Nicholas Warren, School of Music, Theatre & Dance
Recent trends in digital fabrications technologies towards a simultaneous increase in reliability and decrease in cost have brought about a new era in manufacturing. Professionals and hobbyists alike are able to utilize the power of both additive and subtractive manufacturing techniques to create forms with highly precise geometries for relatively low cost. Everything from simple, bespoke couplings to entire prosthetic arms have been designed and manufactured by amateurs. Musical instrument designers have also taken kindly to digital fabrications. Recreations of pre-existing instruments, augmentations of acoustic instruments, and even never-before-heard acoustic objects have been common uses of digital fabrications. Research into 3D printing-based projects quickly reveals a clear trend towards customizability and accessibility.
“Lithorgan” is a project dedicated to applying digital fabrications technologies to the principles of the Hammond tonewheel organ, in order to take advantage of this increased customizability and decreased cost. The classic Hammond organ uses a series of tonewheels and electromagnetic pickups to generate its tone. The tonewheels— metal disks with notches cut along the edges— spin at a constant rate, agitating the nearby electromagnetic field and therefore generating a periodic alternating current from the electromagnetic pickup. Because of the imperfect nature of electromechanical systems, the resulting sound is a beautifully dirty sine wave. While the beauty and elegance of such a system is immediately apparent, its output is inherently limited, relative to the capabilities of 21st century technologies. The wheels can only create one sound. In the era of endlessly customizable digital technology, the timbral limitations of a tonewheel organ are a real obstacle to the general public’s interest in such a system as a musical instrument.
The goal of “Lithorgan” is to design an organ that utilizes 3D-printable tonewheels. A user of the Lithrogan will then be able to easily swap out the tonewheels with new waveforms, including anything from traditional sine waves to highly experimental designs, without losing the beauty of the electromechanical imperfections of the Hammond design. To do this, I will work on a ground-up redesign of an organ that takes advantage of lithophane technology. Lithophanes, traditionally used by hobbyists to create 3D-printed photographs, map a black-and-white image to the thickness of a 3D-printed object. When a light is held up behind the lithophane, the varying thickness and partial opacity of the material reveal the original image. To create lithophane tonewheels for this organ, a waveform is mapped to thickness and wrapped radially around the center of a disk. A light is placed on one side of the disk, and a light sensor on the other. When the disk is spun, the varying thickness of the material creates a periodic tone. To create a full-size instrument with polyphony, the light-disk-sensor mechanism is duplicated, with disks spinning at different speeds to create the different musical notes.
For the scope of this project, the primary focus will be in developing the individual light-disk-sensor system, creating the mechanical system for spinning the tonewheels at the proper frequencies, and testing the use of a wider variety of waveforms on the system. A basic keyboard-like interface will also be developed, primarily for testing. The project is expected to last through April of 2022, culminating in a working proof-of-concept prototype and a paper on relevant historical research, detailed below. Because of the spinning disks and light-based tone generation, this instrument taps into two previously discrete histories: the longstanding relationship between organ design and technological advancement, and the tradition of musical instruments and compositions based strongly on visual metaphors beginning in the early 20th century. I intend to explore both of these deeply and use them to inform my design decisions. In my research on the history of organ design, I will consider how the organ has maintained its identity as a musical instrument, even through fundamental changes to its design.
Historically, the sheer complexity of the mechanical and electrical systems involved in organs has attracted brilliant minds to the instrument. Many innovations have been made to the organ, including to its interface, tone generation mechanism, and tuning. The instrument therefore serves as a powerful case study in instrument design’s place at the forefront of technological innovation. I hope to use the organ as a platform for developing a deeper appreciation for the relationship between music— or the arts, more generally— and technology.
In regard to my own organ design, historical research on the organ will allow me to gain a greater understanding of organists’ identity as musicians and their relationship to traditional features such as drawbars, stops, foot pedals, and various tuning systems. This understanding is crucial to developing an instrument that sits comfortably within a previously defined musical context. In my research on light-based musical instruments, I will reach all the way back to the era of optical sound film in an attempt to understand the motivation for creating music on such a medium. Optical sound film is a direct corollary to the lithophane disks I am creating; they both use variations in a material’s opacity to generate AC signals on a light sensor. The ability to precisely control music at the level of wavelike fluctuations over time inspired musique concréte composers, such as Edgard Varese and Pierre Schaeffer, to co-opt everyday sounds and splice them together, completely recontextualizing them and flipping our entire understanding of noise and music on its head. In contrast, innovators such as Daphne Oram were more interested in generating sound from scratch using similar techniques. Oram sought complete control of sound at the lowest possible level through the process of hand-drawing waveforms as a means for composition. Clearly, the practice of light-based musical composition and instrument design already has a rich history with diverging viewpoints. Thus, an understanding of the philosophies driving composers who worked with such a medium is crucial to properly placing my work into a broader artistic context. In order to gain this understanding, I will consider how composers and instrument designers working in the intersection of music and the visual arts approach performance with their instruments, present visual materials, and frame the metaphorical relationship between light and sound. This information will help me determine what role the visual component of my light-based tonewheels will play in the overall presentation of the instrument.
As a final deliverable for this project, I will write a paper on my findings in both of these areas and how they contributed to my final design. I will demonstrate the usefulness of practice-based technological research— in my case, the design of a novel musical instrument— in developing a deeper understanding of history and making previously undiscovered connections between discrete histories and technologies. This paper will be submitted to be considered for the 2022 conference on New Interfaces for Musical Expression, held in New Zealand.