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Launchpad Pro A Hackers Dream

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Launchpad Pro: A Hacker’s Dream

Here at Novation, we’re proud to have some seasoned hackers in our midst. They’re the ones who spend their time coding, programming and debugging, and creating new ways of doing things which, eventually, helps to shape the way you make music. Novation’s Hacker-in-Chief (Head of Product Innovation) Dave Hodder explains the often-intimidating world of Hackathons and how spending a day locked in a room of fellow ‘hax0rs’ can lead to concepts such as the open-source functionality of the new Launchpad Pro.

To the best of my knowledge, it all began with those hackers that we used to be scared of. The kind of people who played War Games, who cracked and distributed software, p33ple wH0 L0veD 2 rit3 liKe th15. And a few who wrote elaborate manifestos about how “information wants to be free”. Which, of course, justified breaking the copy protection on a ZX Spectrum game made by a couple of teenagers in their bedroom.

Behind the high-minded screeds, it was really all about a competition to be the best. Be the fastest, most artful, most ‘3l33t’ at cracking games. One group would attempt to outdo the others by being first, by creating the best ASCII art, and then by adding increasingly complex ‘demos’ to the loading screens of the games they cracked.

They loved the intellectual challenge of building incredible graphics and sound into the minuscule memories of the hardware of the day. Some lost interest in cracking, maybe they even grew up and got day jobs making software. And they had parties. A roomful of PCs, pizzas and the rest: entire weekends spent with bleary eyes, creating increasingly beautiful electronic art. For me, the scene is exemplified by Poem to a Horse by Farbrausch. You can watch it on YouTube, but for true geek points, track down the original demo (Windows only) and think about how they generate over six minutes of eye-popping video, music and text from just 64kB. Then consider this JPEG of cats in trees, which weighs in at 66kB:

The six-minute long Poem To A Horse by Farbrausch (top) was just 64kB in size: 2kB lighter than this 66kB JPEG of cats in a tree.

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In parallel to the demoparty scene, LAN parties grew and overlapped. Increasingly accessible, and increasingly socially acceptable, groups of gamers and coders gathered and did their favourite things into the small hours. Collaboration and competition flourished together, both in multiplayer FPS games and in coding.

In the wider world of software development, the tools were getting simpler and more accessible. Frameworks and languages exploded, and a generation of children raised on cracked ZX Spectrum software got into programming. Perhaps the hacker manifestos were right.

Facebook made the hackathon famous, as depicted in The Social Network. In this case, a high pressure job interview epitomising Mark Zuckerberg’s move-fast-and-break-things philosophy; the Like button even originated at an internal hackathon. Other companies saw the potential, and started organising hackathons for various reasons: internally, to foster innovation and teamwork; externally, to promote customisable products, to engage with customers, to recruit, or to improve security.

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Now, every online service company has an API (Application Programming Interface) and encourages people to use it. Music Hackday is a great example; at a typical MHD, hacks will combine Spotify, Soundcloud, Musixmatch and more to deliver interesting web applications and amusing concept art. Often at the same time! Johnny Cash Has Been Everywhere sums this up, with humour, complex API mashup and art.

Then Arduino (and it’s many siblings) came along and opened up the world of hardware hacking, which until that point had tapped into existing computing devices, be they PCs, games consoles or other existing hardware platforms. Arduino is an open-source development platform for embedded projects — things that live away from your computer — which can easily connect to other things, such as switches, lights, computers and so on. And, whilst circuit bending had always been moderately accessible to those with minimal electronics skills, the open source, low-cost ARM module made creating unique hardware hacks dramatically easier. These days, hackdays like MIDI HACK — a large hackathon that has taken place twice, in Stockholm and Berlin — are as much about hardware as they are software.

Scenes of focus from MIDI HACK, Stockholm, 2014. (Pictures: Lewis Flude)

Imaginative combinations of junk hardware and modern prototyping kit integrate with the software equivalent of Arduino: Pure Data / Processing / Max MSP. These visual development tools make programming intuitive to those who already understand signal flow in a DAW or studio. Suddenly, custom MIDI->Audio->Video applications can be built in a similar fashion to the construction of a complex Ableton Live set!

An interesting twist on the hackathon approach is Beat Camp, which is essentially a hackathon for music makers. Exactly the same principles apply: collaboration, timeboxing and the unexpected results they engender. The Beat Camp team try to make the event as smooth as possible, by vetting applicants and matchmaking before the day. (Full disclosure: Focusrite & Novation sponsor Beat Camp. If you can get to London, come along!)

So how does a typical hackathon run? Usually over a weekend, they begin with presentations from the sponsors, who have technology to pitch to hackers. “Here’s our new API, see what you can build with it…” They will often offer prizes, ranging from software licenses to hardware, and even cash! Sometimes there’s an opportunity for teams to form, by pitching ideas for hacks and asking for help. Then there’s usually 24 hours of hacking, punctuated by food, coffee, occasional sleep and downtime.

But don’t expect a hassle-free hangout at a hackathon: at some point in the evening, work will need to be torn up and began again. Equipment will fail. Good ideas turn to dust. But that’s all part of the fun! The trick is catching yourself before the despair sets in, salvaging the seed of an idea that makes sense, and getting back to work. The bliss of knowing exactly what you need to do and having the tools and support to do it makes it all worth while.

At the end, it’s the demo session, where many hacks have to be shown off in a short time. Demos are hard, especially if you’re using the internet or new technology, or if your hack is complex. Three minutes to explain how you’re harvesting data from an EEG sensor to turn it into music? Not going to work, but you can try! It’s never easy to tell how much is new or unique about a particular hack, so judging is particularly agonising. Usually things will finish with announcement of winners and prize giving by the sponsors, and hopefully a great closing party. Not much beats Music Hackday Barcelona, as it’s the SONAR festival!

There is a darker side to the hackathon. Competing for prizes doesn’t necessarily encourage collaboration, or risk taking. The macho ‘stay up all night hacking’ mentality alienates some, and as a result, hackathons are still primarily attended by young men. Some sponsors attempt to claim ownership of intellectual property, whilst hackers are often blissfully unaware of the value of their work. In my experience, the best hackathons unite people from around the world, sharing the joy of building cool stuff. We programmer types are often introverts, at least until someone gets us talking about the Web MIDI API or Angular.js, then our eyes light up. Small prizes show that sponsors value our work, without dividing loyalties. Codes of conduct reinforce decent behaviour by all.

Hackathons can be intimidating, even for experts. A roomful of smart people is always a little scary, but in a good way. Remember that there’s bound to be something that only you can uniquely do. Maybe you’re the only person in the room who knows about OSC and machine learning and Balinese Gamelan, and there’s never a better time to combine them than a hackathon. However, if 24 hours of hacking puts you off, there’s also the Hackspace: regular local meetups organised with a similar mentality, but without the pressure to complete to a deadline (and often, without the corporate sponsorship). A bit of Googling will almost certainly turn up something near you, and if you arrive eager to learn you’ll find a warm welcome.

I mentioned Novation’s involvement in Beat Camp, the music-making hackday in London, but hacking concepts are also at the heart of our new innovations at the company. Hacking, in the original computer-nerd sense of the word, means making a system do something it was never intended to do, and some of the most fun you can have at hackathons is by customising things to do something unexpected. When we were designing Launchpad Pro, we wanted to let people do exactly this, after our experience with the original Launchpad community, who had embraced custom setups with gusto. The original Launchpad lends itself nicely to hacking, as you can do whatever you like by writing apps for the host computer or mobile device (as it only ever works when connected in this way). The simplicity of the device, and the clarity of the programmer’s reference made it a great platform to build on. However, Launchpad Pro can run as a MIDI controller without a host computer, so to customise its behaviour in this mode requires being able to modify the firmware! (Open firmware has been our parking lot for all the fantastic ideas the development team have come up with since we first started the project. The stuff that we knew would be awesome, but we couldn't justify for the majority of customers.)

Launchpad Pro in its element at MIDI HACK 2015. (Picture: Sebastian Höglund)

Launchpad Pro in its element at MIDI HACK 2015. (Picture: Sebastian Höglund)

At the most recent MIDI HACK, which took place at Ableton HQ, Berlin in May 2015, we realised just how much fun you could have with a standalone Launchpad Pro and a Meeblip Anode, and we were desperate to get some sequencing functionality working. However, seeing all the talented hackers around us, it was clear that the best thing to do would be to enable them to do it. Since then, we've put most of our efforts into making the learning curve as simple as possible. Minimal tools to install, no additional hardware to buy, keeping low-level complexity hidden away, writing good documentation, and so on. Hopefully this will be a useful starting point, allowing people to make sequencers and chorders, make custom controllers for MIDI hardware, and... well, hack with it and do things we haven’t even thought of!

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If you’re interested in finding out more, I’m writing a developer blog here, though I’ll warn you that it’s full geek mode. This is a great starting point to get into hacking Launchpad Pro. And remember, you can easily revert to factory settings if you mess it up!

My dream is to be part of a community of people creating Launchpad Pro ‘apps’, each doing something interesting and unique. It's possible that someone could build a platform on top of the open firmware, perhaps even including a desktop editor for customising it...


Author Dave Hodder (left) and Novation’s Alex Lucas deep in the hack zone. (Picture: Sebastian Höglund)