February 18, 2015 at 3:40 pm

Glitch Music Hack: Chiptunes, Circuit Bending, and a Collaborative Mouse Theremin

A fan taking a photo of Notendo’s video projection.

A fan takes a photo of Notendo’s video projection.

Did you torment a younger sibling with a broken Teddy Ruxpin growling, “I want to be your friend,” again and again, as its cassette tape unraveled and its cheap electronics melted? Did the cheesy sound effects of your toys and the gritty music of early video games get you fired up to play? Some of us never grew out of loving the unpredictable and beautiful sounds of broken, bent toys and video games sounds, so we gathered last Saturday at Spotify’s NYC offices to hack together glitchy music projects! Fun was had. Things were made.

Glitch Music Hack, part of the Monthly Music Hackathon NYC series, was an all-day hackathon focusing on two different but related new music traditions: circuit bending and chiptunes.

For those unfamiliar with the terms, Wikipedia defines circuit bending as “the creative, chance-based customization of the circuits within electronic devices [...] to create new musical or visual instruments.”

Meanwhile, “a chiptune, also known as chip music or 8-bit music, is synthesized electronic music produced by the sound chips of vintage computers, video game consoles, and arcade machines, as well as with other methods such as emulation.”

Before the hacking commenced, we began with an hour of performances, demos, and workshops by fascinating practitioners of both art forms.

N0izmkr (a.k.a. Nicole Carroll) led with a short set on a homemade electronic instrument, which sounded like listening up close to an insect walking on tin foil and to a brass ensemble across a wide valley.

Electronic alt-rock trio Glitch Cake gave a beautiful performance of a pop song on live instruments and various machines, replete with projection mapping on singer Kat Tingum’s face! Claire Kwong then gave a short demo of the projection mapping system.

Glitch Cake’s Claire Kwong and Kat Tingum; not pictured: Poyraz Aldemir (bass) and Yuri Soussov (electronics)

Glitch Cake’s Claire Kwong and Kat Tingum; not pictured: Poyraz Aldemir (bass) and Yuri Soussov (electronics)

The awesome guys from BURNKIT 2600 were supposed to play next, but snow trapped them in Connecticut. We missed them dearly. They’re going to try again at Monthly Music Hackathon’s Synthesis & Samples Hack March 28, 2015 (you should RSVP).

Noah Vawter, center, leads the Circuit-Bent Drum Circle workshop on his homemade instruments.

Noah Vawter, center, leads the Circuit-Bent Drum Circle workshop on his homemade instruments.

Next, the incredible researcher, developer, and designer Noah Vawter conducted a fascinating hands-on workshop with eight custom-built electronic musical instruments he’d made the previous month, each built into a translucent plastic VHS cassette case. Vawter then led us through a circuit-bent drum circle, as he describes here:

Electronic music, especially circuit-bending, may have jumped from the primordial sea and sprouted transistorized legs, but it’s still evolving hypersonically. There’s no way our esteemed ancestors could *ever* have imagined such a strange and fruitful new music tradition as circuit-bending when they were still hunting and gathering for sustenance!

Re-wiring sound-making devices into expressive musical instruments? Nope. Bones and hides were all bygone musicians had to play rhythms on …and they liked it! They flocked together to share in the sound, communicating on a deep, musical level and building up trust with one another, no Nintendos in sight.

Now imagine replacing the humble thuds from a primeval drum circle with the fresh electronic zings of circuit-bending. What would you get? What would it sound like? Would it be more electronic or more tribal? Do bent instruments “say” the same things as “analog” drums? Can this many people make music collaboratively?

In our experimental participatory performance, we’ll begin with simple heartbeat rhythms, then take turns listening and leading and finally build it up to a sound which reflects the collective instincts the group conjures.

When the workshops, performances, and talks were done, we were all excited to hack. About 80 participants spent the next eight hours chopping, screwing, soldering, tuning, breaking, tweaking, recording, and playing with a variety of gear and code.

By the end of the day, this room contained twelve ambitious, unique works of art that didn’t exist a few hours before:

Hacking underway, with N0izmkr performing in the background

Hacking underway, with N0izmkr performing in the background

More hacking underway

More hacking underway

Theremouse by Steph Zhang, Micheal Angelo, Patricia Carbajal, Steph Reaves, Zach Nagler, is a very responsive web Theremin that you play with the mouse or trackpad on your computer.

The X axis controls pitch and the Y axis controls volume of your pitch relative to the background pitch (turn down your volume, then try it here). Theremouse is social in a musical sense; if anyone else is on the website at the same time, you’ll play together, with all participants hearing the resulting collaboration.

Steph Zhang and Patricia Carbajal present Theremouse.

Steph Zhang and Patricia Carbajal present Theremouse.

Brenden Hussey made one of his signature, sound-making artworks: “Household Object Hum” (pictured below), a performance piece in which Brenden caressed a pile of vibrating household electronics — such as an antique sewing machine, a metal drill, and an electric toothbrush — with a constellation of pickups, sensors, and mics. This created a buzzing, humming series of surprisingly sweet chords, with glissing melodies as the electronics moved closer together and further apart.

Brenden Hussey’s Household Objects Hum

Brenden Hussey’s ‘Household Objects Hum’

Brian McFee‘s ingenious and hilarious Auto Chip Tune project was in many ways the inspiration for the Glitch Music Hack event, so it made perfect sense that he updated it to a new version there. You can hear the results of running an actual chip tune through Brian’s audio-to-chiptune converter, with some unexpected results:

Another interesting creation from Glitch Music Hack was Corey Benninger’s and Travis McDemus’s “Speaknsomething” instrument:

Another interesting creation: Corey Benninger’s and Travis McDemus’s 'Speaknsomething' instrument

Another interesting creation: Corey Benninger’s and Travis McDemus’s ‘Speaknsomething’ instrument

After the demos and hacker performances, Notendo (a.k.a. Jeff Donaldson) delighted the crowd with an extended set of beautiful sounds and images made with the corrupted RAM of an old computer. We’ll leave you with some images from Notendo’s performance. But if you like what you’ve seen from Glitch Music Hack, please check out Monthly Music Hackathon NYC’s 2015 schedule:

  • Automatic Music – February 28, 2015
  • Synthesis & Samples – March 28, 2015
  • Rhythm & Time – April 25, 2015
  • Melody & Harmony – May 23, 2015
  • Lyrics & Language – June 20, 2015
  • New Musical Instruments – July 25, 2015
  • Music Games – August 29, 2015
  • Music Education – September 26, 2015







For more about the Monthly Music Hackathon NYC 2015 series, go here.