Since its launch almost 30 years ago Soundbeam has built a devoted following among musicians working with children and adults with special needs. Now Soundbeam 6 is making access even easier. Special World visited Hereward College to see it in action.

It’s four year since Edward Williams died. While not a household name, he had a huge impact on music and disability. A pioneer of electronic music who wrote the score for David Attenborough’s Life on Earth he hit upon the idea of creating a device that would allow performers to produce their own soundtrack by interacting with ultrasonic beams. These physical movements — conscious or involuntary — would generate MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) ‘messages’ that would produce and shape musical sounds. Conceived in 1984, the Cornwall-based Electronic Music Studios (EMS) launched the first commercial version in 1989. It was called Soundbeam.

Soundbeam 6

Today’s Soundbeam is the sixth version. Able to produce music in response to the smallest movement it’s been a huge hit with those working with disabled children and adults. It now has more than 5,000 users worldwide, mainly in special schools and colleges but in other settings too. Although widely used for one-to-one therapy, it is one of very few assistive technology platforms designed for group activity.

Like much of today’s technology, Soundbeam 6 is a power-packed progeny of its precursors. Launched last spring it’s bursting with new features. They include a user-friendly touchscreen interface, a high-quality sound library, and the ability to play film via its sensors. It also boasts easy upload of user-resourced or recorded sounds and films, a wide range of preconfigured soundsets, and easy record and composition functions.

The challenge for us has always been to try and square the circle between producing something with rich functionality and at the same time offer a simple and intuitive control interface which wouldn’t inhibit less technology-savvy users.

Soundbeam’s Director Tim Swingler says.

With version six this meant collating all of the peripheral hardware and software technologies that users have historically used alongside Soundbeam — synthesisers, samplers, fx units, mixers, drum machines, keyboards etc — and incorporating them into the one control unit. It also meant embedding these functions within the software depending upon how likely it is that the users will want to investigate them, and how advanced they are.

So, what you get when you power-up is basically like browsing in a record shop. There’s a collection of about 40 icons displayed — each of which can be thought of as an album or CD cover —  that correspond stylistically to various pieces: classical, reggae, jazz, hip hop, dubstep, blues etc. Tapping on the icon using the touchscreen interface — a major step forward from Soundbeam 5 —automatically loads up the different parts for up to eight (wireless) switches and up to four (again wireless) movement sensors or beams.

So it’s fast and easy to get going, but there’s a very comprehensive music and composition workstation “under the bonnet” for when users reach the point where they’re confident enough to start getting really creative rather than using the presets supplied.

Swingler explains.

Feedback has been very positive, he says, which suggests they’ve got the balance right. To find out I decided to see it in action.

Hereward College

Alvin Leon has used Soundbeam for over 20 years and says it’s essential to providing access for all students.

It’s a grey November day and I’m walking across Hereward College’s expansive grounds with its marketing manager, Catherine Humphrey. Hereward College offers residential on-site provision for 23 learners and day provision for 250 students with a wide spectrum of disabilities and additional needs. Courses range from pre-entry to level 3, with workplace learning and distance learning programmes for an additional 100 students.

We are on our way to observe a music lesson with five profoundly disabled students, which is being led by Pathway Teacher Alvin Leon. As we approach the room I glance through the glass aperture in the door. Inside, the students are sitting in a semi-circle with Independent Learning Support (ILS) staff at their sides. They are focused on Alvin, who is at the front of the room strumming a guitar and leading them through an upbeat song. It’s clear the students are content and engaged with what’s happening.

Once in the room the set-up becomes clear. Behind Alvin is a large TV screen and to his side is Soundbeam’s familiar red ultrasonic sensor, a glass-fronted control unit and an array of colourful switches. Nearby is a collection of hand-held percussion instruments: an agogo, güiro, hand drum, tambourine, marraccas and rainmaker. Alvin is playing a welcome song, ‘Hello’, and his own adaptation of ‘She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain’. The students twist and turn in their chairs, giving their visitors a slightly wary glance as they enter the room. I settle down to watch the session.

Holly triggers a sound sequence using a Switch connected to one of Soundbeam’s wireless switches.

Alvin tells me later that each verse of the welcome song is adapted to describe the learners’ current mood and help settle them for the session. It’s clear that there’s a well thought out structure to what unfolds. As the welcome song comes to an end the students — whose names are Amy, Holly, Caitlin, Eric and Chris — are offered a choice of percussion instruments. The next song is ‘Can You Play?’ and the students do their best to join in with the activity with the support of the independent learning staff, while the rest of us sing along.

As the engagement level of the students visibly picks up the time to introduce Soundbeam arrives. The percussion instruments are put to one side and Alvin offers each student a choice of wireless switches linked to pre-recorded percussion sounds with images of each instrument displayed on the screen. It’s here that one of the new features of Soundbeam 6 — wireless switches — comes to the fore. After the session Alvin effuses about the difference they’ve made.

The wireless switches are fantastic. They are large and bright and students can easily see them. This was the thing I wanted most of all. If you had said to me 12 months ago what is top of my wish list for Soundbeam I would have said wireless switches. I do something called the Nativity Story at Christmas.

I get the profoundly disabled group to do a big sort of nativity play so they come all dressed up as shepherds and so on, but they use the switches to create the sounds. We use Clicker software, a SMART Board, and we have the story on the SMART Board and the user will press the switch to have the text read back. So they have a voice but they enact it using the switches. In the past you would have had eight learners with wires wrapped around each one. It was never reliable. Now with the wireless system I feel like I can do that with more confidence.

Alvin says.

He also points out that not everyone can trigger the wireless switches that come as part of the Soundbeam system, but that the ‘clever people’ at Soundbeam have allowed for this by providing each switch with a four-inch jack. This enables other switches, such as the larger and more robust Buddy Buttons used in the session, to be connected to them.

Students are helped by Independent Learning Support staff.

It’s during this part of the session that another of Soundbeam’s new features is showcased. Switches, sounds and video clips are linked together so that Alvin can exploit the specific interests of each student to build their self-confidence and heighten their level of engagement. He gives the example of Holly, one of the students in the group.

What I try to do, particularly with Soundbeam 6, is marry the lesson content with what her interests are. So, for example, she has horses and it seems fitting to give her a sound that relates to home, reminds her of home, something that she can connect with, and to gauge her progression by her expressions, whether she is reacting to it. Sometime she is, sometimes she isn’t, and sometimes it takes time to develop. With Holly I think you can see how responsive she’s become, pressing her switch on cue. That didn’t happen when she first came to Hereward; she was quite resistive to participating on that level.

He says.

As we approach the end of the session the tempo and mood begin to subtly change as Alvin triggers English Fields, one of Soundbeam’s many built-in soundsets. The image on the screen changes to fields of corn swaying in the breeze and the accompanying music is suitably relaxing. Amy is brought to the front in her wheelchair by a member of the independent learning staff where she interacts with the system’s ultrasonic beam. The mood becomes more serene before the last song of the session, aptly called Goodbye, is played.


Afterwards I spoke to Alvin about the session. I learned, as I suspected, that he had a long and rich history of working with students of all abilities and with Soundbeam. A teacher since 1996 he has a degree in Music Composition from Coventry University and had honed his skills as a specialist tutor working with the highly regarded Drake Music Project. He has been teaching at Hereward since 2000.

Alvin Leon offers a student a choice of wireless switches.

His background using Soundbeam is equally impressive, stretching back over 20 years. I started by asking him whether a session like the one I had just witnessed was simply about the students having a good time or was there more to it. He rightly pointed out that what I had seen was a snapshot of the journey the students were on. Sessions like the one I observed were about helping students to make choices and to find their own voice in their own time

Certainly for the majority of our learners when they come to us they come with great barriers to learning. They often come from fragmented backgrounds, therefore it impacts on their confidence, self-esteem, communication… the softer core skills that I am trying to address through music, as opposed to just their ability to play and participate in music sessions.

He explained.

As he talks enthusiastically about empowering students regardless of the obstacles they face the overall goals of the session become clearer.

The song “What’s that instrument?” is all about taking turns, not playing all together at the same time. You may remember that when I first gave them the switches they were all pushing away at them, but as soon as we got into the song what they were learning to do was listen, respond to directions and take turns.

He explains

He also sees the combination of traditional percussion instruments and Soundbeam as essential to this process.

There are two stages. One is the cooperative, whereby the support worker can help the learner. So if you take an instrument like the güiro it’s quite a tricky instrument to play. In one hand you need the scraper stick, in the other you need the güiro itself, and then you have to scrape along it.

Given the thought processes and fine-motor skills that go into that not all learners can do it. That’s particularly true with a group like today’s who are profoundly disabled. But what I don’t want them to do is not have that experience of feeling that instrument and replacing that by technology.

So the whole idea is that the learner can work with the support staff and the support staff can cooperate with them by holding their hand and guiding them through the basic motion so they can still feel the physical sensation of the instrument, the vibration, and connect with it.

But then as the session progresses I think it’s important that learners re-embed technology. That they experience that aspect as well. Just as my higher level learners would use Apple Mac computers to create their own music. So part of that is embedding the technology but also the technology enables them to have a voice.

Alvin is clearly a Soundbeam enthusiast — he has two Soundbeam 5s in an adjacent room — but far more importantly he is a passionate advocate for inclusive music. When I press him for a single reason for why a college, school or other setting should invest in Soundbeam his simple reply is, ‘Access, access, access’.

When you look around you in this room it not really that differentiated. You see there is a piano, there are keyboards, there are percussion instrument yes, but what about those learners who perhaps can’t physically play these instruments. How do we as a general FE college provide the access for them?

And that’s what Soundbeam 6 particularly does because it’s an all-in-one system now. It’s a necessity in this college. You’re seeing a small snapshot of our learners but if you saw the range and breadth of learners that we have and their varying abilities then you would see Soundbeam suits all. Even the more abled can access music through the system.

He says.

When I ask what if anything he would like to see in the way of future improvements he admits to having a wish list but says he could never have foreseen Soundbeam getting to the stage it has. At the top of his list is a wider range of interfaces such as mats that profoundly disabled students, like those we saw could lie on but where their movements would generate musical sounds. Not, he adds, that that is going to stop him purchasing another Soundbeam 6… as soon as funding permits.

Soundbeam 6 includes eight wireless switches, to which other switches can be connected.

As I left Hereward I felt fortunate to have seen Soundbeam in action. A few days later I contacted Tim Swingler at Soundbeam and asked him how others might get to see what it can do. He told me that while the company can offer on-site training or host staff at its Bristol base there are easier alternatives:

Increasingly we’re running induction courses and demonstrations over Skype and we also have several YouTube tutorials available on our website and in development. I’ve always seen it as being in our best interests in the long term if users are enabled to get the most out of the system.

My advice to schools and colleges looking to make music more accessible is go online and check it out. There is no sound reason why students like Amy, Holly, Caitlin, Eric and Chris shouldn’t enjoy making music like the rest of us. That’s not to forget the core skills that they’ll acquire along the way.


About Contributors

Special World, from Inclusive Technology, is a free website linking 125,000 special education teachers, speech therapists and occupational therapists in 150 countries. Special World readers and contributors work with children who have additional needs or special educational needs including those with severe, profound and multiple learning difficulties and disabilities.

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