So, you want to start a laptop orchestra?

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JUST STARTING THIS (November 2008); will be fleshed out over the coming months

Really? First, are you SURE you want to start a laptop orchestra? However wonderful and fascinating it may be, it is also a serious PAIN. So, read no further if you are already dissuaded.

The main issues to consider are the following: speakers; laptops; sensors and controllers; how to sit or stand; and software choice and configuration. We’ll go through these in order, with some discussion about choices we’ve made and experiences we’ve had. PLOrk.


  • built-in laptop speakers. These are too soft for most applications, but quite useful for development; sometimes it's just nice not to have to set anything else up! Nic Collins made an effective piece for PLOrk using just these, which allows the PLOrkers to walk freely with their laptops while playing. It is even possible to explore many of these pieces with an iMac lab, simply using the iMac speakers; hard to take it out and perform with it, but it is at least possible to get a sense of it and even teach/learn with it.
  • regular small studio speakers. This is the easiest way to get started and have a full sound. However, they can be problematic; where do you face them? It can be hard for each player to hear what they are doing, and they don't blend as well with one another or with acoustic instruments. Which leads to....
  • hemis. See Alternative Voices for Electronic Sound. for the original paper arguing the virtues of this approach. Basically, the idea is to have an instrument-like sound source for each player, a source which fill the room like acoustic instruments do, nullifying the "monitor" issue and creating an natural ensemble sound.
    • Electrotap makes both mono and 6-channel hemispherical speakers. These are based on designs originally developed at Princeton (see history here, link coming), and formed the basis for the original "Classic" PLOrk design. Until 2009 we used th 6-channel hemispheres, amplified with Stewart DA70-4 and DA70-2 amplifiers. Find a complete description of this original setup here. Mono hemis are simpler for the obvious reason that only a mono-amp is required. 6-channel hemis are more fun, and offer a lot of spatialization possibilities.
    • it's possible to make something like this yourself; possibly an interesting collaborative project with engineering students. check this out!.
    • we here at the behemoth known as PLOrk are currently rebuilding all of our systems so they are smaller and self-contained, with embedded amplifiers. See a first pic of them under construction and use at Carnegie Hall. slork has been doing something similar.
    • spherical/hemispherical history page
  • with all of these, we've found that it's important to design things with as few cable to plug in as possible. The less to plug in, the less to break, and less time to set up, and so on. We'll include diagrams for some of the cables we've used soon.


We just use MacBooks. The cheapest offer more than enough horse-power for most things, in our experience. The Oslo Laptop Orchestra (OLO) is exploring using very small (10") Windows-based laptops; we look forward to seeing/hearing how that works out. Probably too painful for us.

Sensors and Controllers


  • pillows
  • stands/chairs


  • ChucK. This is what we use most. Free. Great for teaching (especially with the miniaudicle). Easy to distribute. Easy to learn for those who already code, and a fun way to learn about programming in general. Unoptimized. Definitely not bug-free.
  • max. We use this a lot. Definitely Not Free. Great documentation. Graphical programming language can be more intuitive for some.
  • pure-data. a free, open-source version of Max/MSP. Not so great documentation. But it's free.
  • SuperCollider. We've done a couple pieces with this. Mature and optimized (unlike ChucK, which is delightfully unoptimized and immature), but steep learning curve.
  • Processing. we use this a lot for building graphical interfaces; lots of great examples to work from.
  • the PLOrk Rep: a collection of now standard PLOrk rep pieces, with machine configuration instructions, and all the basic software we use (in progress)!

How Big?

How Big Should Your LOrk Be? As big as you can budget for! Dang, are we helpful of what? Four is a small but reasonable starting place (Westchester University started with four, including hemis and all). A quartet allows for experimentation with lots of interesting ensemble issues, and pieces developed for quartets can often be scaled to larger ensembles. We here at PLOrk central have done many concerts with 6 PLOrkers. Six already feels much larger than four, and offers more options for networking relationships and a fuller, more textural sound. Still not really "orchestral" and it can be tricky to get lots of students involved, but on the flip side it is much easier to maintain and administer a smaller group and set of technology like this. Fifteen is the original PLOrk size. Definitely feels and sounds orchestral in size, even if it seems numerically like a small orchestra. Can be a lot to administer, but we're learning how do distribute that as much as possible; the more the students learn about how to handle their machines and the hardware, the better. With our new smaller speakers, we are currently aiming to reach into the 25-40 realm. We are terrified. Wish us luck. Laugh all you want.



  • please list questions here, or email us [dtrueman at princeton dot edu] and we'll try to add answers to this page as best we can.