Percussa micro super signal processor

The first law of musical robotics: rock hard.

We’ve seen plenty of robotic musical experiments, but finding a robot that can seriously shred is another matter altogether. Meet the robotic string instrument, Poly-tangent, Automatic (multi-) Monochord – let’s just call her PAM. Built by Expressive Machines Musical Instruments, a group of University of Virginia PhD students and composers, PAM is capable of creating raucous musical performances like the one above, by composer and EMMI member Steven Kemper.

Musical robotics is cool, but it also hasn’t evolved much technologically in fifty years. It’s gotten cheaper and more accessible, but the fundamental design hasn’t changed – and that accessibility hasn’t translated into widespread use.

Now, the EMMI crew, in anticipation of a residency at Amsterdam’s famed STEIM research center, are hoping to take robotic music to the next level. MARIE is a project to put robotic music in a form that you can easily take on the road. They want to make the project open, so others can benefit, complete with schematics and code.

There are several aspects that make the MARIE project special beyond just road-ready design. The new instruments are intended to be more modular and controllable, to make the robotics as flexible as classic MIDI and analog modular gear has been. They also benefit from acoustic sound creation, controlling columns of air and physical strings instead of just digital or electrical models as on synths.

Acoustic design is at the heart of the EMMI robotic instruments – part of what makes robotics a compelling medium for new, digitally-controlled soundmakers. All photos courtesy EMMI.

To fund their vision, the EMMI crew have started a Kickstarter project. You get something in return from your investment, including even training on robotics and good, old-fashioned instruments like the sax and bassoon. (That should put to rest any fears that these guys want a robot-only musical future.) Here’s how they describe their work:

MARIE are a set of virtuosic and expressive music robots that are portable, reliable, user-friendly, and fit within the dimension/weight limits for international checked baggage. In other words, these are music robots for touring musicians. The hope of EMMI and the EAR Duo is that the usability and portability of MARIE and similar music robots will finally push this powerful technology out of research labs and onto stages around the world. Within this aim, the entire project will be publicly documented online and the source code and hardware diagrams all provided as public knowledge for other enterprising musicians and technicians to construct similar robots.

EMMI-ers, I hope you keep CDM posted as you go. It looks like a very worthy project indeed.

Fundraiser for MARIE, open music robots for touring musicians [STEIMblog]

Expressive Machines

MARIE: a virtuosic band of robots made by and for musicians [Kickstarter]