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Meet the impresario behind the DJ-as-coder music revolution

Sam Aaron’s Sonic Pi has ushered the latest wave of the DIY aesthetic into music production.

Meet the impresario behind the DJ-as-coder music revolution
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While working as a postdoctoral researcher at Cambridge University, Sam Aaron created a software tool called Sonic Pi that could compose music on the fly with just a few lines of simple programming. He had hoped that his creation, developed in conjunction with the Raspberry Pi Foundation, might inspire kids to code, but instead he accidentally breathed new life into a small but avid artist community of live-coder DJs, who until then had to use complex tools and code that bore no obvious relationship to the sounds being produced. Sonic Pi, however, is so expressive that many live coders actually pro­ject the code on a big screen during sets so everyone can see how the music is being generated. Sonic Pi’s mainstream moment arrived last year, when Aaron performed at London’s Royal Albert Hall with 1,000 children and a quartet of coders. During the pandemic, he has been performing before crowds of thousands on Zoom. Aaron likens the process of live coding with Sonic Pi, which has been translated into 15 languages, to the first wave of punk rock, which celebrated a DIY aesthetic and often elicited an “I could do that” response within the audience. Most approaches to experimental music making are “traditionally focused on expert musicians or people with PhDs in musicology,” Aaron says. “Sonic Pi is explicitly designed for the kid in everybody.”

About the author

Fast Company Senior Writer Mark Sullivan covers emerging technology, politics, artificial intelligence, large tech companies, and misinformation. An award-winning San Francisco-based journalist, Sullivan's work has appeared in Wired, Al Jazeera, CNN, ABC News, CNET, and many others.

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