Growing numbers of people are playing with electronics and software to create their own instruments. Often these hacked instruments can cost much less (financially) than traditional accessible technology.
Just like when you start learning a new language, technology is an open playground for you to make mistakes, experiments, have fun, blow up a LED or two, and learn!
Together with my colleague Emily Robertson I founded Conductive Music CIC, a company that designs workshops for young people from challenging backgrounds, with the intent to deliver employability skills for the creative industries, through Arts and STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics).
What you need
- A Makey Makey – you can get them on Amazon/Ebay, prices vary, £35 is a reasonable average.
- A computer – any platform, any age, any speed.
- An internet connection.
- Anything conductive – you can start with fruit and vegetables, an ice-cube tray filled with water, tin foil, metal cups or a few friends (we are conductive, after all!).
What you are going to make:
A custom music instrument, designed around the principles of conductivity.
1 hour setup, endless hours of fun!
Step 1 – Program your Makey Makey
- Open the box and connect the Makey Makey to the USB socket on your computer.
- Go to http://www.makeymakey.com/remap/ and follow the instructions.
- Re-program the Makey Makey with the following letters: A – E – F – T – G – U (the order is not important, nor is the location).
In most music software, your computer keyboard acts as a piano. Letters A, S, D would play C, D, E (the white notes of the piano). What happens to the black ones? Try W, E, T, Y, U. The Makey Makey is nothing else but an extension of your computer keyboard, it does the same job, but delivers it in a much more creative way.
Now, if you have a musical background, you might have easily spotted that the letters I suggested create a pentatonic scale (yes, I know, there are six notes, deal with it!). If this is like saying òoiqhwenf.kjadbs.a, then just trust the fact that the pentatonic minor is the best to start because all the notes work well together.
Step 2 – Test the Makey Makey
Open any text editor and try to write with it.
- Hold on to the bottom strip of the Makey Makey (the metallic part). You are holding on to the negative part of the circuit, you need to touch something positive.
- Touch any of the other arrows or circles. An LED will light up on the board, some letters will appear on the screen.
The Makey Makey works like an extension of your computer keyboard, you’ll be able to write words like FEET, TAG, GET, FEAT, TEA…you name it.
Step 3 – Make some Sounds
- Open this online virtual piano keyboard – http://www.bgfl.org/bgfl/custom/resources_ftp/client_ftp/ks2/music/piano/
- Click on the piano keys with the mouse and listen to the lovely sounds you are making.
- Now try to use your computer keyboard, A, S, D (the notes C, D, E will light up and play).
- Now hold on to the Makey Makey’s bottom part (the negative part of the circuit). With your other hand, touch any of the arrows and circles and start your tune!
Tinker with the software, there are different sounds listed at the top, some juicy drum loops right above the keyboard. Try the chord mode, to play like a pro.
Step 4 – Build your instrument
Now get hold of your conductive materials. Let’s suppose you have an ice-cube tray. Fill it with water, connect the cables, now play! All you have to do is hold on to your negative cable and dip your fingers in the ice-cube tray.
Step 5 – Play and explore
Want to build some more advanced instruments? Check out our video, to get some ideas of what our students have built!
If you’d like to know more, please see further tutorials on our website, or try Instructables. You can also look around on Kickstarter to find and support other developing instruments. Alternatively if you want to play more with electronics, join the Adafruit learning community for some fantastic tutorials.