Category Archives: Robot rock

Chaos | Order: a robotic musical compilation

Robot Sound Project | Arduino Theremin

Group Members | Adrienne Cassel, Amy Rosen, Patrick Miller-Gamble, Seth Glickman

Initial Brainstorming

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Our project began with no shortage of creative, raw design ideas.  Flexing sheets of aluminum, shaking tambourines, playing an assortment of drums and percussion instruments, spinning and striking metal cylinders, throwing objects into operating blenders, motoring air pumps into buckets of water (of various sizes), constructing a Rube Goldberg machine, were all part of spirited brainstorming sessions.  Conjuring grandiose robotic visions, it would seem, was well within our collective skill set coming into the project.  Any experience or innate concept of building the components of these visions was unfortunately not.

Table of Initial Collected/Tested Tools

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 Use of Saw + Foot Cymbal Video

We began with a “golden spike”—a proof of concept that the four team members could together build a simple robotic musical device.  Starting with a “motor-test” patch, we removed the multi-directional code to instruct an Arduino to spin an external motor in a single direction, at a desired speed.  To the end of the motor, we attached a liquid dropper at the tip.  The dropper itself had been modified to contain a cutoff of a standard pencil connected at a perpendicular angle.  The motor and said attachments were placed inside a metal cylinder, which rang loudly as the motor spun the makeshift contraption.

“Pencil Metal Thing”

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From there we aimed a degree larger: The Air Pump.  Removing the motorshield, we connected the Arduino to a more robust external power supply and programmed instructions from a modified “blink” patch.  We connected an air pump found in the shop to the circuit and successfully achieved a degree of air pressure being distributed from the pump.  However, again unfortunately, the air pressure was not powerful enough to blow out a candle, no less power through a bucket of water.  Our second attempt though was indeed successful as we replaced the existing pump with a powersync and connected that bottleneck to a pump capable of more significant air power.

“Air Pump”

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Pump Video

“Air Pump as Sound Activator” – Movement Hitting Other Instruments

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Amidst other trials, we began constructing the beginnings of a narrative to guide the preparation for our eventual performance.  We listened closely to each prototype and began to appreciate various aspects of the sounds they created.  To us, they were robots in a given space, interacting, conversing, even fighting with one another.  We designed Arduino code to operate servos at various speeds and delays, and combined these with the growing collection of other orphaned robot musicians.

“Robot Arguments”

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Robot Argument Video

Meanwhile, one of the prototype developments exceeded our anticipation and expectations.  Using a breadboard, a light sensor and an external speaker, Adrienne constructed a system that would translate and scale light input data into a variable audible frequency.  She’d essentially created a performable Arduino-driven theremin, which quickly became the narrative denouement of the project.

Theremin Video 1

Theremin Video 2

Amy designed the staging such that the arduinos and instruments were placed on “pedestals” and highlighted as sculptural entities.  Originally, the four group members were going to each play one of the instruments; however, after parsing and pruning a variety of performance configurations with the organic and robotic instruments, we eventually curated the setup to highlight the theremin and utilize our various prototypes as accompaniment.  The cables and chords were carefully strung through the “pedestal” boxes to create a clean and composed performance.

“Robot Sculptures”

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“Robot Band”

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Test of Theremin with Vocals

Final Staging + Display of Tools



The experimental piece was performed at the Hunt Library’s Media Lab on Wednesday, April 6, 2016.