I’m starting out on a quest to build my idea of the “ultimate” remote control music system to run my one-man show with complex music and sound cues.
For years I’ve been “hacking” various remote controls, triggers, and sound systems in order to play music and sound cues for my show without relying on another person. They’ve all had their limitations, but with each iteration I’ve learned something new.
In a series of posts, you can watch as I build this system. I’ll be making the whole process “open source” and allowing anybody with the skills and patience to build the same thing for themselves. To pull it off you’ll need some basic electronics know-how, but in the end I hope to publish a relatively simple project tutorial.
Following in footsteps of others:
I got started down this path more than a decade ago based on the work of Jeff Haas on Remote Show Control with a Laptop. Surprisingly, his original article is still live.
More recently, I was inspired by Dan Cogliano’s project for a Remote Music Player. I was already working on an Ardiuno-based remote, but his use of RF “Feathers” seems to provide the missing piece I was needing. (Also, have a peek at Dan’s other magical technology projects on his blog. Fun stuff!)
Show Cue System running on a Tablet
What I’m Using Right Now…
My music cues are being controlled on a Windows Pro tablet, running the software Show Cue System. (It’s very similar to the popular Q Lab software, which only works on a Mac computer)
The sound cues are being triggered by an RF (Radio Frequency) remote control. The remote signals are received by an Ardiuno (a tiny computer of sorts) which has been programmed to act like a computer keyboard, and is plugged into the tablet by USB.
Essentially, pressing the button on the remote control is the same as pressing the space bar on the computer, which plays the next music cue.
What I don’t like, and looking to change…
By virtue of using a tablet (or laptop) there is a lot to set-up for a show. The tablet should be plugged in, and the program needs to be booted up. It also means I have to carry the tablet, plus power cable. I’m looking to create a self-contained remote and music player in one.
Over the years I’ve struggled a lot with remotes. Last year I created my best answer so far, with a magnetically controlled ankle switch and a system to prevent accidental double hits. The biggest room for improvement is in giving better feedback to know (for sure!) that I’ve hit the trigger. Otherwise I’m standing there doing the pee-pee dance waiting for the music to start.
My Project Outline
I’ve got a clear idea in my head for this project, based on 10 years of experiments and experience trying it out at live shows. I’ll be building out the project in phases. That’s the great thing about the Arduino ecosystem… it’s meant for prototyping so everything is modular and easily changed!
The first phase will replace my basic system, and then go on to check some big things off my dream wish list.
A bunch of parts waiting to be molded into a miracle of technology!
Phase One: Basic Remote Control Music Cues
- A single button remote control unit.
- Battery powered receiver and music player unit, no external plugin necessary.
- Stereo music jack for connecting to PA system.
- USB plugin for recharging battery.
- Upload cue file and music tracks to Micro SD storage.
- Button Behavior:
- Prevent double-presses. (2 second window)
- Basic Cue Playlist:
- A list of audio files loaded onto the receiver unit.
- Next file is played for each button press.
- If already playing music, the current track will fade out.
Phase Two: Visual Feedback of Cues
Incorporate visual feedback (lights and/or displays) into the receiver/player unit. The receiver is intended to sit at the foot of the stage, visible to the performer.
- Display of current cue number
- Visual feedback when the remote trigger has been received. (blinking light)
Phase Three: Hands-Free Ankle Switch
A hands-free ankle switch to trigger cues. (reed switch activated in proximity of a magnet on the opposite ankle)
- Haptic feedback (vibration) to know the reed switch was activated.
- Ability for two-way communication with the player unit. This would allow, for example, a vibration to alert you to an important timing point in a music track.
- Moisture (sweat) resistant casing for electronics, with velcro straps.
Phase Four: Improved Visual Display
Investigate the use of a full colour LCD screen component (and it’s effect on battery life) for more helpful visual displays.
- Current cue information, including a countdown timer for the music currently playing.
- Next cue reminder. (Showing what will happen the next time you press the button)
- Overall elapsed time clock. (show your performance running time… a constant concern for me!)
- Battery status. (Don’t stress about it suddenly dying!)
Phase Five: Improved Cue Sheet Editing & Control
Add Bluetooth capability to the player unit in order to receive updated cue sheets and music files.
- Pair with devices in order to transmit cue updates.
- A basic Android app to allow easy edits at a gig,
- A “Master Control” remote unit that enables more functions at the press of a button. This larger remote would live in your case, and allow for quick changes in front of the audience.
- Skip next cue
- Go back one cue
- Adjust master volume
Phase Six: Advanced Cues
Increase the capability of the music player to do more than just play simple tracks.
- Looped tracks. Keep playing the music until the loop is released or faded out.
- Volume dips.
- Pause / Resume
- Playlists. Continue playing songs from a list. Used for pre-show or house music.
- Crossfade to next track.
- Automatic cues after a time delay.
Well gosh, that all sounds fantastic. It also sounds like a lot of work! After those six phases, I’ll have what I consider (at the moment) to be my dream machine!
Of course, there’s always more to dream about…
- Play slides or video content on a projector.
- Add DMX cues for synchronized lighting.
- Wireless audio output. (no need to run a cable from the player to your PA system)
- Add control of your microphone and other live sources. (For example, muting yourself while you jump in the sub-trunk)
- Triggering other props in your show (for remote control actions… like a collapsing table)
I’m excited to be building on a system that has literally unlimited capability to expand. Plus, doing it out in the open, sharing with my fellow magicians, so we can work on it together. Be sure to subscribe to my newsletter to hear about the work in progress.
How about your thoughts? Is there any dream functionality that’s not included in my plan? I’d love to hear your ideas. Add your comments below.