Through the power of skin-safe conductive ink, Scottish electronic artist Calvin Harris has collaborated with a team to make a synthesizer out of himself and a group of models in bikinis. That’s just fine, Calvin – now what are you going to use for your remaining two wishes?

The project is the creation of Calvin, Steve Milbourne and Phil Clandillon at Sony Music Entertainment, and four masters students at the Royal College of Art Industrial Design program who created the conductive ink: Bibi Nelson, Becky Pilditch, Isabel Lizardi and Matt Johnson. Johnson programmed the interface and music: two Arduinos provide the analog-to-digital connection between the ink-human circuitry and a computer. Patching environment Max/MSP then deals with the data and translates to MIDI, and musical materials are sequenced live and “performed” into Ableton Live. As seen on Engadget and sent in by a number of readers (thanks!) as well as the creative team that did it.

Team member Steve Milbourne writes us with full details and extra behind-the-scenes shots. I wanted to know how they put this together and if there were any false starts or experiments necessary to get it right. He responds:

We read about the conductive ink ‘Bare’ that the students at the RCA (Royal College of Art) had invented and we thought it was pretty cool. We wondered if we could make some kind of musical instrument from it, so we spoke to Calvin and asked him if he’d be up for collaborating.

After quite a bit of mulling over various methods of doing it, we decided to try and create a choreographed routine where people touching hands would close the circuits and trigger sounds somehow.

With the help of the guys from the RCA we began to draw a schematic for the synth, and conceptualize how it would operate, we eventually decided on a layout and that we’d control it using MIDI, by connecting the paint ‘electrodes’ to an Arduino which connects to Max/MSP. This then controls individual tracks in Ableton, and in the live mode automatically quantized them on the fly as the performance took place.

Behind the scenes it was two days of setting up, testing, and working out the routines before the day we filmed it. On the day we spent the morning letting the dancers rehearse and get the timing more or less right (so the notes were quantized into the right places at the BPM running in Ableton, a bit slower than the original track, but dancing at 140bpm was a little difficult for them!) and then we filmed several takes before we got one we were happy with.

False starts, well it took a while to get it all together. At times it seemed like it might not be completely possible. The conductive ink worked better on some people than others (due to a lot of scientific variables such as… how much salt they have in their body, how sweaty they were etc), but the RCA students went through a number of different variants of the paint to get it exactly right.

We messed around with painted pitch bends as well as ribbon controllers on peoples arms – which actually worked too, but we couldn’t fit them into the performance as they weren’t ‘quite’ reliable enough. Cool though.

As to Calvin’s other wishes.. I’m not sure what more you can ask for than a human synthesizer made up of 16 attractive girls in bikinis! 😉

Fair enough!

In the interest of gender balance, I can think of a few female electronic artists who certainly deserve to turn the tables on the roles here, however.

The ink itself is fascinating, and winks and nods about models aside, it’s terrific to see electronics getting closer to the human body and physical movement. For more on the ink and how it’s used:

More on Calvin Harris:

Photos courtesy Sony; used by permission.







  • João Menezes

    ahah. what a nice synthesizer 🙂

  • cubestar

    Bikini models = kinda lame, why not a group of different folks? Or maybe make electro musicians touch each other in bikinis?

    Oh, yeah remember bikini island!

  • Why isn't he in a bikini? Is he better than the rest or something?

  • Actually, I've done movement with musicians before. While at Sarah Lawrence, we were regularly doing movement improv; I've even used it as a way of loosening up an improv session.

    So, yes – touching doesn't have to just be for models. I'm not sure we all look good in a bikini, necessarily. (I'm… uh… a guy. Hairy. I'd have to contend with that. And maybe it'd cut back on conductivity.) But I agree there's potential beyond just models.

  • lowlife

    Calvin seems to really like the bass section, as do I.

  • Michael Coelho

    Very entertaining. I think attractive girls in bikinis will draw more YouTube views than electronic musicians in tee shirts. It would be interesting to implement modulation using something akin to a ribbon controller painted onto the bodies.

  • Hey, don't worry, I'm sure there are some CDM hotties, male and female alike… not speaking for myself; I'm just a disembodied blog voice, anyway.

  • cubestar

    Why can't we have fun and explore art without worrying if someone is sexually appealing?

    Even if they are all hairy large dudes with bikinis…

    I think mass media has beaten our brains to mush 😛

  • r.

    I'm a bit disappointed that they used themselves as a midi controller (in effect) rather than as an actual analog circuit. If you're going to do that, you don't need the conductive paint – natural skin conductivity is enough.

    Also, is that guy seven feet tall, or are Scottish models all pixies?

  • @cubestar: well, I can't disagree. Actually, I expect seeing this same routine with a bunch of hairy dudes in bikinis would gain quite a LOT of attention.

    @r.: I have to see if it's possibly to order some of this conductive ink. And of course people have been experimenting with that, encouraged by the MAKE folks offering their drawdio kit. No reason you can't actually route signal in place of control signal. (Control signal still does make this count as a synth to me, generally, or a component of one.)

  • Captain Howdy


  • apalomba

    No no no, you need to have the sample triggers

    be the girls lips. That way they can trigger

    things when they kiss each other. Much better!

  • adamcee

    How banal. And sexist (no offense to you, Peter. You didn't do it).

  • Well, I'm most excited about the skin-safe conductive ink… that could actually be quite useful.

    And yes, that qualifies as the "you know you're an electronics / physical computing geek if…"


    "Wow, that's unbelievably hot."

    "Yeah, look at those girls."

    "There are girls in the video? I was looking at the conductive ink."

  • digitalbeatsyndrome

    I have a Doepfer joystick.

  • Alternatively, test yourself — which is more of a turn-on:

    1. The last picture

    2. The second-to-last picture

  • g

    bruce haack was doing this in the 60's, minus the girls and wearing better clothes.

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  • luvs2splooge

    this begs the question, why did he paint their hands?

    also, what's with the male foot shots?

  • doug theriault

    yes, the idea it's the first human synthesizer is a joke. Bruce Haack and then Michel Waisvisz were doing these things long, long ago.

    The only difference here are that the babes are used as CV inputs. Easily done with just fingers, no need for bathing suits..

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  • doug theriault

    actually, to some degree i'm wrong…?

  • Wait, they said this was first? (Well, perhaps it's their first.)

    Doug, to which degree are you perhaps wrong? 😉 Lost your train of thought.

  • Damon

    With a few more clothes, that would be an excellent school production for even very young kids.

  • did cdm run an article on lucky dragons a while back? it might just have been on MAKE: now that i think of it, but the make a baby project is an obvious parallel (although it employs an analog human circuit that doesn't require paint):

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  • isn't this something like the Human Piano of Forced Theory Production. See the Noisejunk website.

  • There have been actually quite a number of projects like this, just because the basic idea of getting your electrical signal running through human bodies is pretty elemental – and effective and easy to accomplish. I think part of what's interesting here is that they do go to the trouble of actually choreographing their way through an existing song, which no one has really commented on – it's not faked at all, either, though I'm sure it helps that Ableton is quantizing things. (Actually I need to ask about that, as it implies that the dance needs to be a bit ahead of the beat!)

    The ink should also be really useful. I don't think they needed the paint here so much as it perhaps would make the results more reliable.

  • I wonder if this synth is available as a VST…

  • Angstrom

    although I believe that the technology operates as explained and demonstrated, I do not believe that the 'performance' is real.

    I assume that most of you here are electronic musicians and have tried playing a sequenced line with actual fingers. It's tough to sound tight as a sequencer.

    At the risk of sounding like a youtube commenter. This performance is fake.

    Once again – the technology is real, and works, but the record company obviously chickened out and used a playback of the recording for the 'performance'.

    Otherwise, do you really believe that 15 models can synchronously step/slap triggers with such millisecond accuracy. If so then they were very, very lucky to get models with such incredible musical reflexes!

    Just listen to the drum and bass syncopation. You really believe that is produced by women stepping from mat to mat ?

    Compare it to the practice video, now that is what it would really sound like, a symphony of timing errors.

  • very "atractive" modular synth but I suspect that I couldn't afford "them".

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  • stephen reese

    seconding angstrom.

    @peter: "it’s not faked at all, either, though I’m sure it helps that Ableton is quantizing things."

    i'm sorry, but if you actually believe the performance is generating the track, you are a dumb ass. i mean, look at the video. notice any edits?

  • chairman of the circ

    More like a "human sample playback trigger sequencer" Not much in the way of synthesis or electronic music going on here.

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  • karl

    another vote for (half)-playback:

    when he explains the ink and triggers some single samples, it does not always work and he has to support the "slap" with his other hand underneath to actually make the contact.

    However, during the performance, every single trigger works, even if he just barely hits the hand of the model, no gaps, no false-triggers.

    the somemtimes out-of-tune intonation of the singer, on the other hand, sounds live to me, although processed so heavily that there are doubled lines for sure in the playback.

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  • A bit o' this – and a bit o' THAT – !

    I think it's actually working, after a fashion, the editing is of course too jumpy to really evaluate. Cute idea!

  • I.Y.

    Sexy Girls= Lowest common denominator rubbish. Its sad.

  • Saita

    They need a Cunningham and Cage tutorial …

  • This guy is something.. really! It was really fun to watch

  • Bobz

    They should've painted the conductors on the girls' butts. Now THAT would've been a fun video. 🙂

    And yes, add me to the admirers of the bass section.

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  • seriously?


  • seriously?


  • seriously?