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Friday, August 19, 2011

8 Insane Musical Instruments


Belgian researcher Bert Schiettecatte and his company, Percussa, launched AudioCubes in 2007. These palm-size plastic cubes don't technically produce sound; they control it. They work with a system that's preloaded with beats and samples, and the human instrumentalists change the sound by moving the cubes around.

Percussa developed a sensor and communication system that allows the cubes to sense one another position via infrared. As they communicate wirelessly, the shift in position tells the software (the kind sound designers, DJs and composers use on home computers) to modulate sound.

Along with its own custom-built digital-signal-processing computer, each cube features built-in, full-color lighting that can flash in more than 4,000 LED colors, and can be synchronized using MIDI—the industry-standard protocol allowing electronic instruments to synch with one another—for a spectacular live show.

Released by UK-based startup Eigenlabs in 2009 after eight years in development, the electronic Eigenharp uses MIDI to create audio oddities. It is built long and thin like a bassoon, but rather than finger holes and standard keys, it features an impressive display of joystick-like keys that are 10 times more sensitive to the touch than a typical keyboard and detect movement in five directions (downward pressure for volume, side to side for effects, and up and down to modulate pitch).

The digital Eigenharp needs to be plugged into a computer to produce sound, and uses Mac-based software—EigenD—as its engine. With this software, the player assigns a function to each of these keys. The Eigenharp can be set to sound like preloaded instruments, or create sine wave noises. The Eigenharp also includes a breath controller for converting actions like bite pressure and fingering into control signals, and one or two ribbon controller strips, which the player uses for tweaking pitch. Leonard Cohen incorporated an Eigenharp into his 2010 tour.

"The spirit of exploration is alive and well in both the creation and control of these unconventional instruments," says Carl Coletti, an experimental electronic musician and former session drummer for Ottmar Liebert, "however outlandish or primitive they may be."

Ondes Martenot
If you've seen Ghostbusters or Amélie, you've heard the haunting sounds of the ondes Martenot, an electronic instrument invented by French musician and radio operator Maurice Martenot in 1928. Like the futuristic theremin, the ondes Martenot uses a vacuum tube oscillator—the amplification of repetitive electronic signals within vacuum tubes—to produce its wavering notes. With the Martenot, the player does this by moving a metal ring back and forth in front of the instrument's keyboard. You can control the sound with the left hand—which can flip a series of in-drawer switches to change timbre or intensity—while playing the piano-style keyboard with the right.

Like the ondes Martenot, the theremin was invented in the 1920s and bears the name of its inventor—in this case, Leon Theremin. The instrument employs the heterodyne principle—when two radio waves overlap to produce a beat frequency—to generate its otherworldly sound. It's one of the only musical instruments played without any physical contact. When you stand in front of it, your body becomes an oscillator, acting like an electronic resonator or tuning fork. You move your hands to alter the frequency variations within its tubes, producing music like some sort of sci-fi conductor. The distance from the right hand to the theremin's right antenna determines pitch, while the distance from the left hand to the left antenna controls volume.

The theremin has provided the soundtrack to classic sci-fi films, including, famously, 1951's The Day the Earth Stood Still. After fading from the public eye, the avant-garde instrument made a comeback in the 1990s, boosted in part by the well-received documentary Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey, about the life of Leon Theremin.

Popular with house and electronica musicians since its 2005 introduction, the Japanese-built Tenori-on is all about interaction. It's a hand-held screen with built-in speakers and 256 LED button switches arranged in a 16 x 16 grid. Users create notes by randomly pushing the switches, and then can interact with them intuitively by reacting to the light they produce.

There are six performance and sound/light modes—including the Atari-like bounce mode, where notes bounce from low to high on the screen—and 10 function buttons with options that include changing octaves and increasing loop speed. The Tenori-on even comes with a memory card slot for uploading voice recordings from your computer. (And now you can even play it on your iPad.)

University of Toronto professor Steven Mann invented the hydraulophone in the 1980s. It's a relative of the 16th-century water organ, but where that instrument used water simply as a power source, Mann's creation can use water (or another fluid) to create sound.

Here's how it works: A pump (operated by hand, wind, water power or electricity) blows water into the acoustic instrument's reeds or fipples—which are essentially constricted mouthpieces. The player then molds each note by putting their fingers into the hydraulophone's mouths and adjusting the coverage accordingly—similar to the way you'd play a flute. Some hydraulophones feature an underwater pickup that adds an amplifying effect to the flute-like tones. "The common denominator in all this art is that the human beings need to communicate its rapidly morphing and expanding mindset," Coletti says. "New sounds equal new musical landscapes to inhabit."

Glass Harmonica
Invented in the 18th century, the glass harmonica (also called the hydrocrystalophone, or bowl organ) is a friction idiophone—an instrument in which friction creates the music. In this case, the user moves their moistened finger along the rim of a series of varying-size glass bowls or goblets, producing a pitch tone that changes depending on glass size and the amount of water used.

The harmonica's eerie sound falls within 1000 to 4000 Hz, the range that is most sensitive for humans and often tricks the brain into uncertainty as to where it originates. This helped fuel rumors that the instrument drives both its players and listeners mad, which squelched its early popularity. Still, Mozart, Tom Waits and many other artists have incorporated glass harmonica parts in their music. And Ben Franklin invented his own version, called the armonica, with horizontally laid glasses that turn on a foot-operated spindle. One of the originals is on display at Philadelphia's Franklin Institute.

The phonoharp is a record player with nylon or steel strings built in, allowing the user to "take bits of recorded history and draw them out" by plucking or bowing the strings, its inventor, Walter Kitundu, says. The produced vibrations then travel through the body of the instrument and are amplified by the stylus. Acting like a microphone, the record player picks up these vibrations and incorporates them into the record being played.

"I started out as a [hip-hop] DJ," Kitundu says, "but was jealous of drummers, keyboardists and other musicians who were able to simply pluck or tap a key and produce a sound." Part harp, part record player, part percussion—the result is an awesome blend of reimagined instruments and exotic sound.