How can we design a novel musical instrument in which its movement influences sound?
Music Innovation | Music Education
Electronics | Programming | CAD | Motion Dynamics | Storytelling
Solo – an individual design pursuit
The D.N.O. (pronounced “dino”, like “rhino”) is a spherical, wireless MIDI-controller with embedded gyroscopic motion sensors that influence aural characteristics of the produced sounds. As a lifelong saxophonist as comfortable on a recital stage as I am on a football field, I have been told by my musical teachers that just because I dance, jump, and groove while playing the sax, it won’t make performances sound any different (or better). I set out to challenge this idea by creating a musical instrument that could sound smoother, funkier, or weirder depending on how it was handled in space. At the same time, I strived to create an instrument that could improve on conventional approaches to music education and incorporate beneficial insights from music therapy research. Designed with intuitive pitch-button mapping and the ability to use motion to alter vibrato, rhythm, or distortion, the D.N.O. is an easy instrument to pick up for both experienced musicians and those with no musical experience - even kids.
Rather than use an accelerometer to react to sharp, linear movements, I sought to design the D.N.O. to respond to smoother movements generated by subtle rotation of the instrument along its principal axes (in aircraft dynamics, these axes correspond to pitch, roll, and yaw).This focus on rotational axes served not only to create avenues for changes in musical characteristics but also to inspire the instrument’s desired form: a sphere.
Early prototyping focused on electronic circuit design, integration of existing radio and motion sensor modules, and logic code programmed into a Teensy microcontroller via the Arduino interface. A working breadboard electronic prototype was transfered to a sturdy and permanent solderable board with a LiPo battery, reducing the size of the electronics and making them completely wireless.
An instrument that could sound like anything.
It was important to me that the D.N.O. look and feel like a wooden object reminiscent of the craftsmanship required in traditional musical instrument design such as violins or marimbas, while still maintaining elements of modern electronic instruments like synthesizers. The enclosure of the D.N.O. was created in two hemispheres, each previously a polished wooden salad bowl that was drilled out to accomodate rugged metal LED pushbuttons. The electronic board was held on a custom 3D- printed mount that holds the wooden hemispheres together with milled aluminum end caps. The final instrument is roughly the size of a bowling ball.
The D.N.O. represents a case study in project-based engineering education and the benefits of interdisciplinary STEM education such as the intersection of music and engineering. The D.N.O., its build process, and learning outcomes were presented at the 2019 International Symposium on Academic Makerspaces, and has been used to highlight the hands-on student projects created in courses taught through the Yale CEID during tours and demonstrations.