Bert, as portrayed by Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, may have been the original one-man-band. His every movement synced with a horn blowing, a drum clanging, or a harmonica humming. Consider him the frontrunner to today’s electronica-enriched solo acts, like Andrew Bird or Panda Bear (Noah Lennox from Animal Collective), who can stand alone while invoking a chorus of sounds fitting of an ensemble, all with a few key pieces of technology.
But it’s no small challenge for an electronic musician to really give a compelling live performance when so much of the magic happens in the studio—"unlike a guitarist or vocalist who can command a stage and create a sense of visual drama," reasons Neil Merry, a recent graduate of London’s Royal College of Art. Merry not long ago stumbled across a BBC recording of the producer for Radiohead and Atoms for Peace that moved him to launch his own investigation. What if he could marry live human performance with the theatrical effects of light and sound, in real time?
Plug + Play was his answer. The portable kit includes four sensors that attach to any part of a live set: could be a guitar, a microphone, an arm. Each sensor then connects with standard music software to dictate a different light or sound action based on the performer’s movements, responding to up and down, left and right. Another tracking device, the "intimacy sensor," picks up on how close the performer is. The twist and slam sensors are somewhat self-explanatory. So imagine the slam sensor synced with the singer’s foot: One Chuck Berry-style duck walk would intuitively cue all the light changes. And the performer gets to choose and program each response sequence, so no two acts will be alike.
Merry’s kit is designed for small stages, which is perfectly intentional on his part. "Innovation in music and the creation of new types of sound," he says, "is coming as much from bedroom producers creating tracks on their laptops and tablet devices as it is from musicians who have spent years learning a particular instrument." Besides, ask Bert or Bird or Bear, and it’s an intimate crowd that every one-person act dreams of entertaining.