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.

19 thoughts on “Super Massive Musical Instrument

  1. While on one hand it’s impressive utilizing sound from a distance at that kind of range, I think claiming it as the largest musical instrument is a bit of a stretch, given it’s individually controlled pieces from a central controller.

    there probably is something bigger, but anyone else remember the old FotoPlayers? The player piano all in one band and sound effect instruments that were used for all that kind of stuff on movies in the early days of film.

  2. Bad music is bad music. This reminds me of 35 years ago somebody at work figured out how to get a computer to play musical notes so they piped Christmas songs over the PA at the Christmas party. Just because you can do something with technology doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

  3. Keyword “Latency”.

    That said, there isn’t a lot of difference between a wireless-link air horn playing numerically controlled tones (“Digital Calliope” if you will) and wirelessly reproducing music through a radio speaker (though the speaker will sound better).

    The real benefit of this project will be the plethora of jokes about the stereotypical modest Canadians finally blowing their own horns.

  4. Sounds are music to some and just noise to others. This looks like just more noise pollution to me. I do not want to listen to the thump, thump from your radio. And, I do not want this anywhere near me. There oughta be a law ….

  5. Calling these ship horns is an insult, they come nowhere near the power a true, large, all-metal ship horn has…

    (2:10 in case it doesn’t jump)
    Listen to that echo. Real ship horns a stupidly loud.

  6. I consider fireworks to be extremely big musical instruments. And they are synchronized to music at most professional shows.
    I love this idea, it just needs better output devices. Ge some kind of directional churh-organ horns and explode them for the finale.

    1. and, btw, the Montreal one is (or was) also radio controlled. But it involved some wet stuff between ears to decode the commands and flip the output bits… :-)

  7. Seems to be a lot of negativity about this, I think it’s a great idea! Watching the videos from the links Chris Donison seems like an amiable guy who’s idea has taken off. I hope they have/release a publicly available api, a year should be enough for me to knock something together so I can celebrate with my both literal and figurative Canadian cousins!

  8. So we will have air horns played from a keyboard from one coast of Canada to another for the 150th anniversary of confederation? So in 2017 Canada will show the world it’s 5000 mile long organ.

  9. Largest instrument? Must be any and all Jean Michel Jarre-style outdoors laser organs: their laser “strings” extend to infinity (somewhat contrary to what light sabers would have you believe) so they kinda have to be the largest by definition… ;)

  10. Using CO2 (liquid under pressure in the bottle) would give more volume of compressed gas. Although it could potentially change the tuning of the horns, as it has higher density.

  11. “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.”

    It doesn’t matter where the horns are, as long as the notes they play are individually timed to arrive at the listener on time.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.