Putting an Inventive Spin on Electronic Musical Instrument Design

These pieces don’t look or sound like anything else that’s yet hit the concert stage

Paul Lehrman, AG10, has seen students in his course Electronic Musical Instrument Design create instruments in shapes as varied as a sword, a turtle, a plain black box, and a pyramid. 

Unlimited by the physical constraints that define an acoustic musical instrument, students can give their imagination free rein as they build original instruments that blend aesthetic sensibilities with music software tools.

“There are no restraints on what they can do,” says Lehrman, senior lecturer in music and co-director of the music engineering program. He started the course 20 years ago at the request of Chris Rogers, John R. Beaver Professor in Mechanical Engineering, who teaches another course that focuses on designing, simulating, building, and testing acoustic instruments.

For Lehrman, an essential element in electronic musical instrument design is collaboration. A successful project, he believes, requires students to draw on their diverse backgrounds in engineering, the social sciences, the humanities, and studio art to conceptualize, design, and build their instrument. 

The instruments—also sometimes referred to as “controllers”—are complex. They incorporate sensors that respond to touch, position, movement, finger pressure, wind pressure, and other human factors. Such inputs are then translated into data via an Arduino microprocessor board, then converted to Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) data.

Despite the technical foundation, students are encouraged to keep in mind that their overall design is still a musical instrument. It should be complex enough to require practice for maximum mastery, or what Lehrman calls “the virtuosity factor.” Lehrman explains, “We want the instruments to be playable by anybody, but we also want them to have a degree of difficulty so that someone can, in time, get good at it.”

As such, “No single student will come in with all the skills necessary to build an electronic instrument like that,” he says. “Some students are good at design and fabrication, and others are good at computer programming, and still others have mastered playing a musical instrument. In this class, we need those complementary skill sets to come up with concepts that prove successful on every level.”

This past fall, Lehrman again handpicked students for the course—a music background is a prerequisite—and organized them into three small teams with complementary skills. 

Here’s a look—and a listen—at what they created.

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The Cookware

Team members: Aneeqah Ahmed, A26, sociology; Roger Burtonpatel, A24, computer science and music; Jake Pettigrew, E26, computer engineering; Damon Prum, A24, cognitive brain science

Inspiration: The Cookware was born out of the simple idea: “that ‘cooking’ in the studio is something that all music makers aspire to,” says Pettigrew. “Our goal was to make a unique instrument that any aspiring music maker can ‘cook’ on, regardless of technical ability. Visually, we adopted a literal approach, designing the instrument to resemble a single-burner camping stove. From a user interface perspective, we wanted to maintain the idea of anyone being able to ‘cook.’ The group also designed the instrument “with simplicity in mind,” he says. “Our goal was to achieve an instrument that is simple to pick up and mess around with but that still has the depth and potential for virtuosity given enough time and practice.”

A cool featureThe team added LEDs that change color with scale progression. Using the three colors of red, green, and blue, the Cookware can create many different color combinations and modulations; A sharp, for example, is half red, half orange, and then B is pure orange. Volume control also changes LED brightness. The instrument features four radiating pads (what the group called “sizzlers”) segmented into five different sections—or the equivalent of a pentatonic scale, a musical scale with five notes per octave. The physical proximity of the sizzlers to each other allows for a player, using both hands, to play up to four notes at once, creating richer and more complex chords; it also lets them use two fingers to create background ambiance while using the other two to play a solo melody. This flexibility is further enabled by an XY pad, by which the musician can balance sound in real time to create contrast not typically found in acoustic instruments.

A team takeaway: Burtonpatel, a double major in computer science and music, and who brought to the team a passion for software engineering and for drums, says the group’s interdisciplinary composition—including expertise in sociology, computer engineering, and cognitive brain science–was vital to faithfully translating members’ ideas into their instrument’s unique look and versatility.

“Our team’s combined experience in hardware, software, and component design meant that each portion of the instrument was flexible, making it simple to add new features like the LEDs,” he says. “And the team’s combined passion for music meant that the final soundscape of the instrument was a thoughtful product of iteration and collaboration.”

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The Sledgehammer Kablammer

Team members: Rose Kitz, E24, mechanical engineering; Kyle Tomlinson, A24, music, sound and culture; and Ramona Xi, A24, engineering psychology and music 

Inspiration: The group leveraged Tomlinson’s love of cello and drums for some sound choices, but the instrument’s adaptability for actual performance also influenced early ideas. Side buttons or knobs allow the player to toggle back and forth between notes, and a grid of four sensor pads on the front of the instrument also bundles different sounds for access to a range of possibilities. In addition, there is a long neck, like a cello’s, on which the player selects notes within a scale. Orientation is also flexible: The instrument can be played like a guitar or a cello, or by laying it flat on a table. 

A cool feature: The instrument can produce the sounds of four different instruments: cello, guitar, drums, and ambient sounds. Additionally, it can play in four different scales (including major, blues, minor, and chromatic) for 16 possible instrument/scale combinations. An acrylic side panel lights up and changes color to match the instrument choice. Color possibilities are yellow for guitar, purple for ambient, green for drums, and red for cello.

A team takeaway: For Kitz, working alongside a musician and an engineering psychology major brought about a valued “shift in mindset” that marked a departure from her usual approach to mechanical engineering projects. 

“My instinct, when we were first designing our instrument, was: ‘I really want to figure out how to use this cool sensor,’” she says. “But Professor Lehrman encouraged us to remember to ask, ‘What do I want to achieve musically? And what’s the simplest sensor that will help me achieve that?’ There's no reason to overcomplicate the technology. My group members were a lot more willing to take approaches that were less preoccupied with the technical side of things, and I think that made for an instrument we were all excited about.”

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The Chimmillian 

Team members: Owen Ackerman, E25, computer engineering; Yaqi Cai, A25, studio art (School of the Museum of Fine Arts); Kurt Gassiraro, A25, biology

Inspiration: The Chimmillian—a combination of “Chimera” and “Samchillian”—is described as a mutant instrument inspired by Leon Gruenbaum’s Samchillian, a unique interval-based instrument; Gruenbam gave a guest lecture on his invention early in the semester. 

“Chimeras are genetic hybrids that have cells from distinct sources,” explains Cai, “often resulting from the fusion of twin embryos. In mythology, they are hybrid beasts composed of different animals. We took inspiration from this image, using customizable note combinations that can be intervaled in variable ways, akin to mutating DNA, and that unlock new sonic organisms.” 

A cool feature: The Chimmillian design carries through the concept of how a hybrid can represent more than one thing at any single time. The idea of a mutant is also conceptually related to how new sonic combinations can be unlocked through creating unique scales. The instrument features two hinged modules made from laser-cut acrylic, a flexible configuration that morphs so it can be played by two performers. Cai, using Artbreeder software, also “bred” images related to the instrument, including micro-organisms (hydras, which can regenerate parts of their limbs), midi controllers, and printed circuit boards. The images were laser etched into acrylic and filled with clear resin so they glow under UV light. 

A team takeaway: Gassiraro is a self-taught sound designer who enjoys making unique instruments as co-founder of Tufts’ Music Production Club, valued his team’s fertile intersection of ideas. A biology major, he collaborated with team members studying in the School of Engineering and at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts.

“Each group member had their strong suits,” says Gassiraro. “I have no experience with coding or wiring, but I could bring sound design to the table. I was given the opportunity to learn how to wire and to gain a better understanding of different coding languages. In the end, we created a unique digital instrument that has capabilities unparallel to any other instrument that I know.”

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