Category Archives: Sounds

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.

Two interesting musical pieces

This is an experimental art instillation by musician and composer Craig Colorusso. What struck me about it apart from being a really interesting way to represent sound was its emphasis on walking around and exploring the soundscape. Considering this is what I wanted to  happen with my first project I was immediately drawn to this instillation. Each speaker has a different guitar sample hooked up to it so when the sun charges the speaker enough it plays its sample.

With this song, I have always been fascinated with making other forms of media into a song. So I am huge fan of mashups. This video takes things further by taking the movie pulp fiction and turning certain scenes into a song.

Sounds (or well, methods) I Find Interesting

The first two artists are similar in that there is one individual creating most of the sounds and layering them onto one another.  When performed live, these pieces become compiled field recordings, so they are always unique to the performance location.

The first piece is by Andrew Bird.  He is one of my favorite artists for “peaceful” or “relaxing” music compositions.  His talent with myriad instruments is instantly apparent, but what makes his music (and this piece in particular) beautiful is the delicate way in which he blends the different sounds together.  By always beginning with the basic beat and building up, his music becomes very natural to listen to.  Notice that the vocals (whistling not included) in this piece do not actually come into play until about a minute and a half into it, allowing the listening to become fully emerged into the soundscape before being reminded that a human is creating these sounds.

The second piece is by James Blake.  Similar to Andrew Bird, he also creates his music through layering live; however, unlike Andrew Bird, most of his sounds are created with a keyboard and electronic effects in additional to the vocals.  This creates a completely different atmospheric quality than that created by Andrew Bird.  Yet, the overall effect of James Blake’s music – slowly building the piece by virtue of a repetitive initial sound or two followed by dramatic beats and accents – also allows the listener to become extremely comfortable with it prior to being confronted with a variety of more abrupt, intense, or semi-unsettling sounds that simply make the pieces more interesting.

I also love this song by James Blake and Bon Iver, because it takes advantage of the skills of both artists by setting them in cldear opposition while simultaneously seamlessly joining them.  This song takes advantage of various instruments and tools to create overlapping beats and rhythms that fluctuate in a melodic manner.

On another note, I wanted to share an interesting method of sound-creation that I recently discovered.  ArcAttack is an experimental group that harnesses the power of Tesla Coils and robotics to create varying frequencies and sound qualities.  In addition, through strategically dramatic lighting and acting, they accentuate the futuristic sounds with complimentary visuals.  By mainly doing covers of well-known songs, ArcAttack allows the listeners to easily piece together the sounds, while being mesmerized by the technique.

And finally, because we are going to be working with machines, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who has created music using household appliances, I thought I would share this fun compilation.

Interesting Pieces

In my computer music class we’ve been talking a lot about the history of electronic music, and our professor Opie has shown us quite a few big names. Two of these are Morton Subotnik and Harry Partch. These two pieces of theirs were really interesting to me, but for different reasons- as you will probably be able to tell, these pieces are not similar at all.


Listening Examples

I mostly listen to ambient / melancholy music, and this piece fell into that category. It was a little difficult to find, but it gives me the same unsettling feeling that piece with the cassette tape gives off. The piece starts off with very rigid chords, as if we’re traveling along the surface of an unmodified piece of glass. The rigidness then transforms into a mostly steady beat of a piece of glass being softly struck. It’s interesting to me that it’s steady most of the time, but seems to stumble a couple times. It gives off the impression that it smooths out towards the end of the piece because the sound starts to blur into one. I find it interesting that the main part of the piece is the sound of the glass being hit. However, it is not a distinct enough sound to detract from the piece.

I’ve also lately been listening to Ryoji Ikeda’s pieces after listening to data.superhelix. He’s able to create songs that all remind you of a computer. But I find it most interesting that most of the sounds he uses I recognize as coming from a computer, rather than other machines. I also realized he likes throwing in high pitches into his pieces so I would look out for that. I can’t place the sound he uses to keep the beat.

Two Music Pieces

These pieces aren’t the most experimental. But I think they’re examples of very intentional and nuanced sound design in music.

The rhythmically heavy beats seem to have an effect on the sounds being used. Almost like a rippling in time where the beat happens.

This is a slower one. It’s a mixture of ‘normal’ instruments, digital instruments, and human sounds. There are a lot of layers to pick apart, and sometimes new sounds/instruments appear out of somewhere that feels natural.

Music Pieces

I originally wanted to give some sort of deep, insightful sounds for this, but I kind of just want to post two songs that I like.


The first is Slow Coming by Benjamin Booker.

I love how his voice kind of whistles at 1:07.


The next is The Green Twins by Nick Hakim (the musical love of my life[okay, one of many. But he’s definitely at the top]).



GDB – Musical pieces

Brian Eno – 1/1 (Music for Airports)

Brian Eno is one of the earlier pioneers into ambient music, and personally I’m very fond of this piece in particular. Its use of space in particular is excellent.

Steve Reich – Piano Phase

We’ve discussed Steve Reich before in class, and I’ve actually performed one of his pieces in the past (Music for pieces of wood). Piano Phase is one of his more curious pieces. Reich likes to play with the structure of music a lot, and one of the most evident cases of this is here. The piece is based on the idea of having 2 pianists play the same bar of music at different speeds, and using this to gradually change the phase of the 2 performer’s loops.