The Motor Synth Is What You Get When You Forget Hammond Organs Exist

There’s nothing new, ever. It’s all been done. But that doesn’t mean you can’t invent something interesting. A case in point is the Motor Synth, a crowdfunding project from Gamechanger Audio. It’s what you get when you combine advanced quadcopter technology with the market for modular and semi-modular synthesizers.

The core feature of the Motor Synth is an octet of brushless motors tucked behind a plexiglass window. These (either through an electromagnetic pickup or something slightly more clever) produce a tone, giving the Motor Synth four-note polyphony with two voices per key. On top of these motors are reflective optical discs sensed with infrared detectors. These are mixed as harmonics to the fundamental frequency. The result? Well, they got an endorsement from [Jean-Michel Jarre] at Superbooth earlier this month (see video below). That’s pretty impressive.

While using rotating wheels and motors might seem like a novel way to generate sounds, this is actually the way the first ‘synthesizer’ generated sound. A tonewheel organ is effectively a metal wheel with bumps on the rim (think something like a gear) rotating next to a magnetic pickup. As the wheel rotates, these bumps induce a current in the pickup, which is sent to an amplifier and out to a speaker, producing a single tone. This was invented around the beginning of the last century, and saw remarkable use in the Hammond organ. There are absolutely limitations of a tonewheel; each wheel only produces one frequency and cannot be varied outside of tuning the entire apparatus to a standard pitch. The Motor Synth is getting around this limitation by using standard brushless motors and tacking on a reflective disc to each motor for infrared sensors so harmonics of each ‘wheel’ are produced. These harmonics can be combined and mixed with the fundamental ‘motor’ tone.

While this is absolutely the next generation of ‘rotating discs producing audio frequencies’ technology, the striking thing about the Motor Synth is the novelty. Why hasn’t anyone put a guitar pickup next to a brushless motor until now? Anyone could have slapped a quadcopter motor and a coil of wire into a Eurorack module and reaped the praises of The Verge or Motherboard. Just because there’s nothing new to be invented doesn’t mean you can’t create something interesting, we guess.

18 thoughts on “The Motor Synth Is What You Get When You Forget Hammond Organs Exist

  1. With electromagnetic or optical tonewheels, it should be possible to use multiple evenly pickups/sensors on the same wheel to generate frequency multiples of the RPM (eg: 2 pickups for double the frequency, 3 for triple, and so on until you run out of space to fit more pickups around the wheel). Of course, I would expect those wheels to be bigger than a 50c piece.

    1. The original Telharmonium had multiple magnetic poles on a single stacked rotor 1,2,3,4 etc., going up the harmonic spectrum, with a pickup for each harmonic stack level. The 7th was correct to the fundamental, none of that equal tempered borrowing crap. They were the size of a trashcan. It was so ahead of it’s time that no recording exists.


        The Telharmonium had cylinders that had sections with different amounts of raised bumps around the circumference, and a single pickup for each section. Each cylinder generated a frequency of 1,2,3,4… times the fundamental speed, and every cylinder was geared to spin at a different speed.

        The cylinders acted directly as alternators/generators, so the pickup was powering the output directly. The whole machine used up tremendous amounts of electricity to spin one cylinder for each key in the octave.

        The curious feature was that you could alter the speed of any cylinder, so you could pitch-bend the same key in every octave.

    2. It doesn’t work quite like that. You get the same frequency out of each pickup, just at a different phase.

      It only doubles in frequency if the duty cycle of the tonewheel teeth isn’t 50/50 but something like 10/90 so you can add the missing pulses in between, but then your harmonic spectrum goes all over the place. Otherwise summing phase shifted sine waves just creates another sine wave of the same frequency but with a different amplitude. If you add up phase shifted square waves, the output remains at the same frequency and the waveform becomes a stepped triangle wave, or a stepped sawtooth depending on the shifts.

  2. Look up Opitgan. It was an electronic organ using an optical disc with separate tone tracks for each note plus some extra rhythm beats (drums and such). Instead of tone stops or slide bars (Hammond) to change sounds, you put in a different disc.

    We had one, fun to play with, nowhere near the full organ sound.

  3. From the videos I’ve watched on it (like the one by Sonic State on youtube) this sounds more like a mix between tone wheel organ tech and optical sample players like the Orchestron (Kraftwerk, Patrick Moraz) and Optigon. I like the low-fi retro, audacious, wacky, out-of-the box thinking of the thing … but am less convinced by the actual sounds I’ve heard it produce.

  4. Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh, in “The Grateful Dead Movie”, while being filmed backsatege before the show, discovered that when the arriflex-wielding cameraman shot a closeup of his instrument, it’s pick-ups picked up the field coming off the camera’s motors. The cameraman backed off quickly, but Lesh said “No, go back in. Let’s play with this sound.” and the movie records him playing with lots of knobs on the Bass and hearing the feedback, played some more with the knobs. Then the scene was over and they cut to the drummers or something.

  5. How about actually demoing the sound of the instrument next time? This was all investor fluff props. Anyway simple concept done many times before. Slick enough looking to make money. Copy a book and put it in a new binder=way better book.

    1. Totally agreed. Was hard to tell what if any noise was actually generated from the synth… If some or most of it was actually produced by the synth, great, but seems unlikely since they didn’t really demo it doing much of anything, and the background track seemed more like digitally produced marketing fluff (and repeated the ‘muscle car speeding up’ effect quite a few times).

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