September 5, 2014 at 1:21 pm

New Musical Instruments Hackathon Is Harbinger of Things to Come

For many, the word “hackathon” conjures, if anything, caffeinated techies coding away in competition, because hackathon prizes can be substantial, as can the glory that accompanies a win.

In late July at Spotify headquarters, a different kind of hackathon took place: the New Musical Instruments Hackathon, part of the Monthly Music Hackathon series, where the goal was not to win over the judges, but rather to make new musical instruments and share performances with the group.

“We borrow ideas from the world of tech hackathons — such as rapidly going through the full lifecycle of a project — but we apply them in a non-competitive environment where the goal is new art and new understanding of what music is,” explains founder and organizer Jonathan Marmor, engineer for The Echo Nest at Spotify. “Participants use technology as a tool, but our focus is music.”

Marmor, who runs the Monthly Music Hackathon with a dozen or so co-conspirators, said this was the third largest event to date, following its Automatic and Handmade iterations held at Etsy last year. This time, he counted about 75 hackers, while about 110 people attended the presentation.

“The most exciting development, however, was the diversity of the participants,” added Marmor. “There were two groups of 14 to 16 year olds: All Star Code brought eight young men of color and Girls Who Code brought six young women. The energy and creativity these kids brought to the event was just terrific.”

And now, on to these new musical creations, listed here in order of appearance. Remember, all of this stuff was built in a day. (Also, we tried to include all of the finished projects — if we missed something, please let us know.)

Musical Chairs

Mamadou Diallo and Devon Howell, like the people who made the next two hacks as well, are 14-16-year-old members of All Star Code. The pair programmed an automatic version of the classic game Musical Chairs, but in this one, all you have to do is start the music. The program, built from Scratch, randomly decides when it stops, which is as it should be (no favorites!). Each time the music stops, a voice says “Raise your hand if you’re still standing. Now get off the stage. Please take your chair with you. Thank you.”


Touchable DJ Player

Another hack built on Scratch software, this motion-detecting DJ machine from Rasheed Evelyn, Luis Dominguez, and Leighton Watson lets the DJ control which song is playing, as well as adding airhorn, siren, and scratch sound effects to the currently-playing track.



Performing with this inventive musical instrument involves taping pie pans to the performer — two on each arm, two on each leg, and three on the torso, to be played with foil-covered ping-pong paddles taped to the hands. When the performer hits each pie pan, it triggers various steel drum note samples. Basically, the performer becomes a replacement for the steel drum, thus the name “DrumMe.”. This hack, from Austin Carvey and Djassi Julian, is built on Scratch plus Makey Makey.



This hack also turns the performer into a musical instrument, but in a different way. It too shoots video of the performer, while playing a beat in the background. Then, it’s up to the performer to start dancing and moving their arms around, which generates pitch and timbre based on where the motion is within the screen, as well as the range of that motion. Meanwhile, the hack draws shapes on the screen to represent what’s happening. Multiple players can simultaneously play Yayaya, created by Karen Peng and Jason Sigal using Javascript and the Web Audio API.



If you know all about how music works, you already know how scales can be tempered in different ways to make music sound better, or at least different. If you don’t, read about it here. Now you can grasp the concept behind TemperSynth, a “dynamic synthesizer” that changes its temperament as the performer plays based on each chord, so that the result is always perfect harmony. Alex Sagalovskiy and Tatiana Shchensek built TemperSynth to run in the browser using the Web Audio API and Querty Hancock, even as you play (try that with a grand piano).


Throat Drum

Alec Zopf built a drumstick with an Arduino magnetometer and microphone for detecting its orientation and when it is being played. Ranjit Bhatnagar built a vocal synthesizer. Put them together, the way these two did, and you have Throat Drum, a new musical instrument that sounds kind of like Tuvan throat singers. Throat Drum is built on Max/MSP, and sounds pretty neat to our ear.


Di Musicfaraday

Candita Haynes says “this multi-tasking musical instrument is designed to accompany any instrument or voice.” Crafted purely from hardware — namely, foil, paper, velour cloth, and popsicle sticks, it’s a repository for cellphones that’s quite useful during any performance, because, as the name “Faraday” implies, its sole function is to eliminate the phone’s ability to accept an incoming call. If everyone used these at concerts – especially quiet ones, as depicted below – we’d all be a lot less distracted during performances.


Police Barricade, Do Not Cross

This hack’s creator Brian McFee, a co-organizer of Monthly Music Hackathon NYC, describes his creation as “a whamola made out of garbage.” A whamola, for the uninitiated, which is almost all of us, is an object with a single bass string on it that you might remember seeing in jugbands in the cartoons of yore. Anyway, this one, amplified, was constructed with a police barricade that McFee picked up on the morning of the hackathon and some other items. Bend the plastic tube at the top to bend the pitch, and slap(pa) the bass with the included drumstick.


JS Resonant Filter Bank

Using the web audio API, Karl Hohn made a bank of 14 filters of various kinds, each set to a fixed frequency, which you can play by adjusting the gain for each filter up or down. The app lets one use HTML video as an audio input, allowing the performer to affect its audio differently, depending on which filter is selected.


Listen Up!

A sort of pre-remixed music format, Listen Up! from Will Moritz, Resham Parikh, and Michael Lipton lets you control how loud each stem in a song sounds by selecting the stem, then moving the mouse up and down. Compared to presenting the average music fan with a standard DAW view for a song, this hack employs a simpler, more easily-grasped approach.


Glockenspiel Grinder

Monthly Music Hackathon NYC co-organizer Brendan Hussey’s Glockenspiel Grinder puts solenoids, which are things that move predictably when you run electricity through them, to play a glockenspiel based on the light that passes through perforated paper. It’s like a reverse-engineered player piano from a steampunk future, made for fun:


Rubber Band Pitch Bend

One plays this instrument by plucking and stretching regular rubber bands suspended across the tops of a series of glasses. In the demonstration video, the Rubber Band Pitch Bend system is rigged up to make Sitar sounds. Monthly Music Hackathon NYC co-organizer Adam November built it with nails, a wooden plank, some very small wires, a breadboard, Arduino, and of course some glasses and rubber bands. Crucial to the whole concept: rubber bands’ connectivity changes when they’re stretched, and they contain graphite.



This novel granular synthesizer interfaces with the performer through a multi-touch-sensitive wooden surface called the Madrona Labs SoundPlane. Created as a solo project by Monthly Music Hackathon NYC co-organizer Nick Colvin, who named it after the early reel-to-reel tape recorder, Magnetophon maps five audio buffers (the “tape” in this scenario) to the SoundPlane’s five rows of keys. To play it, you’d drag a finger along a row; leave a finger in the same place to loop the sound rapidly, or press multiple places for a sonic cluster. In addition to SoundPlane, Magnetophon incorporates a high-resolution open sound control (OSC) output, and the open-source audio programming language Super Collider.



Trio (Performance)

Below, you will find a video of what is almost certainly the first performance you’ve ever witnessed consisting of sitar, a rubber band controlling a Logic sitar sound, and an unusual interface for playing back samples of the sitar.

“Trio is a performance of a simple piece of music I wrote a half hour before the demos started, as a way to get three unusual instruments playing together and to feature each one sequentially,” explained Monthly Music Hackathon founder Jonathan Marmor. The performance involved:

  • Special guest instrument builder and metal worker Isaac Sprachman playing The Cymblar
  • Monthly Music Hackathon co-organizer Nick Colvin playing Magnetophon
  • Co-organizer Adam November playing Rubber Band Pitch Bend controlling a cheesy synth sitar sound
  • Monthly Music Hackathon founder and co-organizer Jonathan Marmor conducting



This complicated number from Monthly Music Hackathon NYC co-organizers Travis McDemus, Jordan Orelli and Ari Russi, with participants Alex Kehayias and Eric Cox. Jordan, Travis, and Ari are co-organizers.allows multiple people to play together in real time over a network using a Network Osc metronome to keep it all in sync. Their performance features one “manual” instrument: a guitar.



Chaos Dynamic System

From the “conceptual art” end of the spectrum comes Chaos Dynamic System from Andreas Jansson, which is basically a javascript model of a billiards table, turned into sound. Draw a shape with your mouse, and a “ray” of sound will bounce around inside of it, the distance between each bounce determining the shape of the waveform. As more rays rebound off of the walls, the sounds become more frequent, and the sound is scratchy and digitally clipped.


Robot Phone

Robot Phone from Mike Desmond is a hardware telephone that you can pick up and speak into in order to sound like a robot. It’s in the same video with…


Spotify resident artist Kyle McDonald’s PacketSounds made a melody out of the distance between his computers and everyone else’s devices at the New Musical Instruments hack day, without the knowledge of the other hackers.


Here are all of the presentations as one big playlist.

If you like building music hacks or watching other people do so, be sure to make the next iteration of the Monthly Music Hackathon at Spotify’s US headquarters tomorrow, September 6, 2014. “This iteration’s theme will be ‘Back To School,’” explains Marmor. “We’re inviting students and faculty from many NYC-area university music and music-tech programs to come talk about their programs and projects they are working on. The idea of the event is to draw a big mental map of the City’s academic music projects, then collaboratively hack on the ideas discussed.”

The event is already maxed out, with over 500 people registered to attend, about half of them as hackers. Stay tuned to find out what they made.

Finally, here’s a photo gallery of the event (photos by Athena Koumus, Lisa Bai, and Christopher D’Amico):