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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Listen To A Song Made From Custom Nintendo LABO Waveform Cards

[Hunter Irving] has been busy with the Nintendo LABO’s piano for the Nintendo Switch. In particular he’s been very busy creating his own custom waveform cards, which greatly expands the capabilities of the hackable cardboard contraption. If this sounds familiar, it’s because we covered his original method of creating 3D printed waveform cards that are compatible with the piano, but he’s taken his work further since then. Not only has he created new and more complex cards by sampling instruments from Super Nintendo games, he’s even experimented with cards based on vowel sounds in an effort to see just how far things can go. By layering the right vowel sounds just so, he was able to make the (barely identifiable) phrases I-LIKE-YOU, YOU-LIKE-ME, and LET’S-A-GO.

Those three phrases make up the (vaguely recognizable) lyrics of a song he composed using his custom waveform cards for the Nintendo LABO’s piano, appropriately titled I Like You. The song is at the 6:26 mark in the video embedded below, but the whole video is worth a watch to catch up on [Hunter]’s work. The song is also hosted on soundcloud.

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Learn About Waveforms Interactively

We’ll be honest: If you are a regular Hackaday reader, you probably won’t learn much new information about waveforms from this website. However, the presentation is a great example of using React on a webpage and — who knows — you might just pick up something interesting. At the very least, it’ll be a great resource the next time you try to help someone starting out.

The animated waveform is cool enough. It is also interesting that it changes based on where you are in the text. The really interesting part though is that you can press the M key to unmute your audio and hear what the wave sounds like. You can also use adjustments to control the frequency and amplitude of the wave.

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Wishing the Family a Sinusoidal Christmas

When it’s time to put together the annual Christmas card, most families take a few pictures of the kids, slap on a generic greeting, and call it a day. It used to be fairly common for the whole family to get dressed up and pose for a special Christmas picture, but who has the time anymore? It’s not like we have hours and hours to slave over a unique and memorable gift we can mail out to a dozen (or more) people.

Unless you’re [Chris Wolsey], anyway. Rather than take the easy way out and simply mailing some pictures of his daughter out to friends and family, he recorded her giving a Christmas greeting and turned the waveform of her voice into a framed physical memento. Way to wreck the curve for the rest of us, [Chris].

Evolution of the printed waveform.

As it turns out, getting sound into CAD software isn’t exactly straightforward. To start, he made a recording of his daughter saying the words “Happy Christmas From the Wolsey Family” with Audacity, and then took a screenshot of the resulting waveform. This screenshot was then brought into Adobe Illustrator and exported to SVG, which Fusion 360 (and most other CAD packages) is able to import.

Now that the wave was in Fusion 360 he could scale it to a reasonable size, and use the revolve function to bring it into three dimensions. Cutting that object in half down the length then gave [Chris] a shape which should, theoretically, be printable on his FDM printers. But unfortunately, it wasn’t so easy. His personal Anet A8 had a tough time printing it, and the Prusa i3 MK2 at work didn’t fare much better. In the end, he had to make the leap to SLA, getting the shape printed on a Form 2 via 3D Hubs.

With the finalized shape in hand, [Chris] just need to put them into production. Printing them all via 3D Hubs wasn’t really an option, so he decided to make a mold and cast them in resin. He printed up a mold box, and after fiddling around with the mix a bit, was able to settle on a resin which allowed him to de-mold the shapes just 30 minutes after pouring.

Finally, he made frames for each cast waveform, and printed up a little label explaining just what the recipient was looking at; even going as far as showing which word corresponded to which section of the shape.

This is a fantastically executed and documented project, and while it’s too late to whip up your own version this year, we have no doubt they’ll be a few people “borrowing” this idea next time the holidays roll around.

It’s never too early to start planning for next Christmas. We’ve covered unique takes on the traditional holiday card before, as well as a sleighful of holiday decorating projects.

Turntable Turns Waveform Generator

In need of a waveform generator for another project, [David Cook] crammed out the old turntable to modify it for a handy hack: By adding a simple reflectance sensor to the pickup he turned it into a waveform generator that optically plays back arbitrary waveforms from printed paper discs.

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Retrotechtacular: Hand-Synthesized Sound

When you think of early sound synthesis, what technologies come to mind? The Hammond Organ?  Or perhaps its predecessor, Thaddeus Cahill’s Telharmonium? In the early 1920s and 30s, many Bauhaus artists were using paper and film to synthesize musical instruments.

A few of them experimented with the optical film soundtrack itself, drawing waveforms directly upon it. [Evgeny Sholpo] created an optical synthesizer he called the Variophone. It used cardboard disks with intricate cutout patterns that resembled spinning, sonic snowflakes.

During the early 1930s, an artist named [Nikolai Voinov] created short animated films that incorporated the cut paper sound technique. [Voinov]’s soundtrack looked like combs of varying fineness. For his animated figures, [Voinov] cut and pieced together characters from paper and made them move in time to his handmade paper soundtrack.

In [Voinov]’s “Dance of the Crow”, an animated crow struts his stuff from right to left and back again while working his beak in sync with the music. The overall effect is like a chiptunes concertina issuing forth from a crow-shaped pair of bellows. It’s really not to be missed.

Thanks for the tip, [Leo]!

Retrotechtacular is a weekly column featuring hacks, technology, and kitsch from ages of yore. Help keep it fresh by sending in your ideas for future installments.

Hackaday Links: July 13, 2014

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Don’t like sunglasses? Deal with it. They’re the pixeley, retro sunglasses from your favorite animated .GIFs, made real in laser cut acrylic. Points of interest include heat-bent frames made out of a single piece of acrylic.

Remember this really small FPGA board? The kickstarter is ending really soon and they’re upgrading it (for an additional $30) with a much better FPGA.

Sparkfun is now hosting the Internet of Things. They’re giving people a tiny bit of space to push data to, and you can also deploy your own server. That’s interesting, and you can expect us doing a full post on this soon.

Need waveforms? [Datanoise] is building a wavetable synthesizer, and he’s put all his waveforms online. Now if we could just get a look at the synth…

If you only have $20 to spend on a board, you’ll want to pick up at Teensy 3.1. [Karl] wrote some bare metal libraries for this awesome board, and while it’s not as extensive as the standard Arduino libs, it’s more than enough to get most projects off the ground. Included are UARTs, string manipulation tools, support for the periodic interval timers on the chip, and FAT and SD card support.