BY AARON JENTZEN
Imagine, based on every sci-fi film you’ve ever seen, a factory that produces robots. Now imagine the opposite, and you’re getting close to Eric Singer’s workshop — a dank, low-ceilinged Squirrel Hill basement where he turns out not droid armies, but robotic musical instruments.
There are the power tools: a bench-top mill, a drill press, a band saw. Ranged around are the instruments. Some are being stored, others repaired. Some are still in the process of being invented. On a workbench sits the main mechanism for the XyloBot — a long rectangle of dark wood, bristling with metal rods and dozens of small mallets. When fully assembled, the mallets strike tuned lengths of plumbing pipe, which generate the clanking, alien overtones Singer prefers to more conventional xylophone sounds.
Nearby is the in-progress HydroBot 1, which Singer says could be called a “hydrocymbal”: a cymbal that has water in it, and swirls around once it’s struck, changing the timbre. In the shadows, meanwhile, lurks the GuitarBot — the first robot instrument Singer tackled — and the Sonic Banana, a two-foot length of flexible hose equipped with sensors and a cord, which can be bent and twisted to control electronic sounds. Playing it, says Singer, “is like DJing with a yellow rubber tube.”
Many of the instruments are based on the solenoid, an electromagnetic plunger that moves when current is applied — in turn moving a drum stick, or plucking a string. Solenoids are commonly used in cars and laundry machines (which can also be found in Singer’s basement, beside a pile of laundry).
Rather than passive appliances, the robots here can interact with their surroundings and human musicians. “Any type of action-reaction thing you can conceive of,” Singer says, “you can program and create an instrument that you can jam with. Very literally, it’s a duet improvisation for human and robot.” Earlier this year, famed fusion guitarist Pat Metheny took to the road, with a backing band made up entirely of robots, most created by Singer and a group of collaborators in Brooklyn (see “Going Solo”).
They’re also a solution to getting music out of the computers and headphones and back into larger, more organic ambiance. “They produce complex acoustic sound that is often lost in the electronic-music versions of these sounds,” says Singer. “You can always walk into a room or a club with your eyes closed and know whether you’re hearing a live band, or something played back from speakers. And with these, you always know you’re hearing a live band.”
Well, “live” might not be the right word…..
Photo by Heather Mull