Soundbeam is one of the most familiar forms of Accessible Music Technology. Originally developed by British composer Edward Williams for EMS in 1988, Soundbeam is a mature and robust system that has become a firm favourite amongst those working in SEND settings.
It’s a simple premise – when an invisible ultrasonic beam is broken by, say, a waving hand, the system senses the movement and triggers a musical sound. Notes of a musical scale are mapped along the length of the beam enabling the user to play glissandi as if on an invisible harp!
Soundbeam has been through a number of revisions since the early 1990s and the various older, discontinued models can still be found in schools and other settings.
You can find manuals and information about all the versions on the Soundbeam website.
The original Soundbeam in a beige, EMS-branded casing. The front panel housed the beam/sensor along with three rotary control knobs. The green Mode control enables the user to select the various Modes which determine how the Soundbeam behaves when the beam is broken whilst the white Transpose control changes the overall pitch of the musical output and the orange Range control sets the effective length of the beam.
Soundbeam 1 was a MIDI controller with no inbuilt sounds. Instead, it relied upon an external MIDI sound module or keyboard to produce the sound. A typical MIDI keyboard might use its own internal loudspeakers whilst a sound module would need to connected to a further amplifier and loudspeaker system in order to hear anything.
In addition to the front panel beam, Soundbeam 1 could be augmented by another Soundbeam Slave unit – or by the now familiar red, torch-like beam/sensor often mounted in a microphone stand for convenient positioning.
Whilst there may be few original Soundbeam 1 units still be used, its successor, Soundbeam 2 is far more widespread and may be the device which springs to mind on hearing the term “Soundbeam”. It’s certainly highly recognisable with its distinctive blue metal casing, yellow buttons and large yellow control knob.
Up to four beams may be plugged into a single Soundbeam 2 – each having their own discreet functions. Soundbeam 2 also introduced the idea of using Switches to access the musical material through a separate Switchbox which connects to the main unit and allows up to 8 switches to be plugged into robust 1/4” jack sockets.
One of the reasons for the popularity of Soundbeam 2 was the fact that, although it was highly customisable, it shipped with a number of preset “Set Ups” which enabled the user to immediately achieve some interesting and musical effects with little prior knowledge of musical theory.
Desktop Soundbeam provided the tech-savvy with a very flexible route into the world of Soundbeam. It was, essentially, a simple piece of Input/Output hardware which when connected to, and controlled by, Soundbeam software running on a standard Windows PC or laptop, afforded all the facilities of a Soundbeam 2 – and more besides. It was a cost effective solution as the “heavy lifting” was done by a computer typically already owned by the user – the Desktop Soundbeam hardware itself didn’t need the onboard computer power of its Soundbeam 2 sibling. The I/O unit enabled up to four beams and eight switches to be used simultaneously. In addition, the user was presented by an interface which could be navigated with a mouse and keyboard and allowed much greater instant visual feedback than could ever be provided through a small LED display.
Like the other Soundbeam units, the Desktop version could transmit MIDI to an external keyboard or sound module. However, running as it did on a standard Windows machine opened up the possibility of greater integration with other software and sounds could be generated from within a whole variety of virtual synthesisers and samplers.
The latest, current version of Soundbeam is an all-in-one device, needing only connection to beam/sensors and loudspeakers. It features built in sounds, session recording facilities and wireless switch connection.