Music Tech Fest makes U.S. debut in Cambridge

music tech fest

In the spacious 11th floor of the Microsoft NERD Center, LJ Rich sat at a keyboard before a roomful of onlookers, all poised and waiting, with fragments of chocolate donuts in our hands.

On Rich’s cue, we popped the small confections in our mouths. As we chewed, Rich, who has “taste-chord” synesthesia, played arpeggios on the keyboard approximating what the taste of a chocolate donut sounds like to her: A pleasant major chord at first, moving into dissonance after a few seconds, before falling into the lower register and fading away.

“It tastes sweet, so it’s in a major key,” she said.

The demo of “Sound Bites,” as her hackathon project was called, was part of the Music Tech Fest, an international roving music technology conference that had its US debut in Cambridge this past weekend. The weekend-long fest featured a wide range of presenters, including established local outfits like the Together Fest and the Echo Nest, as well as nascent startups involved in every stage of music production, from improvisation to notation to distribution.

The centerpiece of the Music Tech Fest, though, was the hackathon, which began at noon on Saturday at NERD Labs and then migrated to Redstar Union for an all-night push, which included an impromptu jam session sometime in the wee hours of the morning, before culminating with demonstrations Sunday afternoon.

“Sound Bites” recommends music “pairings” according to the taste profiles of foods. Rich, a reporter and musician who was covering the Music Tech Fest for BBC Click, collaborated on the app with two other hackers. Other memorable projects were more physical: One was a fire baton with a built-in accelerometer, which modulated the tempo of musical accompaniment based on how fast it is twirled. Another, dubbed “the Hexidecipus” (i.e. like an octopus but with sixteen legs instead of eight), was a MIDI controller built on the cover of a sketchbook that had stripes of conductive paint wired to a circuit board.

The brainchild of New Zealanders Michela Magas and Andrew Dubber, the Music Tech Fest first took place in London in 2012. This year it went global – the Cambridge conference was the second installment of a world tour that began in Wellington, New Zealand, and will also visit Los Angeles, Paris, Berlin, and Brazil.

Nick Cox is a freelance writer who lives in Somerville.
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