Mechatronic Music

by Bryan Bergeron, Editor
June 2010

Jazz guitarist and composer, Pat Matheny, is probably known to most of you. What you may not be aware of is the array of mechatronic instruments behind and around him. If you take a good look at the photo, you can see solenoids attached to most of the instruments. The only unmodified, manually operated instrument in the photo is his Ibanez hollowbody guitar.

What you also may not be aware of is Eric Singer — the man responsible for creating all those instruments. Eric is the founder of the non-profit League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots (LEMUR) — a group of artists and technologists who develop robotic musical instruments. He was kind enough to share his background in robotics and music, and how he was able to fuse the two. What follows is a condensed version of my interview with Eric.

Who are you, and what kindled your interest in mechatronic music?

“I list my titles as engineer, musician, programmer, and artist. I have been playing music (mostly saxophones) most of my life. I became interested in computers at an early age, convincing my father to buy us an Apple II. In engineering school, I did some early electronic musical instrument building. Eventually, I saw this as a way of combining my left and right brain interests and as a potential career path. For many years, I built unusual instruments for humans to play computerized sounds — instruments like the Sonic Banana (a bend-sensing rubber tube) and various data gloves and electronic batons. These send musical data to a computer in the form of MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) messages to produce synthesized music.

At a certain point, I thought, “What would be the flip side of this?” To me, it was to send data in the other direction — out of the computer — and use it to play “real” (i.e., live acoustically based) instruments. This led to the idea of robotic and mechatronic instruments.”

What came first for you — your interest in music or mechatronics?

“Music, certainly. I’ve been playing music professionally for most of my life. In parallel, I was deeply interested in technology — electronics, computers, etc. — from an early age. In college, I began to find ways to combine these interests.”

Which of your instruments are you most proud of?
Why? How long did it take to create?

“The GuitarBot was the first robot I created with two other members of the group, Kevin Larke and David Bianciardi. It took two years to complete, mostly because we started with no mechanical engineering, robotic, or machining experience. We gained this along the way through experimentation, and trial and error. When we needed to design a mechanical system, we looked to existing devices for inspiration. For example, the sliding bridge mechanism that controls pitch on the GuitarBot is based on a scanner or inkjet printer head. Throughout 2009, I completely redesigned the GuitarBot to create Model 2.0. Its design is informed by the six intervening years of robot building experience. It is more roadworthy, maintainable, quieter, and reproducible compared to the original, as well as having additional features.”

How are your robots different from the first water-powered automatic organs from ninth century Baghdad?

“They are a continuation of a long tradition of people’s fascination with and creation of automated musical instruments. Obviously, ours take different forms than these and use electricity instead of water power. But the broad concept is the same.

Automated instruments open up a world of new musical possibilities, whether they are water organs, player pianos, computer-driven synthesizers, or LEMUR robots. They allow humans to create music in ways that are unconstrained by human playing ability. This is not to say that robots and automated instruments are better or worse than human musicians — just that they are different, can be used in different ways, and produce different results. I believe that any technology — analog, digital, mechanical, or other — that opens up new musical possibilities is a good thing.”

How long does it take for you to build a music robot?

“This is highly dependent on the complexity of the instrument. Some of our mechanisms — such as the ModBots (modular percussion robots) — are specifically designed to be as simple and reproducible as possible. In a day, I can crank out a few dozen drum beaters and turn them into instruments. I’ve already created driver boxes that control up to 30 ModBots of various varieties (beaters, shakers, scrapers, etc.). Then, it’s just a matter of plugging them in and configuring the box through menu-based software created in the application “Max”.”

What can you tell me about your robot guitars?

Each unit generally consists of four independent, single-stringed electric slide guitar-like units (four is an arbitrary but useful number of strings ... could be more or less). Each unit consists of a 3” x 36” aluminum plate with robotics, an electric guitar string, picking and damping mechanisms, and a custom microprocessor-based control board. Each unit converts MIDI messages into the signals necessary to control the robotics and play the requested notes.

For musicians and composers, their process is much the same as working with synthesizers or samplers. They simply send MIDI data, and the firmware on the microprocessors takes care of all the details to convert this into music from the instruments.” “One of my philosophies for the group has been to get the instruments out into the world and utilize them in as many contexts as possible. To this end, we play concerts with a diverse roster of musicians who compose for and perform live with the robots; we do interactive installations in museums; we build custom instruments for other musicians — Pat Matheny commissioned over 40 LEMUR instruments and mounted a world tour with them in 2010 — and we collaborate with artists of all disciplines — music, visual, dance, theater, etc. — to create new works for the instruments.”

I hope this interview with Eric stimulates you to think of how you could apply your knowledge of mechatronics to your other interests, whether that includes music, photography, kite flying, or other seemingly unrelated activities. Eric certainly has me thinking of robotics with a new spin.

To learn more about LEMUR, check out lemurbots.org, where there is an extensive video library of instruments and past performances.  SV


Posted by Michael Kaudze on 05/20 at 12:01 PM


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