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Laptop Ensemble v1.1

The highly powerful personal computer, specifically the laptop, due to its portability, has revolutionized music creation in recent years. Advanced software and hardware provide nearly limitless possibilities that rarely tap all of the computer's processing power. Even with complicated musical operations, modern computers operate with speed to spare.

Although computers have simplified musical processes from notation to digital signal processing, they have yet to fully permeate live performance idioms, specifically in an ensemble setting. The main reason for this reluctance to incorporate computers into live ensembles is the technical overhead required to execute meaningful and convincing live electronic music. Whereas two acoustic instruments only require a physical tune-up if anything, two or more computers can run into software or hardware incompatibilities and require specialized code to communicate. The difficulty of the technical aspect of laptop music has the capability of defeating any creative urges in dealing with such an ensemble.

Laptop music is not an unattainable goal, however. The Princeton Laptop Orchestra (PLOrk) is a highly-successful ensemble of laptops, composed of fifteen performers. The only downside to PLOrk is that it is not an easily re-created experience. Hundreds of thousands of dollars of funding have gone into the creation and upkeep of PLOrk, alowing it to have unified hardware and software setups. Much of the software used for PLOrk is either commercially available or free, but it is generally difficult for the non-programmer to digest.

The primary goal of this software was to create an extensible framework for laptop ensemble music that allows non-programmers and programmers alike to benefit from the joys of collaborative laptop performance. This turned into a cross-platform peer-to-peer networking and data routing application geared toward the creation of music, simply named Laptop Ensemble. This application, programmed with Cycling 74's MaxMSP, is open-source and is distributed freely.


The Laptop Ensemble software interface.

For this software to work properly, you will need a few things:

  • A PC or Mac computer (1.5Ghz or greater should be sufficient)
  • A USB Webcam (install it before running Laptop Ensemble)
  • The MaxMSP 5 runtime (from Cycling 74's website)
  • The Laptop Ensemble software package (download below).

The software comes in two flavors, Mac OSX and PC. Both are virtually identical, with the exception of one file ("videoGrab.maxpat"; PC and Mac versions of this file are included in case you only want to download the software once, but it will require you to do some copying/pasting!).

Download Mac OSX version here (1.73MB ZIP file)

Download PC version here (1.73MB ZIP file)

Once you have installed the MaxMSP 5 runtime and you have your webcam installed, you may run the software by double-clicking the "LaptopEnsemble.maxpat" file.


Included in the software installation is a 25-page PDF reference manual that should take care of any problems you may be having. Make sure to follow the installation information in this manual if you have any troubles before you contact me.


For one example of what this software can be used for, check out Crossfade in my music archive. This piece is the first to use the Laptop Ensemble software. You can hear the audio or watch a video performance.

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