Scitech | Building your own sound machines

DIY audio electronics art workshop at POP Montreal

“It’s an empowering thing once you learn how to build electronics, because it feels like there’s so much mystery around it,” says Rebecca Baxter, a Halifax-based multimedia artist whose work “Sound Machines” was exhibited as part of the POP Montreal International Music Festival. Not limited to concerts, the festival also included art exhibitions, film screenings, and symposium discussions featuring artists from around the world. On the last day of the festival, Baxter led a workshop on do-it-yourself (DIY) audio electronics in which she demonstrated that building and modifying electronic instruments at home is both accessible and affordable.

Baxter is a graphic designer by trade who recently became interested in designing sounds and building her own synthesizers. Since then, she has built various electronic instruments, created interactive pieces for shows in Halifax and Montreal, and joined a space rock band called Meteoroid in which she plays her own machines and other circuit bent sound-makers. In the workshop, she lent her knowledge and experience to other aspiring creators, showing first-hand the methods used to build the ‘sound machines’ that were on display at the festival.

While many novices interested in making electronic music turn to digital environments for sound generation out of affordability or ease, they may be unaware that DIY electronics can actually be quite inexpensive and, after a basic understanding of electrical circuits, straightforward. For musicians, building physically tangible electronic instruments may be a refreshing change from manipulating objects on a computer screen.

“Physical hardware elements will always remain in music,” says Baxter. “The software is changing, and the tools you have to work with are evolving, but some things will always remain.” With more widespread access to technology, Baxter is optimistic about the future of music creation. “Inexpensive tools, digital or analog, put power in people’s hands to do things that they couldn’t do before, and we end up with more experimentation and a greater range of types of things produced.”

Baxter taught workshop participants how to build multi-voice oscillators, ‘sound machines’, which generate sound waves that are processed and combined to create modifiable synthesized electronic tones. Inside the casing of the small machines, resistors, capacitors, and diodes are added to a Schmitt trigger circuit to create up to six resistance-capacitance (RC) oscillators that produce sound waves with a square waveform. Square waves are useful in sound synthesis because they contain a wide range of odd harmonics and generate pulses. The square waves produced by the circuit can have any ratio of frequencies, depending on the values of the resistors and capacitors, which interact with each other to create complex sounds.

A simple multi-voice oscillator can be built for as low as $10. Capacitors, resistors, diodes, and chips can all be purchased for under $1, while the most expensive parts are generally just the knobs and the casing. Scavenging for parts among discarded electronics can make building instruments at home even cheaper. With this model as a starting point, “you can make whatever sounds you want to make, you can design any sort of instrument,” Baxter explains. “In my band I use these machines for sweeping sounds, and a lot of them are used for drone-style stuff, where you get an interesting sound wave and add layers on top of it.” Even if building synthesizers does not interest you, you can certainly find other musical applications for DIY electronics. “You can spend $100 [to] $300 on a guitar pedal just to find out later that you can make a simple fuzz pedal for nothing,” Baxter says.

If you missed Baxter’s workshop, getting past the initial knowledge barrier and beginning to build your own electronics may seem intimidating, but there are many resources online and in print for those who are curious. Baxter recommends Handmade Electronic Music by Nicolas Collins, Practical Electronics for Inventors by Paul Scherz, and websites like Music From Outer Space and Instructables. Locally, workshops are posted and proposed on the Facebook group “DIY Analog Synth Montréal,” where you can find advice and inspiration from Montreal’s own DIY audio electronics community.

After learning the fundamentals by following instructions to build a simple introductory project comes the most exciting part: experimentation. “As you go along learning, you understand more about the components involved and what’s happening in the circuit, and then you can experiment and use them in ways that may not be what they were originally intended for,” explains Baxter. “Sometimes you’ll surprise yourself and be like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know I could make that sound.’ It’s cool to explore.”

Baxter’s own explorations in sound were displayed at her “Sound Machines” exhibit in the POP Montreal headquarters building on St. Urbain and Sherbrooke, where a simple white table was set with four metal boxes of varying colours and two pairs of headphones. Putting on the headphones, the listeners would find that the excited chatter of the festivalgoers in the building was drowned out by a single pulsing tone. At the turn of one of the many unlabeled buttons and knobs, the pulse of the sound could speed up; turning another might distort the sound; turning a third, a second tone might appear that would interfere with the first and create a new rhythm. Baxter explained in the workshop that some of these effects were created by mixing oscillator outputs with resistors and capacitors of different values, or by using diodes to link multiple oscillator outputs to a main output jack, causing the oscillators to interact and distort and produce a ring modulation effect.

While playing with these ‘sound machines,’ people must be very focused on the sounds they hear, and turn each knob gently to discover its function. The result is an overall heightened sonic awareness. “There are no labels on the oscillators, so it forces people to pay attention and listen,” Baxter says. “The most basic purpose of the machines is to invite people to create, to collaborate, and to experiment even if they have no idea what they’re doing.”

Baxter’s workshop communicated a similar theme: even if you have no idea what you’re doing when it comes to electronics, you can quickly and affordably explore the potential that technology has for art by learning to create and experiment at home. “It’s great that people have the tools they can express themselves with,” adds Baxter, “and music is a powerful art form that has the power to affect people emotionally so quickly.”

[Updated October 14 2014]