The LightHarp

Strange electronic instruments

Electronic instruments can often sound even more unusual than they look. Here are ten of the most peculiar.

  1. The LightHarp is the world's first Indian electronic musical instrument. Constructed in leather and fibreglass, it resembles the Indian veena instrument in shape and features 32 light-sensor virtual strings that detect speed and position of finger movement in order to create sound. The strings are transposable over eight octaves and can play individual notes or act as frets on a single string. The response times of the sensors are greatly improved with the use of a Schmitt-trigger mechanism, reducing onset delays to less than one millisecond. The complex controller set-up includes breath control, a pitch and modulation joystick, pressure sensitive touch strips, foot-control pedals and dial controllers.
  2. AudioCubes are self-powered, palm-sized cubes that connect to a personal computer to enable a musician to control sounds and music sequences. This is done by manipulating the position and angle of the cubes, which work wirelessly with each other using four onboard infrared sensors, and altering the distance between them. One cube remains connected, acting as a facilitator between the others and the computer. Each cube is identical and is assigned a colour and purpose upon connection with a PC; an unlimited number of cubes can be used at one time. The cubes are provided along with a variety of software programs, enabling the musician to use them in very versatile and unique ways. They can also be used as MIDI controllers or, alternatively, can produce their own sounds via their inbuilt synthesis engines.
  3. Originally used by The Lyle and Sparkleface Band, the Bikelophone is constructed from a standard bicycle and customised with a number of additions: bass strings, scrap wood and metal, metal bowls, telephone bells, a mechanical foot pedal and a touch-sensitive tone generator. Sound compositions can be built up in layers using a loop-based recording system and outboard signal processors.
  4. The Samchillian Tip Tip Tip Cheeepeeeee, a variation of a MIDI controller, was invented and patented by Leon Gruenbaum. Unlike other MIDI controllers, where each key on the keyboard would denote a fixed pitch, each key on the Samchillian Tip Tip Tip Cheeepeeeee denotes a change of pitch, for example the '+1' key, which when pressed sounds the note one higher than the last note played; another is the '-2' key, and so on. Playing these two keys in rapid succession would result in a sound pattern that spirals down the keyboard. A number of different scales, including microtonal scales and key signatures, are available for the musician to experiment with, meaning that once a pattern has been established, it can be played in any key or scale without the need to relearn fingering.
  5. The Serpentine Bassoon is an unusual conical bore instrument made from two sheets of polished leather. It originated in Australia and is played with a normal bassoon crook and double reed. Being such a malleable material, leather can be wet-formed into the desired shape and then heat-dried to provide a good acoustically reflective surface. The sounds of the serpentine bassoon are modified with pickups, pressure and movement sensors; all of which can be used to help produce unusual noises such as sirens, echoes, warbling and wild animal cries.
  6. The Reactable is a round translucent table with a backlit display that is designed to be used in darkened rooms. It is operated by placing a block or tangible on the surface of the table, with each tangible representing a different module of an analogue synthesiser such as a sequencer or voltage-controlled oscillator (VCO). When contact between the tangible and table is made, animated symbols appear which allow the musician to control the output of the tangible with his/her fingertips in order to manipulate the sounds being produced. The Reactable works by reading fiducials, printed black and white images, from the underside of the tangibles via a video camera built into the table and sending the data to a computer. A video projector is also built into the table that projects the display onto the underside of the translucent tabletop. A version of the Reactable is currently available for the iPad.
  7. An Incantor is created using circuit-bending to short-circuit any audio device with a human voice synthesiser, a child's electronic reader for example, in order to fashion a new instrument. Endless abstract sound sequences can be created that are unique to each device and, as such, no two Incantors are the same.
  8. The Moodswinger is a 12-string instrument created by Yuri Landman in 2006. Although it is very similar in appearance to an electric guitar, the Moodswinger has no proper neck or frets so is actually a zither with an additional third bridge. Unlike an electric guitar, its pick-up and electronics are actually built into the neck instead of the body, where they are stored in a traditional electric guitar. Landman invented it after he was contacted by the band Liars to custom-make an instrument for them: he made two Moodswingers and kept one for himself. The additional third bridge is actually a rod which divides the strings into two segments with two different pitches, creating an overtone multiphonic sound. In 2009, Landman created a version called the Homeswinger for use in workshops. Participants could make a simplified working copy within a four-hour tutorial. The Liars began using this instrument when recording their fourth album 'Liars' and the instrument can clearly be heard in the song 'Leather Prowler', which listeners often confuse with the sound of a piano. In 2008, the Moodswinger was released as a serial product. Other famous owners include Jessie Stein of the Luyas, and the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix.
  9. Created by Isaac Zal, the Harmonic Generator is an experimental electronic instrument consisting of five main components: 64'chromatically tuned piano strings produce 32'notes; 32 corresponding motors hover over the strings, rotating bristle paint brushes from 600-2,000 revolutions per minute; a homemade keyboard played like a piano controls the motors; 12 pick-ups focus on one octave of strings; and a transducer at the end of the instrument feeds back the sound of the pick-ups into the'large resonance hull. The resulting sound of this instrument has been described as 'a symphony inside the belly of a whale'.
  10. The most widely known electronic instrument, the Theremin is named after its Russian creator, Professor Leon Theremin, who patented the device in 1928. It was the product of Russian government-sponsored research into proximity sensors after the outbreak of the Russian civil war. Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin was so impressed with Theremin's findings that he took lessons to learn how to play the instrument, and consequently commissioned 600 to be distributed throughout the Soviet Union. Its eerie sound has been used in numerous film and TV soundtracks, including 'Midsomer Murders'. The Theremin is played without being touched: two metal antennas sense the position of the musician's hands, with one controlling frequency and the other amplitude. The signals are then amplified and sent to a loudspeaker. The Theremin was a direct inspiration for the now infamous Moog synthesisers, after creator Robert Moog became a Theremin enthusiast in high school. Famous musicians who have used the instrument include Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones. Comedian Bill Bailey also used the instrument at the Royal Albert Hall.

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