A new type of musical instrument that's ridiculously easy to play
January 19, 2021 11:52 AM   Subscribe

A new type of musical instrument that's ridiculously easy to play
I've been creating a new kind of electronic musical instrument. It's expressive, it's melodic, it's compact, it's portable, and it's absurdly easy to play.

So I've been building new musical instruments which will revolutionize music education and bring the wonders of creating music to people who never thought they'd be able to play. Seriously.

Unfortunately, while I'm a pretty clever inventor, it turns out I kind of suck at the whole promotion/getting products to market thing. If you've got any ideas in that regard, let me know.

You can read more about it over on the Bardable subreddit.
Role: Inventor
posted by MrVisible (22 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
This project was posted to MetaFilter by aniola on September 26, 2022: popcorn

Great to see dreams made real like this, MrVisible, wish you the best in seeing your idea gain some traction.
posted by Meatbomb at 12:16 PM on January 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

Hey, this is pretty cool! I notice you mentioned you bought all the parts retail. If you end up deciding you want to do some sort of small-scale production run making the instruments yourself, can I suggest looking into ordering your electronic parts (including buttons, etc.) from a place like DigiKey or Mouser Electronics? Maybe you know about those places already, but they're great for ordering everything from small batches to bulk components, and the selection is huge. You'll probably find things that will inspire you to continue iterating your design to match your vision even better!
posted by biogeo at 1:45 PM on January 19, 2021 [2 favorites]

You may or may not be aware, but there is a small community of folks that build and sell electronic instruments through places like Etsy and Ebay. A lot of them get into it through circuit bending or custom guitar pedals and then gradually work their way up to original instruments. You may have success reaching out to some of these people for suggestions or collaboration, especially if you want to go forward with your idea of open-sourcing the instrument. These are the people that would likely be building and selling them.
posted by forbiddencabinet at 7:05 PM on January 19, 2021 [3 favorites]

A neighbor of mine created his own instrument called The Glide. It’s completely different, but he probably had a bunch of similar hurdles and might have some relevant experience to share. He’s entered it into few tech/music competitions and done fairly well, which could be a way to gain some notoriety.

Super nice guy, it might be worth contacting him through his site to see if he’s got any advice.
posted by JonnyKingKong at 8:00 PM on January 19, 2021 [2 favorites]

That is really neat. The music playing during the video was absolutely beautiful. You have a definitely talent.
posted by kathrynm at 9:09 AM on January 20, 2021 [1 favorite]

I'm going to be overly honest here.

I'm never going to turn this into a business. I've spent the past couple of years trying to figure out how to do that, in between bouts of stunningly ill health, and the only thing I've really learned is that I simply don't have the capacity for any large projects like this. I've got a chronic disease that reacts very badly to stress, and the very idea of running a company stresses me out. The idea of running an open-source project stresses me out. And when I get stressed, I get sick.

I've tried looking for help in all the ways I could figure out. I've had a couple of people who were really interested in turning this into something, and I put a lot of effort into bringing them on board, but things didn't work out. I tried contacting companies that made similar instruments, but couldn't get a single reply.

And now I'm out of resources, my health is making me deeply unreliable, and the only thing I can think of to do is put the project out into the public sphere and hope... something happens? Not sure.

In my dreams, someone comes along and wants to make this set of ideas into a responsible company dedicated to making musical instruments for everyone. I'd turn over years of notes and prototypes, and help actual engineers develop products from my ideas. And then I'd work on creating custom instruments for people with particular physical needs or disabilities, because the systems I've applied to this instrument can create any number of others.

The next step in the development process is taking the clunky prototype I built out of hot glue and hinge screws and turning it into either a kit that people can reasonably assemble or a product that can be brought to market. Both of those are pretty far outside my skill set and capabilities. It took me weeks just to put together the demo video.

So I'm looking for someone to take this over and do it justice. Someone who's excited about bringing the world a whole new way of making music. Someone for whom the idea of creating a company is a dream. Or I'm looking for a company that sees the potential in this idea and wants to explore bringing it to market. Or some variation thereof.

I'm a brilliant inventor and a talented artist. I'm a terrible engineer, a worse programmer, and should I ever have a chance to run a company I'm certain I'd be abysmal at it. Even when I was healthy no-one would have picked me as CEO of anything. I haven't an entrepreneurial bone in my body, and I have a horror of fame, internet fame in particular.

The past few years have been about me finally understanding the limitations that I kept smashing into. I'm not the steward that I would have chosen for this set of ideas, but I'm doing the best I can. And at this point, that consists of making occasional videos and posting to social media whenever I'm up for it. Even so I have a to-do list that I don't have the spoons to tackle most days. I really need to update that website, for instance.

I'm doing something big, and I'm doing it badly. I'm terrible at asking for help (being the kind of person who, rather than take music lessons, invents an entire new type of musical instrument), but I've gotten myself into a position where I really need help.

So if you know anyone who might be interested in making this a real thing, please send them my way.

And kathrynm, thank you so much for saying that about the music. I've never really played much in front of other people before, and being put in a position where I'm having to make music, in public, on a brand new instrument that even I don't fully understand yet has been nerve-wracking. It was wonderful to hear that you liked it. I've actually posted another demo video recently that you might enjoy.

Thank you to everyone who's taken the time to check out this project.
posted by MrVisible at 11:35 AM on January 20, 2021 [12 favorites]

My father's a musician, he plays a variety of stringed instruments. He also has rheumatoid arthritis which has been getting progressively worse, and just last week found out that he may need to have surgery to fuse his wrist joint. This would mean the end of his ability to play the music that he's loved playing all his life, and he's understandably upset and depressed.

The design of the instrument you've come up with seems like something that might be compatible with his arthritis. He's got a bit of a lifelong disdain for electronic music, but given his situation I think he might be willing to reconsider if it's the difference between music or no music. I'm going to share this with him and talk with him about whether I can make one of these for him, or something like it.

Thanks, MrVisible.
posted by biogeo at 1:02 PM on January 20, 2021 [3 favorites]

biogeo, I'm sorry to hear about what your father is going through. One of the reasons I designed the Starshine was because my back goes out every so often and I can't play guitar. And it's at those times that I need to play music the most, you know? So it's designed to be played with minimal mobility.

If you go ahead and build one, I'll be happy to help however I can. And if you decide to improve on my prototype, I've got a ton of ideas I've yet to implement myself. And if this doesn't seem like the perfect form factor for your father's needs, let me know; I've got a few other prototypes in various stages of functionality that might be more applicable.

One of the most fun aspects of these music controllers is that they demand a new approach to sound design. I wrote a bit about it here, but basically you get to choose which parameters of the sound you want to control in real time, as you're playing. This makes the instrument a ridiculously creative experience. You can design sounds that do ludicrous things during performances. These instruments have their limitations, but they've got massive creative potential, and I hope your father finds something in them worth experimenting with.

Plus, I'd absolutely love to hear what real musicians think about playing these.
posted by MrVisible at 1:50 PM on January 20, 2021 [1 favorite]

Thanks, MrVisible. I actually just got off the phone with my dad and talked a little about the idea of making an electronic instrument customized to his changing abilities. He was receptive and I think feels a lot better just knowing he has options if the surgery doesn't end up preserving his manual dexterity. I think I sold him on the idea that it might play differently but still could be made to sound good alongside other musicians playing traditional instruments. For now I think he's hoping to find a surgeon who specializes in working with musicians, but I'm grateful for the offer to help if we end up going that route!
posted by biogeo at 2:15 PM on January 20, 2021 [2 favorites]

Also I'm definitely curious to see your other prototypes and hope you have a chance to share them too!
posted by biogeo at 2:18 PM on January 20, 2021 [1 favorite]

BioGeo, I've been working on a Reddit post that would detail all the prototypes that led up to the Starshine, and you gave me the impetus to finish it.

You can find it here.

There are two alternate keyboard layouts in there that I think have potential. And I've got another couple of prototypes in process, but they're not ready to show anyone yet. And I'm sure there are a lot of keyboard design possibilities that I haven't thought of.
posted by MrVisible at 8:42 PM on January 20, 2021 [2 favorites]

This is wicked cool, a perfect projects post.
posted by Mitheral at 5:43 AM on January 22, 2021 [2 favorites]

Hey, MrVisible, this is great!!! An old grad school friend runs this music education design lab at NYU--it may be worthwhile for you to contact some folks there, see if they have any interest in using your design, as it's inline with what they're doing there. (And if you do make a few workable models, I'd be happy to buy a couple for my school's music ed students to experiment with.)
posted by LooseFilter at 7:59 AM on January 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

I don't have any thoughts beyond whats been posted here but just a fantastic project! I enjoyed the music in the video, just lovely. Very glad you posted here and hope you recieve more satisfaction units than frustration tokens.
posted by sammyo at 1:32 PM on January 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

Just an idea...you could separate the controller into two parts (left hand and right hand) and put a sliding variable resister between them that would swell the volume when you pull them apart and diminish the volume with you press them together. The wiring for the two halves could pass through a little accordion-type tube enclosing the sliding variable resister and connecting the two halves of the controller. This would perhaps make expression a bit more natural (a squeeze-box action that works like a volume pedal).

Another thought is that if you just wanted to put the project out there for people to build themselves, maybe you should "open source" your project by putting it on GitHub (or whatever), basically having a list of parts, then assembly instructions like the tutorials you find on ifixit.
posted by jabah at 11:00 AM on January 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

LooseFilter, thank you so much for the link to the music education design lab. I'd love to talk to them about the instruments I've been making. I'm excited to hear back from them.

And jabah, I've been thinking about splitting the controller for a while. In fact, I have a non-functional prototype of what that might look like. I posted details about it on Reddit.

These controllers provide a number of possible axes of expression. In addition to X, Y, and Z axes, there's also rotation and proximity (how far apart the controllers are). In addition, the speed of a movement could be used to control parameters.

But this makes for a really twitchy instrument. No-one would probably be using all of those axes of control throughout a piece of music. And you'll note that in this design the thumbs aren't being used at all.

So what I'd suggest is a set of buttons, perhaps two or three under each thumb, which would toggle the axes of expression on and off. For instance, if right thumb button number 1 is on, then the X axis controls velocity. Once the button is off, the velocity remains at its current level until button 1 is pressed again. Do the same thing with button 2, the Y axis, and reverb. And so on. That allows the player to engage as many or as few effects/parameters as they feel are necessary for the current piece.

This makes the instrument uniquely danceable. Since the notes are being controlled subtly, with the fingers, and the expressions can be controlled with broad gestures, it would be possible to choreograph songs that incorporated the expressive elements of the instrument.

Now, combine those with my Bluetooth MIDI tap shoes, and you've got a percussion section as well. Also, add a loop button to the controllers, and you're a genuine one-person band.
posted by MrVisible at 1:16 PM on January 25, 2021 [2 favorites]

Can I ask a question about this unrelated to your request? Do you plan on making a version that can play microtones either including "set" quarter tones or a system where we can change the frequency of each note?

Good luck with this project btw.
posted by ihaveyourfoot at 9:12 PM on February 1, 2021 [1 favorite]

It's sending out MIDI signals, which are constrained to the standard Western notes. To get it to be microtonal, you could take two approaches. One would be to use pitch adjustments to achieve the tones you want; you could create a completely custom scale, but it would take some work. The other way would be to make an analog version of this, with a built-in synthesis engine. That would allow you to assign the keys whatever frequencies you like.
posted by MrVisible at 6:31 AM on February 2, 2021 [1 favorite]

Just wanted to say that your instrument sounds beautiful!
posted by hydra77 at 10:18 PM on January 3, 2022 [1 favorite]

I just watched the video that you posted on January 20, 2021 and I have to tell you that I could listen to a stream of that all damn day.

Do you have more like it?
posted by wenestvedt at 7:37 AM on March 27, 2023 [1 favorite]

Just this one:

Noodling around with a Volca FM, SR-16, D-05, and my new TD-3

And keep an eye out; I'm working on my next instrument. Hopefully I'll be ready to post about it soon.
posted by MrVisible at 5:47 AM on March 29, 2023 [1 favorite]

This is super charming! And inspiring!
posted by Iteki at 6:05 PM on April 17, 2023 [1 favorite]

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