Getting to Know SoundBeam

By James Frankel


Every summer, I present a session at the National Symposium of Music Instruction Technology (NSMIT) Conference, hosted this year at Illinois State University.  The conference is small, but the people who attend and present sessions have a true commitment to the effective use of technology in the music classroom.  Each year at the conference, new software titles and new MIDI devices are demonstrated, and each year, I get more and more excited by what I see.  The following is a description of one of the new technologies available for music educators to use in the classroom that was presented by Dr. Kimberly McCord of Illinois State University.




            While this company has been around for 10 years in England, it is still one of those best-kept secrets here in the United States.  SoundBeam is a device that converts physical movement into sound.  Using ultrasonic sensors, the SoundBeam system detects the speed, gate and distance of even the smallest movements you make with anything from a fingertip to your entire body.  These ultrasonic signals are converted by the SoundBeam controller into MIDI information that can then be processed by a sound module, keyboard, or sampler.  The controller itself does not make any sound, but it does allow the user to choose from one hundred different pitch sequences, each containing up to sixty-four notes.  The chosen pitch sequences are then sent via MIDI cables to a synthesizer and ultimately an amplifier so that the movement can be heard.  This might sound a bit confusing, so IÕll simplify:  (1) Plug up to 4 ultrasonic sensors into the SoundBeam.  (2) Plug the SoundBeam into a MIDI-compatible synthesizer.  (3) Plug the synthesizer into a speaker.  (4) Select the pitch sequence.  (5) Move.  Instant kinesthetic music.

The SoundBeam system was originally conceived to be used with modern dance performances in England.  It was soon realized by music educators that the system had the possibility for some powerful applications in the music classroom, specifically with special needs students.  Because the SoundBeam does not require the mover to have musical training (it only requires the ability to move Š even an eyebrow) the opportunity for students with special needs to create their own music is very real.  Because of the MIDI capabilities of the SoundBeam controller, it can even be hooked up to a notation program so that the studentsÕ movements can be converted directly into musical notation.  Pretty amazing. 

During the SoundBeam demonstration at NSMIT given by Dr. McCord, a video was shown that depicted special need adults and children with severely impaired motor skills making music with the SoundBeam.  The look on their faces was universally one of joy.  It should also be noted that every one of the conference attendees could at some point be seen moving their arms in front of the sensors and experimenting with the controller.  I was instantly reminded of the Theremin, the first music synthesizer that also converted movement to sound, except what came out of the speakers was much more exciting.

The cost of the SoundBeam system is expensive.  For the full system, costs without shipping are approximately $4000.00.  If you can provide your own amplification, synthesizer and cables, you can save about $1,000.00.  Although it is a bit pricey, I cannot recommend the system strongly enough.  It can be used with all students (and teachers) to provide them with an opportunity to make music in an entirely new way.