Handmade Electronic Music Night, NI Science Festival.

I really must get better at keeping this blog up to date with cool happenings. There’ll be more stuff on it soon, I promise!

The inaugural NI Science Festival run for 11 days between 19th February – 1st March 2015 and offers a stimulating and wide range of events focusing on the wonders of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

During the day the festival will present a whole host of workshops, talks and interactive activities for young people, parents and schools. In the evening the festival will come alive with an eclectic mix of scientific debates, talks, theatre, comedy, music and film for adults. All the details you could possibly want are located at this here link: http://www.nisciencefestival.com/

On February 28th, Maker present a night of handmade music in The Black Box, Hill Street in Belfast.

What happens when the musician is also an engineer? The creative use of technology has been a driving force for innovation in art and music since the dawn of the 20th century. From the Theremin to the modern digital synthesiser, the application of technology has created sounds that have become embedded in our cultural landscape.

By manipulating the physical materials and electronics involved in music production, the artist has unprecedented control over their instruments’ timbre and the music they produce.
Featuring performances by Ed Devane (Limerick), Mischa Grae AKA Infotoxin (Belfast), plus guests. Visuals provided by Barry Cullen (Belfast)

This event is suitable for those aged over 18, and will cost you only £8 to attend. Sure why wouldn’t you?!

Essential Reading: Handmade Electronic Music by Nicolas Collins

So you’ve seen the monome, x0xb0x, atari punk console, people making their own pedals/synths and the vast amount of interesting things to be done with the Arduino. This abundance of DIY activity has awakened a primitive beast deep down in the reptilian core of your brain. This awakening infiltrates the rest of your consciousness and suddenly you find yourself looking at videos of smug jerks with their own DIY instruments thinking, “I hate you so much. I want to make things too. F__ off with your home made modular synth. I hope you choke on it!”

If the above describes you perfectly then you may very well have some rage issues which I cannot help you with. What I can help you with is your potential hacking skills by advising you to buy a copy of “Handmade Electronic Music” by Nicolas Collins.

This book should be the foundation for anyone attempting to get into hardware hacking, electronic instrument building or any form of DIY music making. First published in 2006 (second edition 2009),  this book takes the reader from the very beginning and teaches you the fundamental rules and techniques of hacking as well as what tools and materials you will need to get started.

Collins introduces us to the fact that there is music all around us in our everyday lives. (I’m sure he would have gotten on swimmingly with John Cage if they ever met.)  In one chapter, any electrical appliance can become a source of interesting sound using just a small amplifier and a pick up coil (see video below). In another, he unlocks the hidden audio potential of credit cards and other objects that make use of electromagnetism. It is essential to be aware of unusual sources of sound when hacking and Collins lays this foundation before moving on to more advanced topics.

While on the one hand opening our eyes and minds to the untapped musical potential of our surrounding environment, Collins importantly takes time out to explain essential hacking skills such as soldering (without which you won’t get very far), finding the clock circuit in hackable toys (and subsequently how to mess with said clock to produce cool sounds), how to understand different types of switches, how to power and package a hacked toy, how to take an idea from breadboard to circuit board and how to put the finishing touches to a completed project. You will also learn some very useful theory such as Ohm’s Law which is explained very simply and clearly.

One of the best aspects of the book is that it was written with the musician/composer in mind rather than the electronic engineer. This means that any possibly confusing principles or technical jargon are explained thoroughly and are related directly to the projects that comprise much of this book. (Speaking of the projects, there is also a DVD that accompanies the text with 13 video tutorials (also on YouTube), 87 video clips and 20 audio tracks from an international array of hackers, musicians and artists.) These projects include making your own condenser mic, pseudo-theremin, analog to digital converter, animated dagguerreotype, digital to analog converter and even a small power amplifier.


Another thing I really like about this book is that Collins relates each topic and chapter to artists and musicians that make use of DIY principles and techniques in their work. He also places everything into context with historical anecdotes detailing the progression of the technology he is talking about.

I can’t recommend this book enough for anyone interested in DIY music making. The only difficulty I can see people having with this book is the sourcing of the components for each project. Appendix A goes through some resources but because Collins is resident in the USA they are mainly based across the pond. The only source he lists that would be applicable to Irish or UK hackers is Maplins (which would probably be my last choice of supplier due to ridiculously high prices). A good source for components in small consumer quantities is Bits Box which is based in the UK.

Without a doubt, this book will give you the know-how and skills necessary to confidently attempt to make any demented contraption you can think of and is the perfect introduction to the art of hardware hacking.

Bryan Dunphy