Daphne Oram and the Birth of Electronic Music

For most of human history, musical instruments were strictly mechanical devices. The musician either plucked something, blew into or across something, or banged on something to produce the sounds the occasion called for. All musical instruments, the human voice included, worked by vibrating air more or less directly as a result of these mechanical manipulations.

But if one thing can be said of musicians at any point in history, it’s that they’ll use anything and everything to create just the right sound. The dawn of the electronic age presented opportunities galore for musicians by giving them new tools to create sounds that nobody had ever dreamed of before. No longer would musicians be constrained by the limitations of traditional instruments; sounds could now be synthesized, recorded, modified, filtered, and amplified to create something completely new.

Few composers took to the new opportunities offered by electronics like Daphne Oram. From earliest days, Daphne lived at the intersection of music and electronics, and her passion for pursuing “the sound” lead to one of the earliest and hackiest synthesizers, and a totally unique way of making music.

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An Englishman And 48 Gameboys Walk Into A Bar…

The original Nintendo Gameboy is perhaps one of the most revered platforms for the music known as chiptune. Primarily, artists will use the console with software like LSDJ or Nanoloop to produce their compositions. Some artists will even use two consoles when performing live. However, that’s all fairly quaint as far as [LOOK MUM NO COMPUTER] is concerned.

Back in 2016, a rig was constructed with three Gameboys. With each console having 3 oscillators and a noise channel, this gave plenty of scope. There was even a facility to detune the oscillators for a fatter sound.

Yet there remains a universal human philosophy – more is always better. In this vein, the plan is to create a monster machine consisting of 48 Gameboy consoles. This offers a somewhat maddening 144 oscillators and 48 noise channels to play with. The plan is to produce a massive synthesizer capable of producing incredibly thick, dense tones with up to six note polyphony.

The hardware side of things is at once simple and ingenious. Buttons on the consoles are connected together for remote control using ribbon cables and transistors. System clocks for the consoles are provided by a LTC1799 oscillator chip, which allows the clock to be modulated for audio effects. Initial tests with up to six Gameboys running from a single clock source have been remarkably successful.

Any mad scientist could see the genius involved in this project, and we can’t wait to see the full rig in operation. If you’re just getting started with Gameboy music, check out this primer on modding your Gameboy for hi-fi sound. Video after the break.

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Wonderful Sculptural Circuits hide Interactive Synthesizers

When it rains, it pours (wonderful electronic sculpture!). The last time we posted about freeform circuit sculptures there were a few eye-catching comments mentioning other fine examples of the craft. One such artist is [Eirik Brandal], who has a large selection of electronic sculptures. Frankly, we’re in love.

A common theme of [Eirik]’s work is that each piece is a functional synthesizer or a component piece of a larger one. For instance, when installed the ihscale series uses PIR sensors to react together to motion in different quadrants of a room. And the es #17 – #19 pieces use ESP8266’s to feed the output of their individual signal generators into each other to generate one connected sound.

Even when a single sculpture is part of a series there is still striking variety in [Eirik]’s work. Some pieces are neat and rectilinear and obviously functional, while others almost looks like a jumble of components. Whatever the style we’ve really enjoyed pouring through the pages of [Eirik]’s portfolio. Most pieces have demo videos, so give them a listen!

If you missed the last set of sculptural circuits we covered this month, head on over and take a look at the flywire circuits of Mohit Bhoite.

Thanks [james] for the tip!

Analog Synth, But In Cello Form

For one reason or another, electronic synthesizing musical instruments are mostly based around the keyboard. Sure, you’ve got the theremin and other oddities, but VCAs and VCFs are mostly the domain of keyboard-style instruments, and have been for decades. That’s a shame, because the user interface of an instrument has a great deal to do with the repertoire of that instrument. Case in point: [jaromir]’s entry for the Hackaday Prize. It’s an electronic analog synth, in cello form. There’s no reason something like this couldn’t have been built in the 60s, and we’re shocked it wasn’t.

Instead of an electrified cello with a piezo on the bridge or some sort of magnetic pickup, this cello is a purely electronic instrument. The fingerboard is metal, and the strings are made of kanthal wire, the same wire that goes into wire-wound resistors. As a note is fingered, the length of the string is ‘measured’ as a value of resistance and used to control an oscillator. Yes, it’s weird, but we’re wondering why we haven’t seen anything like this before.

How does this cello sound? Remarkably like a cello. [jaromir] admits there are a few problems with the build — the fingerboard is too wide, and the fingerboard should probably be curved. That’s really an issue with the cellist, not the instrument itself, though. Seeing as how [jaromir] has never even held a cello, we’re calling this one a success. You can check out a video of this instrument playing Cello Suite No. 1 below. It actually does sound good, and there’s a lot of promise here.

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The Portable, Digital, Visual Theremin

The theremin is, for some reason, what people think of first when they think of electronic musical instruments. Maybe that’s because it was arguably the first purely electronic musical instrument, or because there’s no mechanical analog to something that makes sound simply by waving your hand over it. This project takes that idea and cranks it up to eleven. It’s a portable synthesizer that’s controlled by IR reflectors. Just wave your hand in front of it, and that’s what pitch is going to sound.

The audio hardware for this synth is, like so many winners in the Musical Instrument Challenge in this year’s Hackaday Prize, based on the Teensy and its incredible Audio library. The code consists of two oscillators and a pink noise generator. Pressing down button one activates the oscillators, and the frequency is determined by the IR sensor. Button two cycles through various waveforms, while the third and fourth buttons shift the octaves up and down. The output is I2S, and from there everything is out to an amplifier and speaker.

Of course, it’s really not a musical instrument unless it looks cool, and that’s where this project is really great. It’s a fully 3D printed enclosure that actually looks good. There’s an 8×8 LED array to display the current waveform, and this is something that could actually be a product instead of a project. It’s a great synth, and we’re happy to have it in the running for the Hackaday Prize.

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With Grinning Keyboard and Sleek Design, This Synth Shows It All

Stylish! is a wearable music synthesizer that combines slick design with stylus based operation to yield a giant trucker-style belt buckle that can pump out electronic tunes. With a PCB keyboard and LED-surrounded inset speaker that resembles an eyeball over a wide grin, Stylish! certainly has a unique look to it. Other synthesizer designs may have more functions, but certainly not more style.

The unit’s stylus and PCB key interface resemble a Stylophone, but [Tim Trzepacz] has added many sound synthesis features as well as a smooth design and LED feedback, all tied together with battery power and integrated speaker and headphone outputs. It may have been originally conceived as a belt buckle, but Stylish! certainly could give conference badge designs a run for their money.

The photo shown is a render, but a prototype is underway using a milled PCB and 3D printed case. [Tim]’s Google photo gallery has some good in-progress pictures showing the prototyping process along with some testing, and his GitHub repository holds all the design files, should anyone want a closer look under the hood. Stylish! was one of the twenty finalists selected for the Musical Instrument Challenge portion of the 2018 Hackaday Prize and is therefore one of the many projects in the running for the grand prize!

Elegant Drum Machine from Teensy

Playing the drums is pretty hard, especially for the uncoordinated. Doing four things at the same time, all while keeping an even tempo, isn’t reasonable for most of us. Rather than hiring a drummer for your band who is well versed in this art, though, you might opt instead to outsource this job to a machine instead. It’s cheaper and also less likely to result in spontaneous combustion.

This drum machine is actually a MIDI Euclidean sequencer. Euclidean rhythms are interesting in their own regard, but the basics are that a common denominator between two beats is found in order to automatically generate complicated beats. This particular unit is running on a Teensy 3.5 and consists of four RGB rotary encoders, an SSD1306 LCD, four momentary buttons, and four 16 LED Neopixel rings. Setting each of the dials increases the number of beats for that particular channel, and it can be configured for an almost limitless combination of beats and patterns.

To really get a feel of what’s going on here, it’s worth it to check out the video after the break. MIDI is also a fascinating standard, beyond the fact that it’s one of the few remaining standards created in the 80s that still enjoys active use, it can also be used to build all kinds of interesting instruments like one that whacks wine glasses with mallets or custom synthesizers.

Thanks to [baldpower] for the tip!

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