David Azar

New York

Product Engineer

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Motor Y Cueda

Polyphonic electro-acoustic instrument that explores all the hidden voices of an individual string
Tags: Music, Design, Hardware, Fabrication

About the project

Motor Y Cuerda (Spanish) - "Motor and String"

Performance based on a polyphonic hand-built electro-acoustic instrument.

There is a worldwide movement that seeks to create new and interesting interfaces for musical expression called NIME (New Interfaces for Musical Expression). This movement is pursued by different kinds of people: researchers, musicians, designers and engineers.

The magnificent world of music was revealed to me as a kid through the piano. By learning the works of the greatest composers of all time, both classical and contemporary, I've fallen in love with the abstraction of sound waves and the wide range of feelings they can make us feel. Motor Y Cuerda was all about the relationship between human and machine, about computer-less music and about the emotional and physical investment we need to put into making things that are personal in this fast-paced and sometimes impersonal world.

I have always wanted to design and build my own music instrument. Before starting this project, I had experimented with different mediums for creating electronic and digital music. R-Synth is a web-based synthesizer that randomizes 15 parameters with the click of a button, Orientron is a electronic instrument that converts wrist movements into music and The Music Box is an explorative tangible music instrument that works with acrylic punch cards. These are fun projects that I'm grateful to have worked on, but for Motor y Cuerda y wanted to explore deeper, and build something acoustic.

Acoustic instruments, as opposed to electronic or digital instruments, depend on the actual material of the instrument and the dynamic they are played with. This makes the timbre, or the voice of the instrument, depend on physical phenomenons, while electronic music depends on an algorithm, preset, or programmable signal. There is less control and less predictability with acoustic instruments – this made the project very challenging and fun.

Creative process

Tools

Low E Guitar String

DC Motors

Diverse Wood

Arduino

Fusion 360

EagleCAD

Drill Press

Belt Sander

Chop Saw

CNC Router

I started the project by learning as much as possible in materials, acoustics, air dynamics and construction techniques. It became clear very early on that I lacked crucial knowledge, so I looked for instruments that were innovative during the time of their inception, specifically for those that didn't use computers for the generation of a tone and landed on the magical world of electro-acoustic instruments.

These instruments use technology and engineering principles to capture and amplify the natural voice of physical, acoustic objects – think of an electric guitar and how it picks up the natural vibration of a physical string. A lot of work has been done by extremely talented and bright individuals, specifically during the previous century. Some of these creations were commercial successes, and some of them were a stepping stone for others developments. I was extremely inspired by many if not most of the instruments created between 1900-1970, but some notable mentions are the Hammond Organ, Mellotron and Rhodes Piano. I recommend visiting this site and learning about the magical devices people were building without the use of computers. I was also introduced to the work of Andy Cavatorta, an American "sculptor that uses robotics and sound" and had the pleasure of meeting him during this process. 

Tape mechanism of a Mellotron. Each note has a pre-recorded sample and when a key is pressed, the tape is engaged and played. - by Doctor Mix

Tone-wheel tone generation mechanism. The 1935 Hammond Organ used iron gears and inductors to produce electric tones.

Building techniques

Wood is the most used material for acoustic instruments due to its amazing sound conduction properties. Looking at the tools and equipment I had at my disposal, I was tempted to design and create this instrument using plywood and a CNC router. During my research process, I visited Paul Nieto, founder and owner of Guitartech – a guitar manufacturing shop and store on 14th Street in Manhattan. He taught me about the intricacies of guitar manufacturing, specifically shape and materials, and I learned from him that plywood is a bad choice for resonant bodies. Plywood is formed of various layers of wood glued together. Turns out, that glue stops vibrations and prohibits lower sounds to be heard. That meant that vibrating parts had to be built with natural tone-woods.

Nevertheless, I decided to build a first prototype with what I had. I was heavily inspired by late 1800's and early 1900's inventors such as Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. I wanted to capture the aesthetic of the time, and attempt to create an instrument that might've been created during those years. Brutalism, the architectural movement characteristic for blocky design and exposed structure was also a big part of my design inspiration.

 

First instrument

The first thing that had to be resolved was how the sound was going to be produced. I looked to capture a natural but diverse range of sound, and form a musical system around it, so some degree of melody, harmony and percussion needed to exist. Many ideas came to mind: boiling teapots, glass shattering and air chambers (similar to an air-based instrument). In the end, I landed on traditional guitar, cello and violin strings.

I found the Hurdy Gurdy by looking at instruments that were created centuries ago and instantly felt inspired to build upon it. The spinning wheel made me wonder how could it be augmented with today's technology. I spent some time experimenting with violin strings and wooden wheels that I made using a CNC and hole-saw attached to DC motors.

Hurdy Gurdy, a hand-cranked medieval instrument that works by rubbing a rosin-covered wheel against strings.

brief demo of sound produced with a wooden wheel, dc motor and violin string

Sound experiment to find the best ways of producing sound with a DC motor, a wooden wheel and a violin string.

Once I had a reliable way of producing sound I set myself to device a way to change the pitch. It was important to do a reality check and explore different ways of pinching a string to change its pitch manually. Ideation, testing and iteration led me to a rolling-pincher mechanism that worked well enough. The chassis was made of a block of hardwood that was lying around, the supports were laser-cut and the rollers were designed using Fusion360 and 3D printed.

Sketch of the main concept. Angular force as an input, transferred to a wheel that rubs a string. A rolling pincher goes up and down on a track.

Rolling-pincher mechanism. Wood block as chassis runs on a track. Acrylic laser-cut supports (black) hold 3D printed rollers (white).

First prototype. Primary structure containing string, track and roller. Top structure consists of 2 violin strings that add more variety to the range. Stepper motor controlled by Arduino.

Learnings from first instrument

I performed a 5-minute piece with the first instrument in front of 30 people and the response was great. The natural screechy sound seemed to convey the stress I was hoping to and the audience enjoyed the dynamics of it. However, there were important parts missing: the sound registry was too high, I could only play one note at the time and instrument was quite small, so whatever I was doing on stage wouldn't translate to an audience larger than 30 people. The stepper motor I initially used was giving very slow RPMs (as steppers do), the circuit was fragile, the rolling mechanism had alignment issues and the whole thing was on a tabletop facing me instead of the audience.

With these learnings, I started the second instrument.

Design of the second instrument

The original sound character I set myself to achieve was definitely lower and more layered than the one the first instrument was producing. After conducting further research on acoustics, I concluded that the resonant body was too rigid and it was only allowing high frequencies. It also had 'parasite' frequencies introduced by the not-so-great rolling mechanism. 

All the research and experimentation led me to point were the components were clear: A string, a fretboard and a resonance box. These are present in almost all string instruments, but I wanted to push the design to a bolder direction and avoid making another guitar.

Form exploration of the components. Tried different configurations for the chamber and fretboard, and eventually arrived at the 'exploded' form factor.

Once the form was found, I spent some time improving the rolling-pincher mechanism. The second iteration was designed to be more stable and to roll on a horizontal track instead of a vertical one. I used a triangular chassis, shoulder screws and CNC'd wooden wheels to keep tolerances as low as possible. Each shoulder screw functions as an axle for the wheels, and 1/16" plastic washers allow to calibrate the device when deformation from the string's tension is introduced – it uses 22 different parts to achieve a firm, comfortable and predictable motion.

Neck and roller V2. The roller was designed around the 3/4" neck.

Construction 

The construction of the instrument needed both traditional woodworking methods as well as digital fabrication such as a CNC, laser cutter and 3D printer. 

The resonance chamber was constructed with a birch frame and tone-wood faces. This allows sufficient structure without dampening low frequencies. The suspended fretboard was cut using a CNC to achieve the necessary precision that the roller needed. The string is held up from two points: a string peg (used one from a traditional guitar) and the bridge. The bridge was made from a wooden dowel and glued to the face of the chamber. Finally, the string nut structure was built using different woods, a drill press & band saw, and uses an adjustable set screw mechanism for calibrations and adjustments.

Resonance chamber being built with a birch frame and tone-wood faces. Attached to instrument's surface using a plate made out of plywood and 4 threaded inserts.

Support for the string peg structure. Vertical wooden shaft goes through to allow vertical adjustments and threaded insert works as guide for set screw.

Assembled string peg structure. Shafts and set screw mounted. I call this thing the "rooster".

Percussion

One of the main weaknesses from the first instrument built was the lack of a percussive element. The melodic component was there, but I was lacking a way of carrying a beat and tempo to create a more engaging experience for the audience. I designed a complementary instrument that produces a variable speed beat and that works with gravity to solve this.

CAD assembly of the percussive instrument. Used it to validate angles, heights and other dimensions before building the actual thing.

Built percussion instrument resting on play-wheel. Used different hardwoods, a 4" dowel and shaft collars.

Instrument 2: motor control

There are two dc motors on the instrument: one is held by the performer and engages the string, and the other one is secured to a base and engages the percussion component.

Once the instrument was assembled, I played it for people and asked my very talented musician friends Nick Gregg and Aron Moreno try it to get some feedback. They enjoyed the musical system that the string allows and together we found that engaging the string in different angles produced different harmonics. This moment was huge to the project because I learned that more than one note could be produced at the same time using one motor and one string. This simplified the whole project and allowed me to focus on creating a one-performer experience and device, while still achieving the polyphony that I was pursuing.

How does it work?

To solve this, I visited multiple music stores around town to analyze the construction of various string instruments such as double-basses, cellos, violins and acoustic guitars. From these observations, I learned about resonance chambers and their construction, specifically about the bracing technique.

Resonance chambers amplify natural sound. The vibration from the string needs to be transferred to one of its faces and it done so through a bridge, which is nothing more than a piece of thin maple wood resting between the string and the chamber. The frame of the chamber needs to be sturdy but not overly rigid, and the faces must be made of a thin wood (not plywood), preferably maple or cherry.