer Dr Kit Devine had similar motivations in starting the Introduction to Virtual Reality course which intersects with the School of Music.
“I felt the price of entry to VR had dropped sufficiently that it was on the cusp of going mainstream,” she says. “And as VR moves into the mainstream, it represents jobs for students to do in a creative field.
“VR is inherently multidisciplinary and that is reflected in the enrolments in the course which includes students from Advanced Computing, Commerce, Design Arts, Engineering, Information Design, Music and Visual Arts programs at both the undergraduate and postgraduate level.”
One student, Zoe Tulip, blended the VR course with music by creating a virtual room with percussion instruments that players can hit to produce sounds.
The sounds were true to life – recordings Zoe had made of items in the School’s instrument room, which she hit with different implements.
“I would not have been able to create this without access to the School of Music, and I’m a lot further forward with my project as a result of the growing relationship between the two Schools,” she says.
A third school, Computer Science, has formalised its ties with Music and Art, opening up its TechLauncher initiative to both.
Among the projects is a ‘soundwalk’ mobile app being developed for Mulligan’s Flat Woodland Sanctuary by a team that includes third year Art student Whitley Rosenberg.