Wind Chimes and Dry Ice Make an Unusual Musical Instrument

When it comes to making music, there are really only a few ways to create the tones needed — pluck something, blow into something, or hit something. But where does that leave this dry-ice powered organ that recreates tunes with wind chimes and blocks of solid CO2?

It turns out this is firmly in the “hit something” camp, as [Leah Edwards] explains of her project. When the metal wind chime tubes come in contact with dry ice, the temperature difference sublimates the solid CO2. The puff of gas lifts the tube slightly, letting it fall back against the brick of dry ice and making a tone. The process is repeated rapidly, providing a vibrato effect while the tube is down. [Leah] used solenoids to lift the tubes and, having recently completed a stint at National Instruments, a bunch of NI gear to control them. The videos below show a few popular tunes and a little bit about the organ build. But what — no songs from Frozen?

We can easily imagine this same build using an Arduino or some other microcontroller. In fact, it puts us in mind of a recent reed organ MIDI project that has a few ideas to offer, like ways to quiet those solenoids. 

27 thoughts on “Wind Chimes and Dry Ice Make an Unusual Musical Instrument

      1. Creator here! Totally agreed, the clicks from the solenoids are too violent even with the little rubber washers on there. They had so much force that I had to glue down all of the washers and nuts to stop them loosening off!

        Originally looked at using transistors but baulked at the amount of soldering involved. (I’m a mechanical engineer and a wimp.) After looking through everyone’s comments, if there’s ever a V2 I’ll consider:
        a) using transistors and the solenoids’ characteristics to lower them more slowly
        b) extra rubber washers for damping on top of plunger as well as bottom, and using solid-state relays (as the relay board contributed to the click)
        c) Going with positional rotation servos instead.

        1. Maybe you can simply reduce the supply voltage for the solenoids, this would reduce the coil current, which should reduce the noise a bit, as long as they are strong enough to pull in against the spring. You could try reducing the spring stiffness to allow for a further reduction in coil current if the result is insufficient.

          Solenoids inherently have a positive feedback loop, where a small inward movement of the steel core results in a larger force with a constant current through the coil, so some amount of clunky movement will always remain.

  1. It is barley audible, requires electricity and dry ice. AYFKM? I have two octaves of chimes across my front porch. The wind can play them on a windy day, or you can play them with a stick. Much simpler and they work.

    1. To be fair, your chimes require a 384.6 yottawatt fusion reactor at a mean distance of 149.6 million kilometers to work, and the chimes themselves are made from elements that only came about after some dead stars went supernova.

    1. Ooh, interesting! Spoons of all different sizes, or same spoons but with different pressures?

      I found that you could get a different type of note by pressing the metal on the dry ice rather than letting it rest – instead CO2 escapes from the gap and you get more of a squeak. See https://youtu.be/LjbkhUHnNvI . Chose chimes in the end though because it seemed easier to have a constant pitch and not have to control pressure.

  2. neat,.. could probably make the tubes ring a bit louder if they were held at a node for the note and touched on an antinode

    may also be better if you could just press a key down instead of the loud solenoids

    1. Great suggestion having them touch on an antinode – didn’t think of that! Suppose I could cut up the dry ice blocks and spread them out to get them to touch in the right place.

      I did make sure they were held at a node, by putting mini elastic bands over the holes that the chimes were originally suspended from (0.224*L). This stopped them slipping down. Also found that suspending them from polystyrene damped them less than with other materials. Never knew music could be so sciency!

    2. Yes, mounting properly may make some difference. In the picture you can not really see where it is resting. Still 99% of the sound was from the clicking of the relays. You might also try making a resonator below each of the chimes, or given it takes power anyway, get a piezoelectric pickup and put that under the tubes. Coming up with something quieter than the solenoids would also help.

      Sorry if I offend, but as it stands if it were one of my projects I would not be showing it publicly until I worked more of the bugs out.

      1. Actually, the relay board clicks were very quiet compared to the solenoid clicks.

        Point taken, but I was more interested in seeing if the ‘dry ice + chimes’ thing was possible than making a perfect finished product. I’d definitely look at overcoming its limitations if I get more time to dedicate to it – being a student I still have plenty to learn.

  3. Very interesting. I do agree that the solenoids were probably not the best tool for the job here, but they work well enough to prove the concept.

    I’m wondering if the magnitude of the oscillation would be increased by increasing the temperature differential between the chimes and the ice through heating the chime…also using different material for the chime would likely alter the behavior. Using iron / steel, it would also be easy to amplify the signal using a coil pickup.

      1. Creator here, through the magic of google alerts. :D Thank you both for your suggestions.

        You’re correct, the temperature differential does seem to have an effect. I found that if I left a chime playing continously for too long, it would get really cold and stop sounding. Another factor at play was that the sublimation obviously depleats the dry ice block, so the chime would dig itself a groove and wouldn’t vibrate as easily, meaning I’d have to move everything around a bit. I’m out of dry ice now, but if I ever get some more I’d have a go at heating the chimes!

        Now I’m wondering about thermal conductivity as well- chimes were bronze but perhaps copper would have been louder as it can supply heat to the dry ice faster…

        And totally agree, if I did it again I’d choose something less clicky to drop the notes down with.

  4. Creator here. Thanks for all of the comments everyone, really thought provoking!

    Regarding the unfortunate clicking, thought I’d point out that the chimes sound a lot louder in real life – I filmed the videos on my phone when it would probably benefit from a proper microphone.

    I learnt a lot by making this thing, and would definitely try some of your suggestions if I do any more work with this concept in the future.

  5. Why is it that the dry ice creates a vibrato effect against the pipe? I think that it’s so cool and I never would have thought to use it with a musical instrument. I wonder if it would work on an instrument without pipes.

    1. Thanks Sam! How it works is that the metal pipes are good conductors and ‘sublimate’ the dry ice (turn it from solid to gas), which produces a little puff of CO2 that lifts up the pipe before gravity pulls it back down again. This happens over and over with it hitting the ice to make a vibrating drum roll sound.

      You can in fact make sounds without pipes too – I made some nice squeaks by applying pressure to a metal spoon! However it’s harder to control the pitch of the note, because instead of getting hit, the spoon is letting gas escape from around it so makes a noise like air being released from a balloon. Perhaps you could try making an instrument that uses this effect.

  6. Barley audible? Wheat are you saying? ;>)
    Is this a (puff) wing instrument then, or percussive?
    Can it rival a theramin for being played without touch?
    Unfinished? Ok. But premise demonstrated! :>)
    I’m sure he is V glad for your constructive criticisms.
    Ring in the New Year!

    1. Thanks for the interesting question! I would categorise it as a percussive instrument – the puffs of gas produced are just lifting up the chimes rather than blowing down them.

      Yes, I have enjoyed all of the constructive criticism – I have lots to learn and would definitely change some things if I were to make another one.

      Side note: we’re not all guys – I am in fact a ‘she’ not a ‘he’. :)

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