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 RenĂ© 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.