Over the last couple of years there has been a dramatic increase of alternative musical instruments and MIDI controllers coming to market. From instruments such as the AlphaSphere or Seaboard that use pressure-sensitivity in new ways, to Mogees or AudioCubes that allow novel techniques of interacting with surfaces and spaces, these unique instruments provide new ways of creating and controlling music. However if you look beyond the consumer musical instrument market and more towards the DIY and academic side of the industry, you will find that people have been making alternative instruments, both electronic and acoustic, for many years. In this article I’m going to talk about six individuals that are pioneers in the art of building DIY and one-off alternative instruments.
Diego Stocco is primarily a sound designer and composer for movies, TV and video games, however a lot of the sounds he creates are using musical instruments that he has modified or constructed himself. His most well known instrument is the Experibass – a double bass with a violin, viola, and cello neck attached to it, which was used as part of Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack for the Sherlock Holmes film. This instrument was the first step towards his Custom Built Orchestra project, which includes other instruments such as the Expericello – a zither inserted into the body of a cello that uses piano and double bass strings, and the Textual Flute – a penny whistle combined with plastic pipes and a trombone.
Another one of his popular instruments is the Bassoforte – a piano keyboard attached to the neck of a bass guitar using a chimney cap to resonate the strings; as well as his drying rack contraption where acoustic guitars were used to resonate and amplify the bowing and striking of a clothes rack. Check out his website to see more of his work on instrument design, as well as on his experimental recording and production techniques.
Musician and DJ Matt Moldover, who professionally goes as just Moldover, is known as the godfather of Controllerism – “the art of manipulating sounds and creating music live, using computer controllers and software”. His journey into building custom MIDI controllers began with the creation of the Frankentroller – a Novation ReMote 25SL MIDI keyboard heavily modified with the addition of a Kurzweil keyboard touchstrip, a Korg Kaoss Pad, as well as refashioning some of the keyboards black keys to be used as crossfaders. Moldover created this controller so that he could control Ableton Live and Native Instruments Reaktor using hardware in the way he wanted to, and it ended up being a prototype of his first completely custom controller, The MOJO – an ergonomic open-source controller which includes a selection of touchstrips, arcade buttons, faders, switches and knobs.
Among other controllers Moldover also developed The Robocaster – an integrated electric guitar and MIDI controller, including controls such as arcade buttons, a joystick, and a three-axis accelerometer. A second version of this controller was later developed in the form of the Livid Instruments Guitar Wing, allowing guitarists to attach a similar set of controls to their existing guitars. See his website for more of his work.
Eric Singer and some of his robotic musical instruments: Photo credit: brooklynpaper.com
Musician and engineer Eric Singer is the leading individual when it comes to the building of robotic musical instruments. In 2000 he founded LEMUR (League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots), a group of artists and technologists that integrate musical instruments with robotic technology, however since 2013 he has also been creating robots under the name SingerBots. Eric’s first and flagship instrument is the GuitarBot – a device consisting of four modular string units, each with a belt-driven moveable fret to change the strings pitch and a rotary pick wheel mechanism to pluck the string, all controllable via MIDI. He also designed the TibetBot – three Tibetan singing bowls struck with six robotic arms, as well as many modBots – miniature, modular percussion robots.
Eric’s latest and largest project to date was the creation of a robotic orchestra (also known as an Orchestrion) for the world-famous Lido nightclub in Paris. It includes dozens of automated instruments, comprising of drums, percussion, xylophones and the GuitarBot, and will be the opening act at the club for the next 10 years. Check out the SingerBots and LEMUR websites for more of Eric’s instruments.
The Incantor. Photo credit: anti-theory.com
Musician Reed Ghazala is known as the “father of circuit bending” - the creative, chance-based customization of the circuits within battery-powered electronic devices to create new musical instruments and sound generators. He discovered the technique in 1966 and has been teaching it ever since, though along the way he also created many circuit-bent instruments, mainly using children’s toys, though occasionally using synthesisers too. Possibly his most popular instrument is the Incantor – a circuit-bent Speak & Spell, Speak & Read or Speak & Math; a family of speech synthesis electronic devices introduced in the 1970s for teaching children. The Incantor includes 12 modifications to the original device for manipulating the sound in new ways, such as body contacts for real-time pitch bending, and three voice-bending switches for data stream disruptions.
An example of one of Reed’s keyboard synthesiser instruments is the Eyed SA2 Aleatron – a circuit-bent Casio SA-2. These instruments contain ‘chance triggers’ that are used to throw the instrument's digital logic systems off track, creating anything from random tones to unpredictable rhythms or melodies. Check out Reed’s website for more of his instruments.
Bart Hopkin and his Floating Guitar instrument. Photo credit:
Bart Hopkin is a musician who has been building his own experimental musical instruments since the 1970s, and has written many books on the subject as well as publishing the Experimental Musical Instruments magazine for 15 years. Some of his most well known instruments are the Wooden Saxophones – square-bodied instruments that look more like recorders but sound like very convincing saxophones, the Bell Tree – metal fencepost caps attached to a Manzanita branch, and the Harmonic Zither – a stringed instrument that uses the ‘3rd bridge’ technique to divide the strings into two segments in order to create harmonics and overtones.
Bart has over 45 instruments to his name, covering everything from wind instruments to string instruments and percussion. There are even a few instruments that are difficult to categorize, such as Savart’s Wheel – a series of different-sized rigged disks mounted on a motorized spindle, played by holding a plectrum-like tool against it; and the Zing Forest – brass rods and resonating chambers that are struck with metal beaters to create a blend of inharmonic frequencies. Check out Bart’s website to see more of his instruments.
Ajay Kapur is an educator, musician and technologist who is mainly known for his pioneering work in musical robotics and electronic instrument design, often combining traditional Indian instruments with modern hardware and software, and is also a member of Eric Singer’s LEMUR group. His most well-known instrument is the ESitar – a Sitar equipped with a variety of custom sensors used for converting natural human playing gestures into MIDI/OSC for controlling music software. Another similar instrument of Ajay’s is the ETabla – a Tabla drum with a custom drumhead containing pressure sensors for converting strikes into MIDI messages.
When performing Ajay is often accompanied by a set of robotic musical instruments that he designed known as The Machine Orchestra. The oldest and most well-known bot in the group is the MahaDeviBot percussion robot, which plays an assortment of twelve traditional Indian percussion instruments, and has a human-like bouncing head that conveys tempo. Another robot in the Glockenbot – an electro-mechanical metallophone, as well as Raina – a radially-rotating rainstick. See Ajay’s website for more of his instruments and projects.