Music for Drones: Week 1, Learning to Fly

christian.ryan and I, as citation:obsolete, are working on our #musicfordrones project. We received an internal grant from UNCC to purchase four Phantom quadcopter drones, some mics, and other related equipment. This summer we’re beginning the actual work on the project.

We’re in the very beginning of the project, the ‘sound research’ phase. Before we make any sort of compositions or choreograph any performances, we need to learn the medium. The medium, here, is the drones. So, last Saturday, we took two drones to campus and, through some trial and error, learned how to fly them.

We reserved a big auditorium in the art building, but soon learned that for clumsy novices like me, the more open Fretwell quad was a safer learning environment. We figure that relatively obstacle-free outdoor spaces are best for absolute beginners, and that it takes about two hours to get a fair working feel for piloting the drone. Christian was a much faster learner than I was, but then I don’t regularly play the kind of video games that would build the hard and soft skills you need to fly these girls. (I’m calling them girls because we’ve named them Deila, Wendy, Pauline, and Laurie, after Delia Derbyshire, Wendy Carlos, Pauline Oliveros, and Laurie Anderson.)

What I like about this video, which christian shot while he was flying the drone in the video, is that it combines the sound of the drone with the sound of Goodyear Blimp, which was flying overhead (probably on its way to the Coke 600 race; the Charlotte Motor Speedway is not far from campus).

You can also tell that the sonic experience of the drone depends a lot on your orientation to it (duh).

We made a number of compositional observations and came up with a number of questions:
  • We need to think more about how to exploit the tactility and material presence of the drone. For example, it creates an air current, which you can feel and see (e.g., in the grass or other foliage). Are there interesting relationships between the tactile and sonic experiences of the drones?
  • On the other hand, what’s the medium (the sound medium, the instrument, the tactility) from the drone’s perspective?
  • The drones can be confrontational–sometimes in ways that, from the operator’s perspective, feel playful (e.g., I chased some squirrells).
  • Is this concrete (i.e., musique concrete, in which we arrange and process prerecorded sounds) or is it performance? What happens when it is purely auditory, and what about the multisensoriality of it?
    • We agreed that there are probably several projects under the M4D umbrella: some pieces or movements might be more concrete-style, others more performance oriented. We like that the medium offers all these different possibilities.
  • Silence is going  to be a big part of it because it is a constant drone, having the silent moments is going to be necessary. Time to take a breath, etc.
    • Relatedly, movement is obviously one big source of sonic material. But what about waking the drones up, having them stand at attention (rotors on, but grounded and not moving)?
  • Is there a sonic difference btw left and right turns?
  • There is definitely a perceivable difference in pitch between descending (down pitch) and hovering.
  • How the hell do we notate this?
  • The proximity of the  listener to the sounds has to be a factor in the composition.
  • The perspective of the mic/listener changes the pitch and timbre of the sound. Spatial relationships affect timbre.

There are some technical questions and problems we need to figure out:
  • Piloting
    • Drift–If we’re flying outside, how do we get better about piloting through the drift?
    • Hovering– When it’s hovering how is it stable and not drifty?
  • The movement and the motion affects the battery life. Is there some sort of predictable scale or rate of battery usage? What is the minimum battery, the maximum, how far can you push it? (This is not something we can measure/calculate until we have the drones flying at full weight, with the mics.)
  • How long does it take to charge the batteries? How long from absolutely empty to full charge?

Next week, we plan to:
  • Start recording and or cataloging different sounds (develop the databank of sounds)
  • Figure out the range of the mics
  • Figure out what we don’t know and need to find out
  • Start by practicing some figures (like figure-skating figures—patterns for flying the drones)
  • For recording, deliberate categorizing of sounds needs to be done inside where we have control over the environment