History & Technology

Note: The following description covers one body of work. Other systems exist and represent exciting and viable approaches. A strong example is Jaron Lanier’s “Body Electric”. BEAM plans to extend its reach through the integration and refinement of best of class technologies.

To begin the chain of invention necessary to arrive at a stable and flexible performance system one has to start at the source – the instrument.


Revolutions in the world of string instruments are few and far between. Working closely with renowned musicians such as DanielKobialka  (SF Symphony) and Jean-Luc Ponty, Keith McMillen managed to reinvent the violin. Every component had to be considered for this transformation to be successful. All materials, structural elements, sensors, and electronics needed to be integrated into a lightweight instrument that was comfortable, elegant, familiar - yet capable of capturing the finest nuance of execution while communicating to computers and synthesizers. The first instruments were delivered in 1981. Only three were made.

Jean-Luc Ponty

A second-generation violin was completed in late 1983.  A limited number were produced and placed in the hands of leading musicians such as L. Subramanium (Indian Violinist), Miram Kojian (Concertmaster Hong Kong Philharmonic), Dan Reid (New York Philharmonic) and Jean-Luc Ponty. Finally, in 1986 (five years later) the Zeta Violin was released to the general public with great anticipation and success.

Zeta MPX 820

Concurrent with instrument development, other components needed for a live stage system were developed at Zeta. These included the MPX 820, the world’s first MIDI programmable mixer licensed to Akai in 1985 and the Cyber Effects System with recall licensed to Peavey in 1984. Three generations of electronic processors and computer/synthesizer interfaces for violin and guitar were refined and released during this period.

Laurie Anderson

Laurie Anderson filmed “Home of the Brave” using her Zeta violin controlling a Synclavier. In 1992, the Kronos Quartet commissioned four instruments that were delivered for the fall season. Yo-Yo Ma performed at Tanglewood with a Zeta. Thousands of cellos, violas and upright basses have been built and sold. Zeta instruments continue to evolve and have appeared in concert halls, television programs, classrooms and even on the cover of Playboy Magazine. Much like Jeep and Xerox, the name Zeta is now synonymous with the modern violin.

After Zeta, Keith became the VP of Research & Development and held a seat on the Board of Directors for the esteemed Gibson Guitar Company. Innovations include the first prototypes of the now famous Gibson Digital Guitar and advanced looping devices under the Oberheim brand name.

G-WIZ instruments

In the mid 90’s, a joint venture between Zeta and Gibson created G-WIZ  - a music and audio think-tank. Research projects with David Wessel at CNMAT of UC Berkeley brought other leading researchers from Stanford, MIT, IRCAM and SGI to help produced new musical instruments, synthesis and networking technologies. The Computer Music Journal (MIT Press Vol.18 1994) dedicated an entire volume to document these developments.

woman playing professional electric violin

Later, Harman Kardon’s pro group placed Keith in charge of developing new audio products to meet the demands of broadcast and CD mastering. Realizing the importance of these extremely powerful and expensive professional techniques, Keith started Octiv, Inc. in 1999 to bring this crucial audio technology to the masses.


Concurrent with development of the necessary instruments and audio building blocks, the challenging problem of how to bind these components together in a reactive composer friendly network dominated Keith’s free time. Four generations of a music performance language written by Keith evolved over this 25-year period. MAPPS is the expression of large system problem solving addressing a personal musical need.

Electric violin with electronicsIn 1981 the first version of MAPPS (Multiple Access Computerized Improvisationally Aligned Sequencer) ran on an 8080 microprocessor and was written in assembly code. MAPPS was connected to a large rack of custom voltage controlled synthesizers based on the pioneering work of Don Buchla and Tom Oberheim. The system was guided by a hand made guitar via control voltages and TTL logic levels. Even though the scope of the project assumed a single instrument, the problems of an idea ahead of its technology became painfully clear.

A second version was built on the advances in personal computing and used the MIDI system as developed by Dave Smith for communications. Also, in 1989 MAX replaced assembly as the programming language. MAX is a GPL (Graphic Programming Language) inspired by David Wessel while working at IRCAM. Realized by Miller Puckette and David Zicarelli, MAX integrates control, graphics and DSP in a single programming environment. It is named after Max Mathews, the father of Computer Music. Features of this version included voice recognition, gesture tracking and early sample playback.

blue guitarThe third generation system expanded to integrate multiple musicians.  Started in 1996, MAPPS 3 hosted support for upright bass and cello. LCD screens replaced music stands. MAPPS 3’s computational demands exceeded the CPUs of the era and required a distributed computing model with structural, temporal, algorithmic, DSP and representational tasks split among multiple networked computers. Several concerts were presented in 1999 to positive acclaim. Although functional, the limitations of rev 3 became burdensome as more demands were made.

Armed with a clear idea of an extensible, sustainable architecture, work began on the massive rewrite. MAPPS 4 took five years to realize. Naming and data structures are coherent and robust.  Inter-function communication is symmetric, efficient and encompassing. It is large, consistent, robust and knowable.

MAPPS screenshotNew functions enable the ability to extract beat, density and phrasing from the musicians.  Audio capture is smooth and controllable. CPU speeds support the application on a single machine. The final sonic element has been the application of Octiv multiband dynamic processing to audio subgroups.  Previously it was impossible to “fuse” the sounds of live, looped, and synthetic voices on stage. Using these techniques from Octiv gives a finish and spectral thumbprint that integrates the many components of the TrioMetrik ensemble into a unified timbral entity. These dynamics processing objects are now included in the standard MAX release environment.

Finally, a system of dynamic music representation has been realized. Working with composers and musicians requires the communication of high-level concepts such as intensity, trajectory, and pacing. But, at its most basic level the DNA of music is a note.  Multiple experiments have resulted in a real time, flexible, easily learned scheme called +Knowtation.  Capable of scrolling through a fixed score or displaying computer-modified melodies just invented through improvisation, +Knowtation was the last module needed to complete the MAPPS GUI.



I have been a close observer of Keith McMillen's musical journey over the past 25 years. Early in that period, Keith had a vision for what music could be and how musicians could be freed to create without limitations. Keith has steadily marched towards achieving that vision and TrioMetrik is a major step forward in that trek. The concert in June was fun, moving, and exciting. The musicianship was outstanding and the audience could clearly see the rich interaction between the performers. I will definitely want to see the next TrioMetrik performance when they come to town again!
Steve Sherman
, Berrilian, Inc.