Introduction - Bob Irving

Hello all. I teach middle school computer science and have two networks in my classroom: Windows 10 and Raspberry Pi. I love the Pi and use it to teach coding with Scratch, Minecraft and Python, and also Sonic Pi.

I have 2 sides to my personality, and while they don’t actually conflict, they are pretty different. By day, I am a computer science teacher and lover of all things digital. I love the magic of code. By night, however, I am a blues guitarist who loves vintage music, instruments, tube amps, recording live to tape, and music that is the opposite of “algorave”. I love music with “soul”, “feeling”, and I love the live interplay of musicians. It’s kind of the opposite of electronic music! I’m not convinced that Pro Tools has enabled us to make “better” music, though I love its convenience.

So when I found Sonic Pi, I thought “there must be some way I can use this in my classes and also bring in my other side.” I started it last year with my 8th graders with some success. I believe that I will have more success as I learn Sonic Pi better, so I’m also now starting to dive into MIDI. Actually found a cheapo MIDI keyboard controller on Craigslist and hope to buy it today and start messing with it.

Getting better with SP will involve not just learning the code but also becoming more familiar with different forms of music. I know little about techno, house, etc. and probably need some suggestions for where to start learning! I do think that as someone who loves music, that I can learn, and that will help me teach it to my students.

I have no classical musical training, and while I can read music a little, I play guitar mainly by ear and by “feel”. I know enough to be able to transpose keys, and I know how to play 6th chords and 9th chords. But truthfully, most of what I do is by listening and then imitating. So that’s not the best foundation for SP! But I am determined to learn!

Thanks to Sam for inventing this awesome tool! I look forward to hanging out here in this new space and meeting others who are into Sonic Pi.

Bob Irving
Porter-Gaud School
Charleston, SC


Not sure what is, though. Cool thing about Sam’s approach is that, while he does fully support the kind of music you don’t like (and several of your learners probably do like), he also made this piece of software flexible enough to be used in all sorts of musical contexts.
One suggestion would be to let your learners teach you about the music they enjoy while learning how to code, thanks to your work. As you surely know, this kind of inversion in teaching roles can have a tremendous impact on their learning as well as on the school community.
Another suggestion is to use SP to support your soulful music. What Ben Smith was doing in this video with Sam during the #PiParty may give you some ideas. Maybe you’re not into looping, but there’s a lot to be done with the audio input. Using Sonic Pi as a kind of guitar FX pedal can be a lot of fun. And there must be ways to emulate some nice bluesy sounds.
A third path could be to use SP as a way to learn about musical form and structure by playing with sounds as building blocks. Thinking mostly about the 12-bar Blues and coding the loop structure but using extended samples to keep the feel. The time- and pitch-stretch algorithms may work relatively well for this purpose. If not, you can still get some learning out of it and probably quite a bit of fun.
A cool thing about SP is that, while a deep knowledge of music theory isn’t an obstacle (as it could be with, say, an electronic gadget), you can do a lot of musicking with it without having to know a thing about note values or key signatures. So, those among your learners who have a good grasp of computing concepts and no notion of music formalism can do as well as learners with extensive musical experience but lower computing chops. What’s more, they can all work together.
MIDI is indeed a key, here. But so is audio in. For a musician, using a MIDI keyboard or an acoustic instrument to play some music is easy enough, and the computer code disappears. For a computer enthusiast, the code makes the instrument less intimidating.
All this to say… Sounds to me like your foundation for Sonic Pi is as good as any.


Thanks, @enkerli for the response! I really enjoyed your intro, btw.

Just wanted to clear one thing up: I don’t dislike electronic music. Just don’t know anything about it! And I’m very willing to have my students help me out there. As you say, that kind of learning is powerful!

I just bought an Oxygen 25 Blue midi keyboard and have it sitting next to me. Looks like too much fun! Atm I’m wresting with trying to get Ableton 9 Lite authorized so I can make some sounds. But definitely looking forward to learning about midi from both the musical and the computational perspectives.

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wresting with trying to get Ableton 9 Lite authorized so I can make some sounds.

Is Ableton Live your first #DAW, by any chance? Many people tend to assume that any musician using a computer must be using a DAW. Joined a Facebook group about DAWless jamming, a few months ago, and the notion is that DAWs are so prominent that playing DAWfree can be a relief.
What might be more difficult to get from my long intro is that DAWs weren’t really on my radar until recently. For instance, unlike Digital Performer, the Performer software we were using in college was precisely not a DAW as it didn’t process audio. Knew of things like Ableton and Logic and Pro Tools and Cubase and all that. But wasn’t really into them. They require another mode of thinking than playing an instrument. Sure, you can use them in a one-track way (without a one-track mind), but they almost force you to think through having multiple tracks and mixing them in elaborate ways. So, the fact that Ableton Live Lite is limited to eight tracks and eight scenes is probably enough to make people upgrade to a fuller version.
The very same Ableton Live Lite you’re authenticating was my first real DAW, after playing with Korg Gadget on iOS devices (which became closer to a real DAW in version 3). And it was an ear-opener, especially after using some training material (our local library provides us with full access to and it ends up being quite useful for things like this). Partly the same way Sonic Pi got me to hear things differently, in what today’s music producers, DJs, and other musickers do, Ableton Live connected me with the methods used by these same people.
And because the Lite limitations haven’t been an issue for me, playing with Ableton has been a pretty interesting experience.
Did put it on the side fairly quickly, though, because my needs don’t really match the DAW mind. Started playing with things like Apple’s MainStage, which is a 30$ app containing all the virtual instruments in Logic Pro X and is meant for use in live contexts. If you have a macOS machine, you might enjoy it.
Just yesterday, got started on the most direct competitor to Ableton Live Lite: Bitwig 8-Track. Unlike Ableton Live Lite which sounds like it’s bundled in just about anything (search for it in your cereal box!), Bitwig 8-Track is only bundled with fairly hard-to-find hardware at the moment. Contacted their sales department enquiring about ways to buy a license and they kindly provided one for free, which is a very nice gesture.
My initial experiences are very positive. The app feels like a “redo” from the original Ableton concept (some of their developers worked on Live before). And its support for MPE really fits my needs. Not saying that DAWs will necessarily become a big part of my musicking. But the experience is quite nice (and there’s also training material for it on which makes for easier onboarding).

Bottomline, though: musicking with Sonic Pi is quite different from using a DAW. Which might be part of people’s reactions when they’ve had extensive experience with DAW-centric music. In many ways, SPi’s a lot more flexible than a DAW and one could probably use it in a DAW-like way (just not with plugins and such). But people who expect their workflow to be based on producing “songs” by laying things together in a series of synchronised tracks may be quite confused. Those of us who weren’t too ensconced in the DAW way have something of an advantage, here.