How Hardware-Hacking Musicians Turn Tech into a Symphony

Jason Johnson Freelance writer and editor
digital turntable

The new electronic music trend is driven by tinkerers who turn computer hardware into handmade instruments.

Nick Demopoulos sat in the living room of his Brooklyn apartment, concerned about lead poisoning.

He was assembling a custom-built musical instrument from circuit boards and various electronic components, and had been breathing in metallic solder fumes for several days now. Remembering how a lot of people who repair guitar pedals go insane after years of wielding the soldering iron, he decided to turn the fan on. That settled, he buried his head inside the casing and continued installing transistors.

Along with many like him, Demopoulos is part of a growing movement of composers and songsmiths who are rolling up their sleeves and getting into the nitty gritty of creating musical instruments out of hardware. By many accounts, the flurry of innovation couldn’t have come at a better time.

Nic Collins
During a rehearsal of “Salvage (Guiyu Blues)” by Nicolas Collins, musicians have to think creatively. Photo credit: Nicolas Collins.

In recent years, glow-stick-whirling rave festivals like Tomorrowland have seen a drastic drop off in ticket sales. And there is a rising chorus of naysayers who feel that electronic dance music has become overdone and lazy. To stave off the monotony, some electronic artists are learning to hack their equipment in order to produce fresh and original sounds.

On Jan. 17, Demopoulos debuted his new instrument, called the Pyramidi 2, at a gig at the Rosemont cocktail bar in Brooklyn.

“I’m a musician, not a trained designer,” he said. “When I made my first instruments, I was just going crazy and I made them as fast as I could.” About once a year, he feels compelled to overhaul the old designs completely.

This year’s model, for instance, is housed inside a triangular unibody case. Though he compares the act of playing the unorthodox instrument to plucking a lap steel guitar, the music it produces is totally unique.

“I’m the only person who plays this instrument, so the audience has no idea how it will sound,” he said. “I’m not saying it’s great. I’m just saying it’s different.”

electronic music
An instrument made from a homemade circuit, dead circuit board and lead fishing weights is used to perform “The Royal Touch” by Nicolas Collins. Photo credit: Nicolas Collins.

Demopoulos’s live performances are adventurous experiences. Along with playing the Pyramidis, he also wails on a guitar-shaped device studded with buttons and joysticks. However, he’s not just tinkering around.

Musical artists who hack together wild instruments are typically trying to break through creative boundaries and push sound to its outer limits.

“The vast majority of things people are doing in music are essentially known musical problems,” said the composer Nicolas Collins, a professor of sound at of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. For instance, most musicians are occupied with the age-old craft of writing a tune.

But writing music for a hacked or handmade instrument is largely unknown territory. “It’s like trying to put a basketball through a net on another planet,” he said. “Musicians have to start thinking more creatively.”

Nic Collins
Nicolas Collins performs “The Royal Touch” at the Sonar Festival in Santiago, Chile. Photo credit: Marcelo Maira.

The earliest music hackers, according to Collins, emerged from the clique of artists who gathered around the avant-garde composer John Cage in the 1960s. American composers such as David Behrman and Gordon Mumma were interested in producing new kinds of music with emerging technologies, but they didn’t have access to the proper facilities and studios to do so. As a workaround, they repurposed parts from consumer electronics and taught themselves how to build their own circuits to create these electronic symphonies.

These days, hardware-hacking musicians have adapted to the latest technology to keep up with the times. Composer Keith Fullerton Whitman is well known for jamming on highly advanced equipment. Using his laptop and several old-school synthesizers, which are buried under a jungle of tangled wires, he creates ambient, drone, and noise music.

electronic music hack
A simple cigar box with probes is used as an instrument for “Salvage (Guiyu Blues).” Photo credit: Nicolas Collins.

Over the course of 17 studio albums, one method Whitman has relied on is overclocking. Also popular among gamers who are trying to extract maximum strength from their PCs, overclocking can be thought of as a perpetual espresso shot for machines. Basically, the technique involves fiddling with a computer’s hardware configuration to make the CPU rocket ahead at almost dangerous speeds.

“The unpredictability and spontaneity that this sort of approach affords you as both a listener and a composer has merit,” said Whitman. “I feel like I’m collaborating with my gear on a component level.”

The relationship between musician and hardware has become increasingly important since the rise of gadgets used in DJing and VJing (DJing with a visual component). Last year, Thud Rumble teamed up with Intel to reinvent the turntable for the digital age. Using the Intel Edison module, they embedded computer capabilities into the turntable itself so DJs wouldn’t always be tied down to a laptop. Aside from the added portability, it allows musicians to spin and mix on the fly using a much more natural interface.

thud rumble

Looking ahead, artificial intelligence appears to be the next frontier in machine-driven music.

“Neural networks could definitely be used as great creative tools for musicians,” said Matt Vitelli and Aran Nayebi, who created an AI called GRUV for a programming class last year. GRUV is a deep-learning maestro, who can analyze the music on an iPod or iTunes library and, after around a hundred hours of studying the song structures, come up with new music.

The music doesn’t sound like it was recorded by a professional musician, yet. But, occasionally, it’s interesting and even listenable. Vitelli and Nayebi believe that the quality will improve in coming years. However, the technology might be best suited to exploring what is possible with machine-made sound.

“We think that musicians using neural networks to adapt or improve a song is a happy medium,” they said. At least, for now.

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