Where Did Electronic Music Start?

A culture in which it’s fair to say the community which Hackaday serves is steeped in, is electronic music. Within these pages you’ll find plenty of synthesisers, chiptune players, and other projects devoted to synthetic sound. Not everyone here is a musician of obsessive listener, but if Hackaday had a soundtrack album we’re guessing it would be electronic. Along the way, many of us have picked up an appreciation for the history of electronic music, whether it’s EDM from the 1990s, 8-bit SID chiptunes, or further back to figures such as Wendy Carlos, Gershon Kingsley, or Delia Derbyshire. But for all that, the origin of electronic music is frustratingly difficult to pin down. Is it characterised by the instruments alone, or does it have something more specific in the music itself? Here follows the result of a few months’ idle self-enlightenment as we try to get tot he bottom of it all.

Will The Real Electronic Music Please Stand Up?

Page from the Telharmonium patent, showing the tone wheels
If you own a synthesiser, the Telharmonium is its daddy.

Anyone reading around the subject soon discovers that there are several different facets to synthesised music which are collectively brought together under the same banner and which at times are all claimed individually to be the purest form of the art. Further to that it rapidly becomes obvious when studying the origins of the technology, that purely electronic and electromechanical music are also two sides of the same coin. Is music electronic when it uses an electronic instrument, when electronics are used to modify the sound of an acoustic instrument, when it is sequenced electronically often in a manner unplayable by a human, or when it uses sampled sounds? Is an electric guitar making electronic music when played through an effects pedal?

The history of electronic music as far as it seems from here, starts around the turn of the twentieth century, and though the work of many different engineers and musicians could be cited at its source there are three inventions which stand out. Thaddeus Cahill’s tone-wheel-based Telharmonium US patent was granted in 1897, the same year as that for Edwin S. Votey’s Pianola player piano, while the Russian Lev Termen’s Theremin was invented in 1919. In those three inventions we find the progenital ancestors of all synthesisers, sequencers, and purely electronic instruments. If it appears we’ve made a glaring omission by not mentioning inventions such as the phonograph, it’s because they were invented not to make music but to record it. Continue reading “Where Did Electronic Music Start?”

Recreating One Of History’s Best Known Spy Gadgets

[Machining and Microwaves] got an interesting request. The BBC asked him to duplicate the Great Seal Bug — the device the Russians used to listen covertly to the US ambassador for seven years in 1945. Turns out they’re filming a documentary on the legendary surveillance device and wanted to demonstrate how it worked.

The strange thing about the bug is that it wasn’t directly powered. It was actually a resonant cavity that only worked when it was irradiated with an external RF energy. Most of the video is background about the bug, with quite a few details revealed. We particularly liked the story of using a software defined radio (SDR) to actually make the bug work.

As you might expect, things didn’t go smoothly. Did they ever get results on camera? Watch the video, and you can find out. This is just the first of six videos he plans to make on the topic, and we can’t wait for future videos that cover the machining and more technical details.

We’ve examined the Theremin bug before. There’s a definite cat-and-mouse dynamic between creating bugging devices and detecting them.

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Nanoaetherphone Is A Special MIDI Controller

MIDI controllers can be simple straightforward keyboards, or wild magical devices that seem to snatch notes from the very aether itself. As you might expect from the name, the Nanoaetherphone II is one of the latter.

The device is inspired by the Theremin, and was built to celebrate its 100th anniversary. The Nanoaetherphone II is all about using sensors to capture data from wireless hand-wavey interactions, and turn it into MIDI messages. To this end, it has an LDR sensor for detecting light levels, which determines volume levels. This is actuated by the user’s thumb, blocking the sensor or allowing ambient light to reach it. At the front of the handheld unit, there is also an ultrasonic range sensor. Depending on how close the sensor is to the user’s hand or other object determines the exact note sent by the device. As a MIDI controller, it is intended to be hooked up to an external synthesizer to actually generate sound.

The overall concept isn’t too complicated, and the design makes it easy to pickup and play. We imagine it could even be foolproofed by programming it only to play notes from a given scale or mode, allowing for easy soloing without too many of those ill-tempered blue notes. Jazz enthusiasts might prefer it to just spit out any and all notes, of course.

We love a good MIDI controller around these parts, and we’ve seen everything from knitted models to those made out of old phones. Video after the break.

Continue reading “Nanoaetherphone Is A Special MIDI Controller”

A baguette sits diagonally across a wooden cutting board. Above it sits an Arduino and an electronics breadboard.

Theremin Baguette Brings New Meaning To Breadboarding

Theremins are a bit of an odd instrument to begin with, but [AphexHenry] decided to put one where no theremin has gone before: into a baguette.

The “baguetophone” is a theremin and piezo-percussion instrument inside a hollowed-out baguette. Starting with a DIY theremin tutorial from Academy of Media Arts Cologne, [AphexHenry] added some spice with a piezo pickup inside the baguette to function as a percussion instrument. One noted downside of squeezing the instrument into such an unusual enclosure is that the antenna doesn’t respond as well as it might with a more conventional arrangement. Outputs from the piezo and antenna are run through Max/MSP on a computer to turn the bread into a MIDI controller. Like many DIY theremins, it appears that this build neglects the volume antenna, but there’s no reason you couldn’t add one. Maybe disguised as a piece of cheese?

Outside smuggling an instrument into a French café for a flash mob performance, this could also prove handy if you’re someone who gets hungry while playing music. We don’t recommend snacking on the Arduino even if it is ROHS compliant though.

If you want to learn more about how theremins work, check out Theremin in Detail. After that, you might want to browse all of our theremin articles or look at this project where they used a 555 instead.

Continue reading “Theremin Baguette Brings New Meaning To Breadboarding”

C64 Turned Theremin With A Handful Of Parts

The theremin is popular for its eerie sound output and its non-contact playing style. While they’re typically built using analog hardware, [Linus Åkesson] decided to make one using the venerable Commodore 64.

The instrument works by measuring the capacitance between its two antennas and the Earth. As these capacitances are changed by a human waving their hands around near the respective pitch and volume antennas, the theremin responds by changing the pitch and volume of its output.

In this case, the humble 555 is pressed into service. It runs as an oscillator, with its frequency varying depending on the user’s hand position. There’s one each for pitch and volume, naturally, using a clamp and spoon as antennas. The C64 then reads the frequency the 555s are oscillating at, and then converts these into pitch and volume data to be fed to the SID audio chip.

[Linus Åkesson] demonstrates the build ably by performing a slow rendition of Amazing Grace. The SID synthesizer chip in the C64 does a passable job emulating a theremin, used here with a modulated pulse wave sound. It’s an impressive build and one we fully expect to see at a big chiptune show sooner rather than later. We’re almost surprised nobody came out with a C64 Theremin cartridge back in the day.

We’ve seen other fancy theremin-inspired builds recently too, like this light-based design.

Continue reading “C64 Turned Theremin With A Handful Of Parts”

Raspberry Pi Creates Melody

For those who are not into prog rock in the 70s or old radio shows from the 40s, the Theremin may be an unfamiliar musical instrument. As a purely electronic device, it’s well outside the realm of conventional musical instruments. Two radio antennas detect the position of the musician’s hands to make a unique sound traditionally associated with eeriness or science fiction.

Normally a set of filters and amplifiers are used to build this instrument but this build instead replaces almost everything with a Raspberry Pi Zero 2, and instead of radio antennas to detect the position of the musician’s hands a set of two HC-SR04 distance sensors are used instead. With the processing power available from the Pi, the modernized instrument is able to output MIDI as well which makes this instrument easily able to interface with programs like GarageBand or any other MIDI-capable software.

The project build is split into two videos, the second of which is linked below. The project code is also available on the project’s GitHub page, so anyone with the Pi and other equipment available can easily start experimenting with this esoteric and often overlooked musical instrument. It’s been around for over 100 years now, and its offshoots (including this build) are as varied as the sounds they can produce.

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Laser Theremin Turns Your Hand Swooshes Into Music

In a world where smartphones have commoditized precision MEMS Sensors, the stage is set to reimagine clusters of these sensors as something totally different. That’s exactly what [chronopoulos] did, taking four proximity sensors and turning them into a custom gesture input sensor for sound generation. The result is Quadrant, a repurposable human-interface device that proves to be well-posed at detecting hand gestures and turning them into music.

At its core, Quadrant is a human interface device built around an STM32F0 and four VL6180X time-of-flight proximity sensors. The idea is to stream the measured distance data over as fast as possible from the device side and then transform it into musical interactions on the PC side. Computing distance takes some time, though, so [chronopoulos] does a pipelined read of the array to stream the data into the PC over USB at a respectable 30 Hz.

With the data collected on the PC side, there’s a spread of interactions that are possible. Want a laser harp? No problem, as [chronopoulos] shows how you can “pluck” the virtual strings. How about an orientation sensor? Simply spread your hand over the array and change the angle. Finally, four sensors will also let you detect sweeping gestures that pass over the array, like the swoosh of your hand from one side to the other. To get a sense of these interactions, jump to the video demos at the 2:15 mark after the break.

If you’re curious to dig into the project’s inner workings, [chronopoulos] has kindly put the firmware, schematics, and layout files on Github with a generous MIT License. He’s even released a companion paper [PDF] that details the math behind detecting these gestures. And finally, if you just want to cut to the chase and make music of your own, you can actually snag this one on Tindie too.

MEMs sensors are living a great second life outside our phones these days, and this project is another testament to the richness they offer for new project ideas. For more MEMs-sensor-based projects, have a look at this self-balancing robot and magic wand.

Continue reading “Laser Theremin Turns Your Hand Swooshes Into Music”