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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EP Composes a New Chiptune Each Time

[Captain Credible] is a chiptune music artist. He wanted to release an EP, but a regular old em-pee-three was too lame for him, so he made a tiny board with a coin cell, an ATtiny85, and a 3.5mm socket on it.

Rather than just writing some code to generate the tones for a pre-composed song, his “Dead Cats” EP generates the music itself. Using the arduino-tiny library, which adds the tone() function to the ATtiny, he has the chip pick its own time signature, key, subdivisions, and tempo. The melody and drum beat is randomly generated into an array. In addition to that, there are some code “one-liners” which insert unique sounds. After that the code just loops through the music.

If you don’t like the song, simply unplug the audio cable and plug it back in. The 3.5mm jack he chose has a built-in micro-switch, so the board is only powered up if someone is listening. If you’d like to see the circuit diagram, purchase the EP, or take a look at the code, all of that is available on his site.

ARM Board Transmits FM

There is more than a casual link between computer people and musicians. Computers have created music since 1961 when an IBM7094 sang the song Daisy Bell (later inspiring another computer, the HAL 9000, to do the same).

[Vinod.S] wanted to create music on an STM32F407 Discovery board, but he also wanted it to play on his FM radio. He did it, and his technique was surprising and straightforward. The key is that the ARM processor on the Discovery board uses an 8MHz crystal, but internally (using a phase-locked loop, or PLL) it produces a 100MHz system clock. This happens to be right in the middle of the FM radio band. Bringing that signal back out of the chip on a spare output pin gives you the FM carrier.

That’s simple, but a carrier all by itself isn’t sufficient. You need to FM modulate the carrier. [Vinod.S] did the music playback in the usual way and fed the analog signal via a resistor to the crystal. With some experimentation, he found a value that would pull the crystal frequency enough that when multiplied up to 100MHz, it would produce the desired amount of FM deviation. You can see a video of the whole thing in action, below.

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Incredible Marble Music Machine

We tried to figure out how to describe the band [Wintergatan]. It took a lot of googling, and we decided to let their really incredible music machine do it for them. The best part? Unlike some projects like this that come our way, [Wintergatan] documented the whole build process in an eight part video series.

The core of the machine is a large drum with two tracks of alternating grey and black Lego Technic beams and pins. The musician sequences out the music using these. The pins activate levers which in turn drop ball bearings on the various sound producing devices in the machine. The melody is produced by a vibraphone. At first we thought the drum kit was electronic, but it turns out the wires going to it were to amplify the sound they made when hit. At the end of their travel the bearings are brought up to the hopper again by a bucket conveyor.

The final part count for the machine sits at 3,000 not including the 2,000 ball bearings rolling around inside of it. If you’ve ever tried to make a marble machine, then you’ll be just as impressed as we were that the machine only appeared to lose a few marbles in the course of a three minute song. Aside from the smoothness of the machine, which is impressive, we also enjoyed the pure, well, hackiness of it. We can spy regular wood screws, rubber bands, plywood, bits of wire, and all sorts of on-the-spot solutions. Just to add bonus cool, the whole project appears to have been built with  just a bandsaw, a drill press, and a few hand power tools.

The machine is great, but we also really appreciate the hacker spirit behind it. When a commenter on a YouTube video told him he was a genius, he replied, “Thank you for that! But I do think, though, that it is mostly about being able to put in the time! I mean the talent of being stubborn and able to see things through are more important than the abilities you have to start with. If you work hard on anything, you will learn what you need and success! Its my idea anyway! So happy people like the machine!”. Which we think is just as cool as the machine itself. Video of the machine in action and part one of the build series after the break!

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