Artist and design Yoshi Akai (no relation, as far as I know) treats analog electronics as an art form, a sculpture, an instrument, and an exercise in interaction design, all wrapped in the velour of vintage hardware design. For everyone who misses the deco elegance of meticulously-engraved surfaces and tastefully-appointed enclosures of early-century electronics, Yoshi’s work will be a special treat.

These aren’t just pretty boxes, though: they work as instruments. A prolific inventor with a background in textiles and design, Nagoya-born Yoshi Akai has spun out countless playful experiments in musical interaction, and all make fascinating sounds. There’s a turntable that scratches Swedish rye crackers as though they’re records, a step sequencer made from a telegraph, thumb-controlled instruments, and various synths, noisemakers, effects, and drum machines, some quite practical. Some emphasis electrical, analog sounds, while others go chip/8-bit in timbre. All look beautifully handmade, with some tending toward luxurious front panels while others flaunt intentionally disorganized arrays of knobs.

(Just don’t say the word “steampunk” — the designs seem to be to be placed pretty firmly in the electrically-powered early 20th Century, and there’s even a reference to Czech proto-science fiction landmark R.U.R..)

Yoshi Akai Artist Site + Gallery

MrYoshiAkai YouTube Channel

There are many models, so it’s worth investigating the full YouTube gallery and his site gallery. I’ll call attention to the two most theatrical. First, LEGO blocks form the playing pieces for a musical sequencer. That’s fitting: Ableton CEO and founder Gerhard Behles once revealed to me that he adored playing with LEGO blocks as a child, a design element that resurfaces in the sequencer he helped design. LEGO blocks are modular, they’re playful, they’re neatly color-coded, and because of their shape and interchangeable design, they easily represent blocks of sequenced time in music.

Here’s a video of the LEGO sequencer in action:

The Wireless Catcher produces rawer sounds than some of Yoshi’s creations, but you can’t beat its whimsical presentation and unusual conception. This isn’t just another Theremin-style device, either: the creation intentionally sucks up the wireless radio activities happening around you. Adjusting the angle of the device causes it to receive different sounds. In an age when wireless interference and overcrowded spectrums threaten to shut down even digital technology, this is one of the few instruments I’ve seen that makes interference the signal, rather than background noise. This could be what we’re all playing wirelessly as the spectrum continues to fill up.

I knew those Knäckebröd Swedish rye crackers would be good for something. See how neatly they fit on a turntable?

  • Jaime Munarriz

    We are all mind-shaped by Lego, of course. Douglas Coupland makes a nice homage at Microservs.

    But don`t forget you grown-ups to follow latest Lego developments: Technics, Mindstorm, Bonicles, and the new Miners (with working subterranean drills).

    I also had a german Fisher Techniks as a child, and this was really serious stuff, perfect for circular sequencers.

  • Actually, Jaime, I'm curious if anyone has worked with the new, "grown-up" creations?

    I'm also eager to try doing some housings and prototyping with LEGOs. Any tips on good block kits; for instance, ones in which it may be reasonable to mount ports, large buttons, or even pots?

    May just have to drop by my local Toys 'R Us Times Square. 😉

  • Andrew Zero

    I had a pc tower built from lego when i was in college. a guy I knew built crazy case mods and i bought that one from him.

    lego is very pleasing to my eye

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  • Damon

    The peculiar irony is if we can somehow develop the perfect music making tools, we claim they are 1 in the same with the music and make the actual music end obsolete. For $300, you can purchase a DIY kit to build your very own Grammy Award. This is not to suggest these very cool creations lack merit, for they do and I envy anyone who can create them, but it does suggest some sort of inevitable automated universe were one simply demands to be awarded for merely existing. Philosophical premise or diagnosis? Time will tell.

  • @Damon: Wait a minute here. Aside from the fact that many of his objects still demand to be played, even if some are automatons, they're still made by humans. If you make a machine that makes music, then you're still making music. We're human beings. We make tools. It's part of our whole … uh, thing.

  • aaron

    the wireless catcher is a cool piece of retro design, like something out of a 50s scifi movie, but at the same time it doesnt appear to be anything more than a accelerometer.

  • Jim Aikin

    The Lego sequencer is vastly amusing. It has a very high "wow" factor. As a musical instrument, however, I'd have to say it compares unfavorably with a kazoo.

  • mark kenneth russell

    i've nearly finished my magnus opus, where everything is made from a kazoo, its called "Yahoo kazoo!" 😉

    Cool stuf here though.

  • Edward

    wow … i had low expectations on the actual ability for these things to create something even slightly musical, but they sounded worse then i could have imagined; which is a shame since that sequencer looks so damn cool and sounds absolutely miserable (the catcher is slightly better).

    Peter, I think you over-sold them with the statement "they work as instruments" because they sound only slightly better then a broken tube television.

  • Jaime Munarriz

    Lego Technic has really amazing gears and mechanical components. The models are cars and trucks.

    The new Miners and Atlantic series are a cross between conventional Lego and Technics, I find them quite interesting (and fun and cool looking!)

    I just discovered a new series called Powerfunctions that seems perfect for us: it is designed to build machines!!!!!!!! It has motors, remotes…

    You can buy any individual piece you need, you don't need to buy a car or a bus to get some wheels, just check the Pick a Brick section.

    You can even build your own Peter Kirn's Mechanical Sequencer #001 Kit and share it so other people can buy it on a box!

    So c'mon, let's build some models.

  • Jaime Munarriz

    Take a look at the Golf Machine video.

    Or the Telescopic Handler, with pneumatic arms!

  • Jaime Munarriz

    For quick housing, I would use the Lego plates (the thin pieces). You can buy 8×8, 6×6, 6×10 Plates, or the Base Plates in 8×16, 16×16 or 16×32.

    I just discovered the Plate 4×6 W 12 knobs (0.21€). Sadly, it doesn' have 12 pots on it, it is just a flat piece with some lego knobs around 3 of it's edges. But it can be perfect for knob mounting, as it's center part is flat.

  • Damon

    @Damon: Wait a minute here. Aside from the fact that many of his objects still demand to be played, even if some are automatons, they’re still made by humans. If you make a machine that makes music, then you’re still making music. We’re human beings. We make tools. It’s part of our whole … uh, thing.


    I appreciate your point.

  • AO

    Really beautiful objects!

    I have to agree w/ some of the sentiment here, though, in that I'm often underwhelmed by the output of many 'diy synth' projects.

    That said, it's easy to be a critic and I'm not trying to specifically call out the examples of this post.

    To end on a complimentary note, Mr. Akai's objects have a beautiful aesthetic and I'm amused by the 'high brow' white-glove documentation. I do dig the minimal rythms from his CUBE piece!

    Keep these portfolio spotlights comin'.