The Skronk-O-Phone

“Skronk” was a term coined by music critic Robert Christgau, to describe music that his colleague Lester Bangs referred to (admiringly) as “horrible noise”: “thus the shriek, the caterwaul, the chainsaw gnarlgnashing, the yowl and the whizz that decapitates may be reheard by the adventurous or emotionally damaged as mellifluous bursts of unarguable affirmation.”

The Skronk-O-Phone is an instrument that joyfully embraces this tradition. The user plays a guitar with no strings, just position sensors on the neck and force sensing pads (called FSRs) on the body.

To wit:
SkronkDemo2 from Jared Friedman on Vimeo.

The output is four modified walkmen and four modified sets of computer speakers. Each walkman is loaded with a cassette of pure, constant tone corresponding to the “string” it is reproducing: E2, A2, D3, G3.

The position of the player’s finger on the “string” determines the speed of the walkman’s motor – as the player moves his or her finger up the neck, the motor goes faster and the pitch of the note changes correspondingly. Then the FSR data is used to control the volume of the speakers – when the player is not pressing on a button, that string is silent, and the loudness can then be fairly accurately manipulated by pressing harder or softer.

Additionally, switches on the headstock allow the player to choose whether the output is chromatic (i.e. touching at or behind a fret will make the note associated with that fret) or not (so every tiny movement of a finger will make a tiny change).

And of course, the player can use any cassette she or he wants, not just tone but rhythm, speech, found sound, even other music.

Thusfar, there seems to have only been one person who has made actual music on the thing, having picked it up only moments before, and it sounded great:

SkronkGood from Jared Friedman on Vimeo.

The Gauss-O-Phone

editedVideo_5-2-2016_85138_AM from Jared Friedman on Vimeo.

The Gauss-O-Phone is a new musical instrument played with the finger(s) of one hand and a magnet held in the other. At the same time, it is a computer-generated musical piece that allows the user to play along with it and solo over it, while it selects its next key changes based on what the user plays.

The construction of it is incredibly simple, just a position-sensing strip along the length (which responds to the user’s finger) and four Hall effect sensors (which respond to magnetic fields) at one end. The magnetic sensors play the root, fifth, third and seventh (minor or major, depending on what key the user is playing in) of a chord determined by the position of the finger along the strip. It’s a lot simpler to play than it is to explain.

The computer program generates a drumbeat and a bassline randomly and probablilistically, and then changes keys based somewhat abstractly on what the user plays. The backing track is definitely a dice-roll – sometimes the computer comes up with something wonderful, and sometimes it sounds deeply silly or just plain wrong. It’s also possible to turn off the backing track and just play the instrument, which was what users seemed to enjoy most anyway.

Further explanation can be found here:

20160502_081355 from Jared Friedman on Vimeo.


The Ma-Bell-O-Phone

20161205_103624 from Jared Friedman on Vimeo.

The Ma-Bell-O-Phone repurposes old telephones to make a new musical instrument, based on the “rules” of dual-tone multi-frequency tone dialing. Just like in an actual phone, the notes are made up of pairs of sine waves determined by the row and column of the button the dialer presses; unlike in an actual phone, the tones are musically coherent.

It utilizes the keypad, body and much of the internal circuitry of four AT&T/Western Electric Traditional 100 telephones, though the tones are generated by analog synthesizers of my own design, based on the Exar XR-2206CP analog function generator chip.

The circuit ended up being insanely fun to lay out:

And an opportunity to hone my soldering skills:

And then the whole thing had to be tuned with a screwdriver, one tone at a time (there were 64 in all), all by ear, which was wonderfully meditative, in the midst of the madness of wrapping up NIME.

And it sounds rather lovely. The tones are organized in harmonic pairs – in each column of each phone, the root tone is consistent for the whole column and the second tone is the octave for the first row (i.e. keys 1, 2 and 3), the fifth for the second row (4, 5, 6), the major third for the third (7, 8, 9) and the minor third for the bottom row (*, 0, #). The roots span one whole octave, so theoretically one can play any melody on it.

Additionally, the handsets still work as microphones and speakers, though I didn’t manage to figure out a way to incorporate them into my NIME performance.