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Google gets creative with a Virtual Theremin in the Chrome Music Lab

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Google struck digital gold with their Chrome Experiments, which showed off the cool things you can pull off with little more than a simple Web browser these days. A new collection launched yesterday, however, adds a new edge to the JavaScript hacks service, which reveal the deceptively deep musical possibilities of the platform.

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The Chrome Music Lab is a collection of interactive instruments that allow you to experiment with music through your browser. The website, which could be seen as a musical companion to the Google Doodle, is a collaboration between coders and musicians built using Chrome and the Web Audio API, an open web standard that allows developers to create and manipulate sound in a browser. It works great on desktops, but is geared more towards mobile devices, as many of experiments are meant to be touched and work best with a touchscreen.

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The initiative was created as part of the USA’s Music In Our Schools Month, but we can see just as many adults wasting their lunch hours away with it. As well as the more education-focused tools, which teach the basics of harmonics, chords, arpeggios and rhythm in a neat visual and interactive way, there’s an interactive spectrogram that reveals what sounds look like in real time, an oscillator demo with cute singing shapes, an abstract Kandinsky-inspired sequencer, and a tool that lets you record and “Spin” your own vocals through your laptop’s microphone. The demos show just how much the Web Audio API can do, and the possibilities that can be built on it.

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According to a statement on the Chrome Music Lab website: “Music is for everyone. So this year for Music In Our Schools month, we wanted to make learning music a bit more accessible to everyone by using technology that’s open to everyone: the web. The Chrome Music Lab is a collection of experiments that let anyone, at any age, explore how music works. They're collaborations between musicians and coders, all built with the freely available Web Audio API. These experiments are just a start. Check out each experiment to find open-source code you can use to build your own.”

Introducing Chrome Music Lab

To celebrate the launch of the lab, Google decided to piggy-back on the success of International Women's Day and release a tribute to Clara Rockmore; the first female electronic music star. Rockmore, born 105 years ago, was the original master of the theremin, the first electric musical instrument and one which allows musicians to create sound from thin air. Fittingly, Google used the tools of the lab to create a virtual theremin instrument.

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The theremin is the unique instrument that inspired the contemporary synthesiser. Indeed, synth inventor engineer Robert Moog even ran a theremin-making business as a teenager. Moog convinced Rockmore to record her first and only album at age 66, which he produced. Three tribute albums have been released since her death in 1998. The Clara Rockmore tribute can be seen on Google’s homepage in North America, Europe, Colombia, Mexico, Japan, New Zealand India, Russia, Kazakhstan and of course, in Lithuania. Those outside these regions can view it on the Google Doodle archives.

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Created by a 12-person team of artists, sound engineers, coders and illustrators, the unique interactive attempts to teach users how the instrument works through play, and culminates in simulated concert. The Google design team went the extra mile to get capture Rockmore’s unique sound, pulling in a theremin expert to capture her smooth sliding between frequencies and scaling vibrato, and using filters to get a softer, more aged feel. In the spirit of exploration and experimentation, clicking on the Doodle’s settings icon on the lower left hand corner reveals a set of controls that allow you to play with different sounds.

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The theremin is the unique instrument that inspired the contemporary synthesiser. Indeed, synth inventor engineer Robert Moog even ran a theremin-making business as a teenager. Moog convinced Rockmore to record her first and only album at age 66, which he produced. Three tribute albums have been released since her death in 1998. The Clara Rockmore tribute can be seen on Google’s homepage in North America, Europe, Colombia, Mexico, Japan, New Zealand India, Russia, Kazakhstan and of course, in Lithuania. Those outside these regions can view it on the Google Doodle archives.

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