A Music Hack Day is unlike most other hackathons. There are no mega-prizes for the best hacks. There are no VCs wandering the hacker hallways trolling for the next startup. There are no briefs that describe the types of apps that you should build. Hackers don’t go to a Music Hack Day to win big prizes, or to launch their startup. Hackers go to Music Hack Days because they love music and they love to build stuff. At a Music Hack Day these passionate builders get to apply their talents to music, surrounded by like-minded peers and build their version of the future of music. The currency at a Music Hack Day is not money or VC attention, the currency is creativity. The Music Hack Day prize is knowing that you’ve built something cool enough to delight other music hackers.
So what happens at a Music Hack Day? How does it all work? What kind of hacks do people build? Read on to see exactly what happened at the Boston Music Hack Day 2013, held this last weekend.
Boston Music Hack Day
This weekend, hundreds of folks who are passionate about music and technology got together in Cambridge MA for Boston Music Hack Day 2013. The event was hosted at the Microsoft NERD - a wonderful facility that Microsoft makes available for all sorts of programmer events. Registration started at 9AM and by 10AM hackers were breakfasted and ready to go.
The event started off with some opening remarks by your truly, describing how a Music Hack Day works and how to have a successful event (meet other people, learn new stuff, build something, make sure you finish it, demo it and have fun).
Short technology presentations
Next up, organizations that had some sort of music technology such as an API or new gizmo that might be interesting to music hackers spent a few minutes talking about their technology. For many hackers, this was their first exposure to the music ecosystem – they don’t know what APIs are available for building apps so learning about music streaming APIs from companies like SoundCloud, Rdio and Spotify, and learning about all the music data available from APIs like The Echo Nest and the Free Music Archive is really important.
There were a few interesting devices available for hackers at the event. Techogym brought a high tech treadmill with its own API hoping that music hackers would build music-related exercise apps. Muzik brought a set of headphones that are instrumented with accelerometers and other sensors allowing for apps to adapt to the actions of the listener.
Sometimes hackers come to a Music Hack Day with ideas ready to go. Sometimes hackers come with their skills but no ideas. At the Project Pitch session, hackers had a minute to pitch their idea or to offer their skills. About 20 hackers braved the front of the room describing their idea or their skill set. One hacker described his project as help me with my homework (and yes, this hacker did find a teammate and they ultimately built a nifty hardware hack that satisfied the homework requirement too).
Tech Deep Dives
Next up on the schedule were the Tech Deep dives. Organizations had a half-hour to give a deeper view of what their technology is capable of. Some hackers want to know more about how to do particular things with an API or technology. This is their opportunity to find out all about the nuts and bolts, to ask questions from the experts. The Tech Deep Dives are strictly optional – many hackers skip them and instead start forming teams, sharing ideas, initializing their repos and writing code.
After all the preliminaries are over it was finally time to start hacking.
Hackers formed teams, large and small.
The competition for the best vest was fierce:
They staked out a comfortable workspace in chairs …
Or on the floor …
There were some very creative hardware hacks:
Plenty of good food
And lots of fun
The Microsoft NERD was only available until 9PM – after that we moved over to hack/reduce – a wonderful hacking space a five minute walk away. There we were greeted by a perfect hacking space with lots of great wifi, great hacker lighting, and lots of beer. Hacking continued all night. Some hackers did try to get some sleep (either at the hack, or back at home), but some hardcore hackers stayed the whole night.
By 9AM on Sunday morning, the hackers were back at the NERD, for lots of coffee, some breakfast and then more hacking.
At 2:30, hacking was officially over, and teams submitted their projects to Hacker League. Sixty hacks were submitted.
By 3PM the 200 hackers had all gathered back into the big room joined by a hundred folks who had come just to see the demo session. Hackers had two minutes to show their stuff. It is a hard demo to give. You are giving a demo of software that you’ve just finished building. It might have some bugs. The WiFi is a little flaky, you haven’t slept in 24 hours, your hands are shaking from too much coffee and too much nervousness, you have to type while holding a microphone and your laptop just won’t sync with the projector just right, and the audio isn’t coming out of the speakers, and the colors look all wrong on the screen. All in front of 300 people. I’ve done it dozens of times and it still is a really scary demo to give. But it is incredibly exhilarating too – to take nothing but an idea and turn it into something that can amaze or amuse a room full of tech elite in 24 hours. It is quite a rush.
There were two A/V setups so while one team was presenting, the next team was setting up. This allowed us to get through 60 demos in just over two hours. There was a very low incidence of demo fail. And only two inappropriate demos (one was a 2 minute powerpoint presentation with no tech built, the other was a 2 minute tech commercial for a product). I was worried that we might have a #titstare moment with one hack that seemed to contain questionable content but that hacker apparently decided not to present.
The 60 hacks represented a wide range of domains. There were games, music learning tools, programs designed to create, manipulate, remix and even destroy music. I’d love to cover them all, but there are just too many.
The full list is on hacker league. Here are some of my absolute favorites:
String Theory - A musical instrument and sound sculpture build from yearn and stretch sensors and powered by an Arduino.
The Lone Arranger - a terminal app that allows you to easily rearrange your audio. By a father and son hacking team.
The Secret History of Music - combs biographies, lyrics, and commentary from song meanings from two artists, combines them into one fictional artist, and uses Markov chain magic to generate a 50K novel about this new fictional band.
LED Soundsystem - this hack attempts to generate a light show synchronized to the music. It has a special place in my heart because the hacking team was working on the same problem I was working on for my abandoned hack – i.e. automatically finding the ‘drop’ in a song. Unfortunately, this team had a demo fail – but they are smart guys and I expect to see good stuff from them at the next hack day.
eHarmonica – an electronic harmonica!
Enter the dragon - In today’s world, everyone deserves a spectacular entrance. And we intend to give it to them. Enter the Dragon uses bluetooth technology to detect when a user enters the room and plays their personalized entrance music.
Dadabots - Dadabots are bot accounts on creative websites that make procedural creations or remixes of other creations
ios SoundPuzzle - A simple iOS ear training game built programmatically from the free music archive and the echonest remix api.
danceomatic – totally awesome automatic choreography from an mp3 and a web based stick figure performance.
Jotunnslayer – Never again listen to power metal without slaying ice giants. Die in battle. Earn your place in Valhalla.
Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death Metal - Political representation via musical exploration
Echos – Choose your favorite song and shoot to the beat! Fight enemies that respond to and are controlled by the music! Listen closely and experience unparalleled power as you get into the groove! Enjoy addictive arcade-style game-play in this twist on a classic formula.
TweetTones - a native iOS application that generates synthesized music from tweets in real-time.
Short-Attention Span Playlist Scanner - Glenn made a radio scanner that find and plays just the choruses.
ionian Eclipse - A web-based multiplayer top-down space shooter with procedurally generated enemies and interactions driven by music events.
ColorMe - Ever wondered what your music looked like? Now you can look at songs by your favorite artist with this super fun web app, powered by the Echo Nest.
How Repetitive - measures how often audio segments repeat themselves within in a given song.
Jason’s music visualizer - an html/css visualizer on steroids.
And last, but by no means least, Jonathan’s awesome MIDI Digester that converts audio to MIDI and back, over and over to generate some very strange sounds. The very essence of the music.
There are so many excellent hacks, I’m sure I’ve missed many notables. Luckily, Evolver.fm covered the event, so expect to see Eliot’s writups on all the best hacks on Evolver.fm.
At the end of the mega demo session, there’s a brief prize awarding ceremony where a half-dozen organizations give out modest prizes for hackers that made cool stuff using their tech.
Finally we adjourned to the local pub for some food, beer and hacking recaps.
Special thanks to the organizers of the event. The Music Hack Day would not happen without Elissa and Matt. They do all the hard work. Finding the venue, wrangling the sponsors and volunteers, making a mega Costco food run, dealing with the A/V, running the registration, selecting and hiring the caterers, designing t-shirts and so much more. There’s a huge amount of work that goes into planning the event, much more than meets the eye. Elissa and Matt are the unsung heroes of Music Hack Day. We should make a music hack to sing their song.
Thanks also to the event sponsors: Rdio, Spotify, Microsoft, hack/reduce, Free Music Archive, SoundCloud, Mailchimp and The Echo Nest, and the many volunteers who came and helped us run the whole show.
More Music Hack Days
Interested in going to a Music Hack Day? Check out the Music Hack Day calendar for upcoming events. There’s one in Helsinki this weekend, and there’s one in London in just a few weeks. More events are rumored to be in the planning stages for 2014.
(Photos mostly by Michelle Ackerman, a few by me)