Collecting and reading scientific publications or research papers is a big part of being a scientist. Back in the old days of the 20th century and early 21st century scientists used to print out papers, staple them together, and read them. Ideally under the academic infinite time model one would take a paper, sit in a comfortable chair, read it, and ponder the conclusions.
In reality there is never enough time to read a paper cover to cover. So many things are tugging at my attention span that it falls apart into fragments. One looks at the results and discussion sections and ponders the conclusions in small fragments of time.
I often wish that I could staple all the fragments of time together and finish the paper cover to cover. Really digest the material in each and every paper. Get a good grasp on the meaning and how it relates to my research. Then these crazy ideas form. Why not make a piano with staplers as keys?
Sounds easy? Every try searching for ‘white stapler’ on google? Google suggests you meant red stapler and you want to buy a replica of the Office Space icon.
Once an octave of staplers was acquired it was time to make the keyboard. Rugged was a large factor in the design process. I wanted to make it strong enough that it could be hammered on by ‘musicians’ and survive extreme weather.
Accessibility was another design requirement. I conducted research on ADA compliant desks in an effort to make it wheel chair accessible. This lead to a design that had sufficient legroom.
Audio fidelity was also high on the list of requirements. The synthesizer in the piano is connected to a three way speaker system. The bass is reproduced by a 15 inch subwoofer in a sealed cabinet. A sealed cabinet was chosen to keep water and critters from getting inside the cabinet. Mid frequencies are reproduced by two 6 inch speakers. Highs are reproduced by classic Philips high efficiency piezo tweeters. The system is bi amplified to reduce distortion. Amplification is handled by a car audio amplifier.
Synthesized notes are produced by a variety of methods depending on the event and audience. Arduino MIDI, sampled sounds, analog synthesizers, are all in the current sound library. The sound generators are modular. This is great but I found it difficult to make the piano musically appealing. My musical experience ended in high school marching band. Luckily my friend and fellow researcher-programmer Dave Anderson is a musician. Having Dave to explain music theory and write software that is musically appealing changed the way people interact with the piano.
While I was working on making a robust physical instrument that could withstand transportation and run on battery power Dave was working on the music.
The debut performance for the piano was at a small festival in the desert called Burning Man. The piano was part of a larger installation dubbed the Beat Frequency Muffin. The Muffin was an ensemble of odd musical or not so musical instruments. Laura is in the picture wiring up an analog synthesizer circuit board that I designed and had fabbed for the piano. Things barely got running at Burning Man. We worked day and night with setbacks from rain. One of the biggest setbacks was not being able to read computer screens in the desert sun. My buddy Dave Nghiem used his years of adventurer-explorer experience to make a cardboard hood to block the sun. He is sitting in the Jeep in this picture. Dad is painting the jeep.
It was at Burning Man that I learned the importance of making the instruments musical. Meaning if a person walks up to the piece they should be able to interact with it and make a sound that isn’t going to send them running. Of course people have different tastes in music. To me it sounded great, just like everyone thinks their baby is the cutest. Well actually it didn’t sound great to me. But it was a start… once the hardware was stable we could tweak the sounds.
The next showing of the piano was at Figment Boston. We spent some time refining the sounds and adding more buttons and levers. A fresh coat of legal pad yellow paint was applied. Here is a picture of our number one fan from Figment. He must have been playing for at least an hour in total. He would play for a few minutes then convince his dad to come back for another performance.
My favorite experience from making the piece is seeing how people interact with it. Often times when I design systems I envision users using them in a certain way. Once you put the finished product in the hands of the user they turn your designer’s world upside down. What started out as a musical instrument morphed into a smile generator.
After being inspired by the smiles at Figment we rushed to get the piano on a truck to Burning Man. Most of the action at Burning Man happens when the sun is down. We bought a bunch of LEDs and Dave got deep into coding an Arduino to make neat light patterns. Laura and I installed the light system. Lights are paramount at Burning man. They are artistic and also prevent people from crashing their bicycles into your art project.
Here is a picture of the piano on the playa after surviving a heavy rainstorm. Dave’s LED matrix is visible.