Gamers tinker with power chords

Bands and DJs hack into video-game gear to create musical instruments and then perform live on stage - plastic axes sometimes backed up by real guitars.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    Plastic axes: The Guitar Zeros play rock concerts with two hacked Guitar Hero controllers.
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Next time you see someone on stage gripping a PlayStation controller, don't assume a video-game competition is about to start. It could be geek rocker Owen Grace, whose instrument of choice is the guitar-shaped control pad from the popular game series, Guitar Hero.

By hooking up the controller to his laptop and writing some code, Mr. Grace has turned the plastic toy into a full-on synthesizer. Now, with each button he mashes, the guitar howls like the real thing.

Grace, who rocks out beside a real drummer and singer, is in tune with a new wave of experimental music. Scores of amateur hackers have cracked open, reprogrammed, and commandeered video-game technology to create real-time original music.

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With the popularity and complexity of today's video games, millions of living rooms now have gear that can compete with the expensive gadgetry of early computer-music pioneers, says Richard Boulanger, a professor of music synthesis at Berklee College of Music in Boston.

He calls it the "controller revolution" – a proliferation of cheap, sophisticated sensors that allow for more clever tinkerers to synthesize and perform digital music than ever before.

Even though he's a classically trained musician, Dr. Boulanger pulls out video-game controllers during his Berklee classes and teaches the students to convert the devices themselves.

Grace and his band, the Guitar Zeros, encourage others to join the movement. Their website hosts step-by-step instructions for converting a Guitar Hero controller into a hacked ax.

"We get messages from young kids who are so fired up about seeing us and what we've done with the game," says band drummer Christian Marenbach. "It's so cool to think that maybe someone else is going to get involved with music [because of us]."

The appeal of these new ways of playing music extends beyond gamers.

While he doesn't care for video games, DJ Mark E. Moon says he instantly recognized that Nintendo's motion-sensitive Wii controllers offered a new interface for his electronic music. He's one of a disparate group of "Wii-jays" who discover and share ways to hijack the Wii components and use its motion controls to warp and build on their tunes.

"I love electronic music, but watching it is often really boring," admits DJ Moon.

Usually, he says, his brand of improvisational mixing and altering music just looks like a guy hunched over a laptop. But the Wii peripherals allow for more onstage flair and movement. Dancing and waving around the "Wii-mote," he says, is a spectacle far more fitting of him and his collaborators, the hyperactive hip-hop duo The Big Digits.

"There is a whole community of people hacking video-game controllers," Moon says, a fact that makes it ever easier for people to discover other alternative instruments and adapt them to their own purposes.

For old-school electronic musicians, it's rewarding to see young performers taking such an interest in digital synthesis, says Tom Lopez, professor of computer music and digital arts at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, in Oberlin, Ohio.

It also suggests a shift in music culture.

"As the more experimental work flows into popular music settings, we will see a boom of garage bands where at least one instrument is a hacked device," says Mr. Lopez. While still something of a novelty, game controllers could become the rock-group linchpin of the future, he says.

For now, bands like the Guitar Zeros won't deny they're unusual.

"If someone wants to call [us] a gimmick band, I'll take it," says Marenbach. But "there's so many people in the professional music industry that crank out stuff, and a lot of it is so boring, and then you just hear one thing that some goofball on MySpace did and it's really imaginative – and that is what I want to be engaged in."

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