- The Davis Instruments Vantage Pro Weather Station
Sound examples related to this article are available at <www.weathersong.org/music/raw.htm>.
My favorite piece of equipment has to be the Vantage Pro electronic weather station sitting in my back garden. This unit, built by Davis Instruments of Hayward, California, collects data regarding air temperature, pressure, wind speed, wind direction, humidity and rainfall rate and, every 2 or 3 seconds, transmits them by radio to a computer in my studio. This data then makes up the raw material for composition.
The Vantage Pro (Fig. 4) is completely self-contained; all the sensors and the radio transmitter run off a small camera battery recharged by a tiny photovoltaic cell; and there are no cables running into the house. The receiver can accommodate a data logger that holds days' or months' worth of information ready for download. Best of all, the device is very clearly documented. When I first purchased the system, I anticipated that it would be the task of a week or two to get my head around the documentation well enough to write an interface routine for Max/MSP. To my pleasure and surprise, I found the data logger so well written that I was able to get it up and running in about a day and a half.
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The Vantage Pro forms the hub of my Weathersongs Project: a real-time installation that composes music from the ever-changing patterns of wind, rain, temperature and pressure that make up the weather here in North Wales. In the installation, a program written in Max sits in a continuous loop making up musical phrases. Each time it needs to choose a new note, it checks out recent data input and selects pitch, intensity and duration based on the values received. Different weather events produce different kinds of sounds but, typically, temperature and humidity provide bass drones; air pressure provides higher-pitched accompaniment; and the wind produces a lead voice whose pitch, intensity and phrasing all change as it shifts direction, ebbs and flows. Rain, when it rains, is heard as random percussive events whose statistical density changes with the rate of fall.
The Vantage Pro is well suited to this work because of its reliability. It is a truly professional instrument and is built to withstand serious weather. In fact, when I first acquired it, it got blown over a couple of times and still worked. So long as one changes the battery once every 2 years, cleans out the rain collector from time to time and evicts spiders from the sensor suite when necessary, it keeps working.
Every day, the Vantage Pro just sits there, a continuous source of nonrandom, highly complex data, probably never repeating itself but always full of patterns. Although I bought it specifically [End Page 32] for this project, I can see myself using it as a controller for music for years to come. It is a fantastic source for the algorithmic composer. A chance to duet with the breath of the planet. [End Page 33]
Richard Garrett is a composer and guitarist living in Snowdonia, North Wales. His main fields of work are algorithmic composition and jazz.