Making your own instruments may not be for everyone, but getting to witness the bleeding edge of musical DIY can give real insight into how electronic music performance can work, and what matters in sound. Last week, the famous sound research center in Amsterdam STEIM generously hosted an edition of Handmade Music, inviting inventors to make noises and performances with their self-made creations and to talk about their work.

Ben Terwel, one of the artists, shot the video above. It includes discussion in both Dutch and English, but if you don’t speak Dutch, you’ll still get the gist of a lot of the musical demonstrations. (It’s actually nice to hear the native language included, since I came in and spoke English, which you get plenty of here on CDM!)

A number of themes emerged from the work we saw:

Elegant circuits, multiple applications: Several pieces made use of Michel Waisvisz’s Cracklebox, the legendary hardware design born at STEIM. What’s remarkable about this design is the way in which it can be incorporated into other ideas. Waisvisz has written about how important the act of “touching” the sound can be:

Sometime in the early-sixties I started touching the inside of my fathers short-wave radio receivers. Before that with my brother René I had given ‘concerts’ at home by placing our fingers on circuit boards of transistor radios that were ‘wrongly’, but usefully, interconnected with wires. The little electrical shocks were nice and the changes in the sound were exiting and magic mind-openers. Through touch I was able to start playing with short wave sounds in a way that would later become ‘sound music’.

I had already heard some of the early recordings of electronic music, but these often sounded so dull, so constructed, so without musical soul. Touching the inside of audio electronics was way more exiting to me. I knew this could change ideas about electronics and music. Touched electronics sounded rougher and sort of rebellious against the clean and high-tech quality of the electronic music from the fifties and early sixties.

If you want to experiment with the Cracklebox, you can buy one from STEIM for EUR60 + shipping. It’s a very accessible design, so an excellent choice even as your first hardware.

Code and hardware, hand in hand: At Handmade Music in New York, we’ve tended to see projects that focus on either hardware or software. But the assembled creators in Amsterdam had some terrific examples of fusing the two designs. Many made use of Pd (Pure Data), the free and open source patching environment, which also enabled the use of Linux and low-cost, low-power, compact computing hardware. In fact, with access to such hardware, there’s no reason a traditional computer can’t be as svelte as an “embedded” solution. While wandering the labs at STEIM, I saw some other, similar examples.

One example (and the most literal case, aside from the Robot Cowboy): an audiovisual interface made from a paint palette and paintbrush. It was astounding to see how immediately people “got” this interface.


Making performance work: Whether the Robot Cowboy wearable-music-making outfit (which easily stole the show), or custom turntable rigs and more conventional knobs and touch controllers, live performance was a key element. Obviously, these variables impact how audience members perceive a performance. But the artists also spoke about how significant these decisions were to their own happiness, the quality and satisfaction they could derive from their playing.

Standardization and communication: The question you see me answering in the video above is whether some amount of standardization can allow control via protocols like OSC to work more effectively – and, indeed, whether OSC could be as standardized as MIDI. In both Amsterdam and (later that week) Stockholm, I got into many more conversations about this, both regarding control messages (“hey, you just pressed my antennae on my wearable sound suit”) and sync (“gee, what if we want our two delay effects to not sound like crap together?”). I’m excited that we can now get into implementation on many of these issues. When you see a room full of strange, new creations, it’s not hard to recognize that strict, rigid standardization of messages can’t work. But what could work – both for the evolution of MIDI and for new protocols – is communication that allows you to interconnect all that stuff that’s not standard.

Anyway, to conclude, the whole evening was fantastic fun. I’m really grateful to everyone from Amsterdam (and well beyond) for attending, sharing so many terrific ideas, and showing off this fantastic work. I come home really inspired. We’ll have more documentation on some of these individual projects, as well as new discussion of where would-be DIY artists can get started, and how all of the underlying technology can be better documented, extended, and improved.

If you have photos, videos, or follow-up documentation, let me know! I’ll follow up once I, uh, get my body’s clock back on East Coast time!

This week – Sonic Acts: My only regret is that I can’t hang around Amsterdam for the festival Sonic Acts; fascinating-looking lineup, so if you go, let us know about it.

  • Mudo

    As a diy fan ever ask myself the same question:

    Why ever experimentation goes noise? Nobody thinks concept design before start iron soldering? Is rythm and harmony outside?

    Or we are in the "begginning" of Steampunk orchestras and this is "first baby cry"?


  • @Mudo: the experience of some of these pieces was different in person. I think that "first baby's cry" is accurate with some electronics. And of course, those sounds are appealing to some people. But it is possible to produce a variety of rhythms and harmonies, yes.

  • Mudo

    It is my hope because I love DIY but I love structured music (noise could be cool some time but not so long, to me, of course)

    I think my patience will be bigger if I imagine it as a baby growing and I hope it will be grow healthy and harmonious!

    Maybe I'm too paternalist… hehe


  • Mudo
  • @Mudo: there's something in your comment that I can truly relate too. 1/ I think there's a large, untapped, area in the DIY space between the current wave of gadgets with a very crude sound (either arduino/microcontroller-based, or Atari Punk Console-likes) that is very wrongly assimilated with 8-bits/chip music (come on, a SID is much more than raw square waves) ; and the pure analog designs that are more limited in capacities (unless you start patching together $600 worth of modules with a good sequencer and/or MIDI->CV converter) but which might sound more "musical" just because our ears have been trained to enjoy those sounds for 5 decades, and because they are often used by musicians rooted in classic electronic music. 2/ I think that there's a tendency in the DIY community to be as "edgy" as possible by using unusual control modes and interfaces, unheard sounds, obscure synthesis approaches etc. This is extremely good because excellent ideas are likely to appear in this stimulating environment, and because we need to balance all this bland stuff coming lately from Roland… But this might not be in the interest of musicians (like you?) who are into DIY for its non-commercial, open ethics rather than for the technological edge. This came as a surprise to me since I am a software guy: if a developer creates an open clone of, say, a commercial database, this will be applauded. But if a DIY synth maker creates a cheap, open, clone of a commercial design of the 80s, this won't be as appreciated as an original, sensor-filled, noise generator. 3/ From what I have experienced at hacker spaces/"makers" events, the excitement of building things, of hacking, of showing off super hairy breadboards, fosters an attitude that might become the opposite of what I would call an "engineering" attitude. I feel there's a difference between the current DIY crowd and the past radio amateurs, in the sense that there's so much we can do now without taking the time to learn things in details, without going through the same technical material (and the maths!) that an engineer will have to go through. Good because the barrier to entry is lower than ever, bad because electro-Dumbo might never again drop his arduino-magic feather.

    That's all the things I had in mind when I designed the Shruti-1. I thought that designing a "classical"-sounding monosynth (my lame Jean-Michel Jarre and The Human League influences…) with a stable and clean sound (bandlimited oscillators, digital control) and to the extent of my very limited hardware skills, an "engineering" approach (use the simplest design to achieve the function, try to squeeze as many features as possible in software given a hardware design, write lean and clean firmware code, try to understand as much as possible how everything works) would be, ironically, a rather subversive endeavour.

    In the end, did you post the link to the Shruti-1 page because you thought it addressed your worries, or as another example of "experimentation gone noise"? The former, I hope!

  • Mudo, I think that there may simply be a link between the urge to experiment with interfaces and the urge to experiment with music. Then if you look at Rob Bothof's work (in the first seconds of the top clip) or my own I think you'll see that there are also people experimenting with new ways of writing/playing non-noisy styles. Rob&me tend to play fairly straightforward house music. Maybe it turns out a bit more whimsical when you improvise it instead of laying it out on a grid, but it's still house to me. Robot Cowboy even talked about coming from a traditional "band" perspective. Maybe you could say that existing instruments often aren't very good for noise so people wanting to make noise will go the DIY route but not everyone going DIY will play noise.

  • Michael

    I think there's a bigger appeal to making non-traditional instruments. Maybe that's partly because there's a larger capacity for failure in trying to emulate something existing, whether that's an existing synth or just something that works 'as expected', but part of it (and arguably the biggest) is also the opportunity to make something that you can't find in shops, readily available.

  • Jon

    @Kassen I agree. There are numerous appeals for building new interfaces – geeky, practical, theoretical. But in the realm of experimental modern music, a big drive towards new interfaces is that much of the music is no longer tonal or especially simple rhythmically.

    On a broader scale. Can you guys think of any examples of new instruments/controllers that approach the level of improvising/virtuosity of traditional instruments?

  • John Cage, anyone? I feel like everyone there had a little piece of ingenuity and that bit of spark that might be channeled into a greater piece or (happily) left as it is. It all sound like individuals and innovation to me and I can't help but admire the passion there. Long live noise makers


    can youall stop missing the lateral lesions in topic. i think its hard to believe how hard some hard things to hear are sometimes yogurt pot.

    lively are we today squire?????????? don't require the noise of broken sound ideas constructed over leveled hours. never replace the begginings of yet another plausible contradiction. for once i agree with you all but never understood my own question.

  • thanks for a really interesting talk Peter!

    it was a fantastic event.. many fascinating instruments and sound objects.

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