Systems designer Reek Havok unveils the amazing technology behind the scenes at the groundbreaking music museum.

Jump to music examples.

Every American city should be as lucky as Seattle—home to Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Heart, the world-class Seattle Symphony, a hip-hop heartbeat...and, since 2000, the Experience Music Project (EMP). This hands-on museum, nestled at the base of the Space Needle, provides a musical vision that stretches far beyond the emerald vistas viewable from atop that landmark tower.

EMP at Dusk
The Experience Music Project complex is easy to find. Just look for Seattle's Space Needle. (Photo: Lara Swimmer)

It's said that the futuristic flows and folds of the Experience Music Project contain enough steel to create a banjo string that would stretch all the way to Venus. It took visionaries like Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen to empower architect Frank Gehry to build it; it took someone like Hendrix to seed the sparks of that vision in the first place. Allen's initial inspiration for EMP was to gather the world's largest collection of Hendrix memorabilia, and he achieved that. But EMP soon expanded to become an interactive music wonderland bent on turning on every visitor to the magic of music.

Picture an 85-foot-high ceiling with swooping lines that hover above a cornucopia of musical delights. Six hundred instruments, embedded in the Roots & Branches Tree of Life, greet every visitor entering the site; extensive recorded sound, film, photograph, and stage costume archives line the pathways. Audio Technology Interactives, or "empowerment displays," embolden even the most sheepish. Sound Lab—EMP's futuristic hands-on studio wing—projects psychedelic graphics on the ceiling that pulse in tempo with the beats that visitors lay down at its altar, Jam-O-Drum.

Encircling Jam-O-Drum are a dozen acoustically isolated computer kiosks built around Line 6's Guitar Port digital amp simulator and accompaniment software. There are also three main musical instrument platforms, each with Line 6-amplified guitar, bass, keyboard, and drum areas for impromptu jams. Also onsite are the Compaq Digital Lab's endless feeds of audio and video clips on the history of music. A 200-seat performance stage hosts live shows, lectures, and film.

EMP Exterior
EMP's undulating folds suggest a curtain opening on a performance— a perfect fit for its mission of helping visitors play music.

The On Stage exhibit places wannabe vocalists, guitarists, bassists, keyboardists, and drummers before a very realistic virtual concert audience that worships their every note, move, and nuance. Deftly programmed banks of samplers center even the worst novice notes in an ongoing series of great live songs performed by "the band." The result is concert nirvana for the uninitiated.

Finally, Sky Church, a meeting place by day and performance center by night, is EMP's realization of a mythical place Hendrix himself once envisioned "where all people, regardless of age or interests, come together to celebrate music."

To get the story on the technology that makes this all possible, I spoke with Reek Havok, one of EMP's first interactive development specialists and now Senior Systems Design Engineer for Interactives at Vulcan Ventures, Allen's development company. Havok is also the technology lead for the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame, which is housed in the EMP building as well. His music background includes work as a sound designer, musician, composer, and consultant for Yes, ELP, and the electronic drum designers at E-mu and Dynacord.

"I'm still so proud of the work I did at EMP and of the millions of lives we've touched, sparked, or rekindled with musical inspiration there over the past four years," said Havok. "I can only hope that our visitors have as much fun with music as I do."


Reek Havok designed the technology that helps even novice musicians sound great.

The goal of the Experience Music Project was to get everyday people to appreciate the importance—and fun—of making and listening to music. What has the project accomplished so far?

The Experience Music Project is a one-of-a-kind destination. Sound Lab, in particular, allows our guests to understand the complexity of playing an instrument while hopefully providing them with a very accomplishable, enjoyable task: the thrill and satisfaction of playing music. Some of the bigger EMP successes, in my opinion, are the Mixing Interactive exhibits, where visitors get to touch a real Mackie mixer and play with the mix. As far as their appreciation of the art of making and mixing music goes, it's a real eye opener for them.

It's very interesting to see how intense some of the visitors get around the activity of mixing a song. They really try hard to make a great mix. I'd love to be able to take this activity to the next level. The Mixing Interactives also give EMP's guests a chance to become more aware of other ways in which they can become part of the music industry via the recording process without necessarily becoming a musician.

The names of some of EMP's interactive exhibits, like Drum Robot and Jam-O-Drum, indicate that you expected the visitors to have a great time. How did that work out?

We made a few tweaks here and there after opening to improve the visitor experience. We made some of the physical attributes of the Sound Lab exhibits a little more robust. I think we've opened the eyes of a few instrument manufacturers as to the durability of their products and hopefully offered some great insight into improving their software and instrument designs. I still hear stories about people bringing their friends, brothers, sisters, or cousins to EMP and having the exhibits inspire them enough to eventually go out and buy an instrument. Some other visitors start playing again after years of musical abstinence.

EMP's On Stage area must be an interesting study in human behavior. What's a typical person's reaction to getting up there and jamming with the songs on stage?

On Stage is still one of my personal favorites. I love to watch the expression on people's faces as they come off stage. They understandably get stage fright up there, especially the non-musicians, even though there's not a real person in the virtual audience we project before them. That speaks pretty well for the job our team did on nailing this experience. Brad Purkey and the other Sound Lab techs have added a variety of new songs, too, so people keep coming back to try out the new tunes. They have the choice of whether to use the automatic pitch-correction feature, so we even have experienced musicians stopping by.

But you've also developed technology called Cross Jam that enables visitors to jam with each other. How does that work?

Cross Jam occurs on "instrument trios" stationed around Sound Lab. For each instrument in a trio, there are a few different activities each visitor can select, including "Just Play." In Just Play mode, they have the opportunity to play with any of the other two instruments in a given trio of visitors at each station. I figured out how we could do that using the auxiliary outputs and MIDI controls of a Yamaha 01V mixer to give each visitor control of their individual area. Our friends at Quatrefoil programmed it for us using the 01V's onscreen faders.

Reek Havok inspects the neon

A few years ago, EMP's Sound Lab adopted Propellerhead Reason for many of the interactive exhibits. Is Reason still the main software platform?

Sound Lab itself hasn't changed much since opening. The staff there still uses primarily the same gear we opened with, and everything is still working very well in accomplishing our goals with the visitors. Reason was one of the tools we were looking at for new exhibits as well because it's very versatile and doesn't eat up a lot of CPU power. I still really like Reason. I've been exploring new technologies, and if we were to build Sound Lab today, it would be far simpler and more compact.

Paul Allen has a history of pushing the music-technology frontier through projects such as Interval Research. What's next for EMP?

The advances in software-based instruments and networked audio gear over the past four years have been amazing. I've designed some preliminary prototypes for a new gallery, which may unfold over the next year or two, but I'm not yet at liberty to give any information about it.

For you as a musician, what are the most positive influences technology has had on making, recording, and performing music?

I am so excited about the power I have in my studio. After Opcode Systems and Vision [the once-leading Macintosh sequencer program] died, I switched to Steinberg's Cubase SX 3, which is nothing short of amazing. It's a non-stop orgy of creativity and control I could have only dreamed of even a few years ago. On the virtual-synthesizer side, I've got more Steinberg VST instruments, including Hypersonic and X-Phrase, which I use for making this wild 8-channel effect I perform in the Science Fiction museum. I also just added the Korg Legacy collection of soft synths, which emulate the classic Korg MS-20, Poly 6, and Wavestation synths. The package includes the USB-powered MS-20 controller, which is about three quarters the size of the original Korg synth keyboard. For me, it's another "got to have it" item.

And the worst effect of technology on musical creativity?

The drawback of technology is that it's addicting—just ask my accountant! But seriously, I consider myself very well versed technologically and feel sorry for the musicians just starting off with so many choices before them. It also can get complicated and put a huge damper on creativity when it's not working right. But on the other hand, technology opens the doors to amazing creative places. The Macintosh OS X platform has helped tremendously with stabilizing the home studio and music-creation environment, and though it's not crashproof, it's pretty darn stable. Even with my very elaborate system, OS X is a very reliable platform from which to create music.

EMP purple
If the metal in the EMP were stretched into wire, it would reach to Venus. (Photo: Lara Swimmer)

Pages: 1, 2

Next Pagearrow