During my final year at the RCA, I focused on product design for learning and music. A lot of work in interface design for music tends to be preoccupied with designing ‘experiences’ for people who may not consider themselves naturally musical. I think most of this work has very little to do with music at all. Maybe a better approach starts by asking how we consider ourselves musical or not in the first place.

I starting learning the trumpet at 10, and I remember playing video games far more than practicing. With games, I would spend hours learning sequences of carefully-timed keypresses, timing jumps or special moves, honing my hand-eye co-ordination. With musical practice, I was doing a lot of the same physical things, but it was deathly boring. Games offered instant, short-term gratification, but the deeper, more satisfying rewards of musical practice took years to form.

This was my starting point. Is there a space between musical practice and video games? Can it enhance the experience of both? I set out to design and make a video game and set of controllers specifically for beginner brass players.

The game uses familiar Bemani conventions – play your part correctly (as dictated by the coloured lines scrolling past), and the brass band stays in time and together; play it wrong and they drop their instruments, walking off in disgust.

The main difference between this game and other Guitar Hero-style games is that the keypress combinations and theme music melody are directly mapped to a real instrument – the idea being that by playing the game, you are also learning a fingering pattern to play the theme tune on a real instrument.

The game design is based on a traditional Whit Friday brass band march contest held in villages in the north of England every June. I arranged the in-game music. It’s a Nintendo-style chiptune arrangement of one of William Rimmer’s most famous marches – Punchinello. You can listen to the whole tune here.

I built the game in collaboration with the wonderful Henry Holland. I looked after the graphics, animation and music, and he looked after the more complex timing and event handling stuff.

The larger instruments were painted wooden models, but I built a working cornet prototype, with a lot of help. The main body was cast polyurethane rubber, with turned aluminum and acrylic valves, hooked up to microswitches which generated the keypresses inside the game.

finished polyurethane cornet cornet valves

The electronics are simply switches (later upgraded to fancier microswitches by Hugo Elias at Shadow Robot) which generate keypresses to trigger events inside the game.

testing pcb

The project won first prize in the Conran Foundation Awards at the Royal College of Art show in 2006.