I love rattles because, with their loose mechanical properties, they are never exactly on the beat. They can produce natural rustling sounds or white noise to wash over rhythmic and harmonic sections of music. Rattles are also an important part of many rituals, dances, and performances where the performer’s movements, the visual design of the instruments, and the sounds that they produce are all interconnected. I chose to continue in that combined media tradition by attaching a closed circuit camera to this instrument for live performances in order to project its movements while it produces sound and emotes.
For twenty years, I have worked really hard to make robotic instruments that could be programmed precisely with limited latency. This instrument plays by a different set of rules and is completely off the (MIDI) grid. It moves in and out of timed tempos and exploits the complex behavior and sounds produced by a stepper motor.
Unlike most motors that have one coil, the stepper has at least four. Instead of a single supply of DC to one coil, it is controlled by circuitry that creates a sequence of pulses that turn specific coils on and off to create steps of very precise forward and reverse moments. It also emits interesting tones as it is modulated by the circuitry. I realized this potential along with its ability to produce mechanical percussion.
The guts of the Stepper Rattle contain 3D printer driver circuits and a microcontroller. There are two outputs from two contact mics. One mic is attached directly to the motor picking up its synthesizer-like tones from its oscillating coils. One mic is mounted to the soundboard that the mallet beats upon. Each mic has a separate volume knob. A stepper can behave in many different ways depending on the pitch that you feed into its driver circuit. There is a knob that controls tempo (the range of its beater’s motion) and another that controls its overall pitch. The IR sensor tells its program to switch direction after it smacks the soundboard.
The pitch knob combined with a toggle and a tempo knob affects the steppers full range of behavior and allows the performer to quickly switch between modes from drone-rhythm to bleeps to very fast metal-like percussion to nervous squealing. I am still discovering new ways to manipulate its sounds and movements each time I perform with it.
Classification: Percussion, Electrophone
The Tine Organ
This chromatic organ has an array of thin vertical tines, each coupled with a small MIDI controlled electromagnet. As the magnet pulses with modulation at a specific frequency, the pull and release of the tine cause it to resonate continuously with a particular tone. The Tine Organ is capable of producing 20 chromatic notes in full polyphony starting at middle C and can be used as an attachment to a standard keyboard or DAW. The body of the instrument is made out of mahogany and babinga and houses the soundboard as well as the mini microcontroller responsible for receiving the MIDI and regulating the software oscillators sending voltage to the magnets.
Classification: Lamellophone, Electronophone
Magnetic Membrane Cello
2015 – 2016 (See The Magnetosphere )
This magnetically resonated membranophone is not struck or bowed. Instead, it can be continually excited by an internal MIDI controlled electromagnet. The tin membrane resonates to a spectrum of frequencies. Because membranophones usually have an uneven frequency response, the firmware utilizes a varied PWM square wave to compensate for dead spots and hot spots in the chromatic scale. Volume control and microtonal intervals can be achieved as it receives MIDI CC messages and translates them to PWM and frequency values.
The tin drum is tightly fixed to the soundboard with a sound post wedged between the back of the tin and the back plate of the instrument in order to function like a second soundboard (similar to a cello). The intention is to amplify the front and back of the tin by encasing it in a larger box adding resonance and pushing more air to produce louder low frequencies.
Classification: Memebranophone, Electronophone
Viols are related to guitars and lutes utilizing tied on frets and horsehair bows. This version is updated with electromagnetic sustainers. The frets are etched from a PCB board and are flat. They act as switches when the string is pressed down. When contact is made, a frequency matching the note of the string is pulsed through the corresponding magnet (similar to the Tine Organ above). The neck is maple and the body is a gourd with a mahogany soundboard.
Classification: Chordophone, Electronophone
This seven-string guitar has feedback sustainers on the outer strings. The top string has a slightly different type of sustainer from the bottom due to its string thickness. The body is hand carved from mahogany and the neck is a maple Stratocaster replacement neck.
Classification: Chordophone, Electronophone, Electrophone
Not all of my invented instruments come from the same conceptual space. Some are produced to address the question “what kind of new performance or sound can I make?” and some might be developed addressing the question “what kind of big and complex sounds can I get from a small instrument because I already have too much to transport to my next performance?”.
The initial design challenge for this instrument that I posed was to make a piano-like instrument that can produce several deep bass tones, arpeggios, and chords. I wanted something like a Fender-Rhodes the size of a shoebox. This electric lamellophone is unique in that it has a separate pickup for each prong more like an electric piano than the single pickup version most builders produce. This way each note reveals its full clarity and low-end response. The note layout is isomorphic similar to the Honer Guitarete.
Classification: Lamellophone, Electrophone
The Sympathetic Stringboard
This instrument fell off the moving truck on the way to Brooklyn in 2005. I salvaged the hardware and I will probably rebuild it or make something similar someday.
The main objective was to make an acoustic electric version of a synth (sort of). That was the inspiration at least. What inspired me about the modular synth was the way that one module could effect other modules. When I applied that concept to this instrument, it was the notion of “sympathetics” that became the link between all of the modules on this board. Sympathetics in acoustic instrument design defines instruments with strings, tines, or membranes that resonate in relation to a moving part that it is connected to by a soundboard or bridge. (I.E. The drumhead on a banjo is sympathetic and offers a range of resonant frequencies that make it sound a particular way). When a moving part like a string being plucked reaches the fundamental frequency of a nearby sympathetic part, the simpathetic part will be sonically excited as well. Each module has an electromagnetic pickup, including the dc motor powered hurdy-gurdy in the front, the tines in the middle, and the strings suspended above from the 12 inch bridge. Also, please don’t forget to check the car leasing FAQs here as well.
Classification: Lamellophone, Chordophone, Electrophone
Amplified Programmable Music Box
This modified Fisher Price music box is designed to playback interchangeable discs. In the hands of a hardware hacker, it becomes a very crudely programmable device as you can make your own discs out of CDs that fit perfectly on the turntable. I made several variations utilizing plastic bits, glue gun blobs, epoxy, felt, and wood. Most have been lost over the years but a few still remain. These days, I can laser cut my own very easily.
The other modification to this MB includes a magnetic pickup that I embedded under the tines. I happened to have saved one from an old spring reverb that works quite well. I also added a contact mic to the plastic membrane that the tines are coupled to internally. This provides two different sound sources that can be combined or toggled at its output.
Classification: Lamellophone, Electrophone