Retrotechtacular: Examining Music in 1950’s Russia

If you had told 12-year-old me that one day I would be able to listen to pretty much any song I wanted to on demand and also pull up the lyrics as fast as I could type the artist’s name and part of the title into a text box, I would have a) really hoped you weren’t kidding and b) would have wanted to grow up even faster than I already did.

The availability of music today, especially in any place with first world Internet access is really kind of astounding. While the technology to make this possible has come about only recently, the freedom of music listening has been fairly wide open in the US. The closest we’ve come to governmental censorship is the parental advisory sticker, and those are just warnings. The only thing that really stands between kids’ ears and the music they want to listen to is parental awareness and/or consent.

However, the landscape of musical freedom and discovery has been quite different in other corners of the world, especially during the early years of rock ‘n roll. While American teens roller skated and sock-hopped to the new and feverish sounds of Little Richard and Elvis Presley, the kids in Soviet Russia were stuck in a kind of sonic isolation. Stalin’s government had a choke hold on the influx of culture and greatly restricted the music that went out over the airwaves. They viewed Western and other music as a threat, and considered the musicians to be enemies of the USSR.

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Digital Wind Chimes

Quality wind chimes are not cheap. No matter how much you spend, though, they generally sound the same year after year. If that bothers you, maybe [sensatroniclab] can help. They’ve posted a simple design for a digital wind chime using the Ototo music generator.

The Ototo is reasonably priced and promises to let you make music from anything (well, anything conductive, anyway).  Because the Ototo handles all the music production, the only real building part of the project is the wind sensors. The sensors are made with conductive fabric with a marble at the end for weight.

In the video below you can see [Matthew Ward] talk about the device and actually play it like you might a harp. This would be a good school project owing to the simplicity of using the Ototo, although [sensatroniclab] is actually working on accessibility music projects.

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Toy Piano Gets Synth Overhaul

The Peanuts cartoon character Schroeder liked to bang out Beethoven a toy piano. Now, thanks to this hack from [Liam Lacey], Schroeder can switch to Skrillex. That’s because [Liam] built a polyphonic synth into a toy piano. It’s an impressive build that retains the look and feel of the piano, right down to a laser-etched top panel with knobs that match the glossy black styling.

The brains of the synthesizer is a Beaglebone Black using the Maximillian synthesis library. To capture the key presses, he used Velostat, a pressure-sensitive material that changes resistance under pressure. This is probably the only toy piano in the world with fully polyphonic velocity and aftertouch. The build also includes MIDI support, with two ports on the back. [Liam]’s build log is full of more details than we can even summarize here.

This beautiful build won [Liam] first place in the Element 14 Music Tech competition, and it is a well-deserved prize for a clean and elegant way to update a vintage piano.

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Super Massive Musical Instrument

Performing music in open spaces can be a real challenge. The acoustics of the space can play spoil-sport. Now imagine trying to play an instrument spread out over tens of kilometres. The folks at [LimbicMedia] wrote in to tell us about the project they worked on to build the The World’s Largest Musical Instrument.

The system consists of wirelessly controlled air horns deployed at remote locations. Each air horn is self contained, driven by a supply of compressed air from a scuba diving tank and battery powered electronics. The wireless link allows the air horns to be placed up to 10kms away from the base station. Each air horn is tuned to a specific note of the piano keyboard which, in turn, is configured to transmit its note data to the air horns.

HornsBeaconHill_02Currently, they have built 12 air horns, enough to let them play the Canadian and British anthems. The horns are built out of PVC piping and other off-the-shelf plastics with the dimensions of the horn determining its note. The setup was installed and performed at the Music by the Sea festival recently, by mounting the air horns on 12 boats which were stationed out at Sea in the Bamfield Inlet in Eastern Western Canada. But that was just a small trial. The eventual plan is to set up air horns all around Canada, and possibly other places around the world, and synchronise them to play music simultaneously, to commemorate the 150th Canada Day celebrations in 2017.

There aren’t many details shared about the hardware, but it’s not too difficult to make some guesses. A micro-controller to operate the air solenoid, long range radio link to connect all the air horns to the base station, and another controller to detect the key strokes on the Piano. The limiting issue to consider with this arrangement is the spatial separation between the individual air horns. Sound needs about 2.9 seconds to travel over a kilometer. As long as all the air horns are at approximately the same distance from the audience, this shouldn’t be a problem. See how they did in the video after the break. We do know of another project which handled that problem brilliantly, but we’ll leave the details for a future blog post.

This isn’t the first time [LimbicMedia] was commissioned to create audio-visual public installations. A couple of years back they built this Sound Reactive Christmas Tree in Victoria, British Columbia.

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Autonomous Electro-musical Devices

Circuit-bending is tons of fun. The basic idea is that you take parts of any old electronic device, say a cheap toy keyboard, and probe all around with wires and resistors, disturbing its normal functioning and hoping to get something cool. And then you make art or music or whatever out of it. But that’s a lot of work. What you really need is a circuit-bending robot!

Or at least that’s what [Gijs Gieskes] needed, when he took apart a horrible Casio SA-5 and grafted on enough automatic glitching circuitry to turn it into a self-playing musical sculpture. It’s random, but somehow it’s musical. It’s great stuff. Check out the video below to see what we mean.

We also love the way the autonomous glitching circuit is just laid over the top of the original circuitboard. It looks like some parasite out of Aliens. But with blinking LEDs.

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Bela: Real-Time BeagleBone Audio/Analog Cape

Bela is a cape for the BeagleBone Black that’s aimed at artists and musicians. Actually, the cape is much less than half of the story — the rest is in some clever software and a real-time Linux distribution. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s talk hardware first.

First off, the cape has stereo input and output as well as two amplified speaker outs. It can do all of your audio stuff. It also has two banks of analogue inputs and outputs, each capable of handling eight signals. In our opinion, this is where the Bela is cool. In particular, the analog outputs are not Arduino-style “analog outputs” where it’s actually a digital output on which you can do PWM to fake an analog signal. These are eight 16-bit outputs from an AD5668 DAC which means that you can use the voltages directly, without filtering.

Then there’s the real trick. All of these input and output peripherals are hooked up to the BeagleBone’s Programmable Realtime Units (PRUs) — a hardware subsystem that’s independent of the CPU but can work along with it. The PRU is interfaced with the real-time Linux core to give you sub-microsecond response in your application. This is a big deal because a lot of other audio-processing systems have latencies that get into the tens of milliseconds or worse, where it starts to be perceptible as a slight lag by humans.

The downside of this custom analog and audio I/O is that it’s not yet supported by kernel drivers, and you’ll need to use their “Heavy Audio Tools” which compiles Pd programs into C code, which can then drive the PRUs. Of course, you can write directly for the PRUs yourself as well. If you just want to play MP3s, get something you have a bunch of simpler, better options. If you need to do responsive real-time audio installations, Bela is a way to go.

The project is open-source, but we had to do a bunch of digging to find what we were looking for. The hardware is in zip files here, and you’ll find the software here. The demo projects look/sound pretty cool and their Kickstarter is long over-funded, so we’re interested to see what folks make with these.

Automatic Pneumatic Harmonica

A wise man once said “If all you’ve got is a cute desktop compressor and some solenoid valves, everything looks like a robotic harmonica.” Or maybe we’re paraphrasing. Regardless, [Fabien-Chouteau] built a pneumatic, automatic harmonica music machine.

It’s actually an offshoot of his other project, a high-speed candy sorting machine. There, he’s trying to outdo the more common color-sensor-and-servo style contraptions by using computer vision for the color detection and a number of compressed-air jets to blow the candy off of a conveyor belt into the proper bins.

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