She climbs into the fuselage and takes her seat in front of the brightly lit control panel. A tune starts to play as she slides the first lever into position. She presses a button and a rhythm glides in behind the tune. Is this the start of a new science fiction film? No, it’s what happens when makers, a supportive company and a non-profit work together. The result is “Rock-it!”, an Arduino powered interactive music creation exhibit. The project started when Dennis Adams heard the Madison Children’s Museum was moving to a new location. Wondering how he might get involved, Dennis and fellow makers Mark Siegenthaler and Matt Logan approached their employer, Sony Creative Software, about funding a music creation exhibit. With Sony’s support, the makers pitched the idea to the Children’s Museum. The proposal was accepted in early 2010 and the work began. The artists at the Children’s Museum decided they would build the enclosure, while the makers would create the consoles and supporting electronics. The museum decided to build a retro rocket ship built from the front of an old, repurposed airplane. This gave the makers a framework for designing and building their consoles.
The key goal of the project was to make the exhibit fun and interactive. The makers wanted to be sure it made good music regardless of the levers and buttons used. They also wanted to make sure it was interesting regardless of how many kids were using it, so unused panels automatically change settings over the course of the song. The melody levers proved to be a design challenge. Their positioning and calibration was critical. The electronics also proved challenging with noise problems creating further complications. The end design uses an Arduino Mega to communicate with three control panels for button and position inputs and LED outputs, and it generates MIDI messages to the music synthesizer. It also holds the three songs used in the exhibit. A SM Pro V-Machine is the synthesizer which turns the MIDI into rich, layered stereo audio. It is a full x86 computer that runs the same VST synthesizers and filters you’d use on a PC. This configuration allowed Mark to compose the music on his full synth keyboard while Matt shoehorned the music into the Arduino along with the rest of the programming. On the surface, children see control panels with LED lit levers to control the melody, buttons controlling rhythm and an effects pad overhead for additional options.
The project took over a year of on and off effort, with the exhibit finally being installed this past September in the Possible-opolis section of the museum. The museum says “Rock-it!” is a hit. If you want to see it in action but can’t visit in person, check out the video:
Thanks to some special makers in Madison, children who visit the museum learn anyone can make music.
To learn more about this and other interesting maker projects, join us at one of our Sector67 open meetings or visit us on the web at http://www.sector67.org.
Two information updates to this fine article:
An additional key goal of the exhibit was to give kids the opportunity to have an “I love making music” epiphany.
Matt Logan is now CEO and Principal Engineer of nuVibrations LLC.