Robotic instruments make music

Brian Lee Mar 1, 2010

Many regard music as the universal language. But getting robots to speak any language is harder than it seems.

Eric Singer is a musician who also holds an electrical and computer engineering degree from Carnegie Mellon. However, his passion for music was too great to ignore, and he studied music synthesis in the Berklee College of Music after graduating. “I’ve been a sax player since grade school and have been interested and involved in technology for about as long,” Singer said. With this mindset, he created innovative musical robots, using them to play along with some of the most famous musicians.

Singer founded LEMUR, or the League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots, in 2000 as a means of combining musical instruments and robotics. The group, according to Singer, has “had about 100 members in the form of contributing artists, technologists, and apprentices.” It has already created a variety of robotic instruments. Some of the most memorable include GuitarBot, a four-stringed robot that plucks strings — the pitch can be altered by moving sliders up and down the strings. Singer described his update to GuitarBot: “I’ve just spent the last year creating GuitarBot Mark II, an updated, sexier, and more reliable version of the original.” In addition, some robots can be manipulated by humans. “My favorites have been the Slime-o-trons, which use conductive ‘slime’ to control musical algorithms, and the Slink-o-trons, which convert the motion of Slinkys into musical controls,” Singer said. Many of his instruments have intrigued musicians looking for something new, including world-famous guitarist Pat Metheny, who recorded with a set of robotic instruments on his album Orchestrion, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Besides musical instruments, Singer also programs performance systems that interact with live performances. One, called Cyclops, according to www.ericsinger.com, controls a variety of stage equipment including cameras, audio, video, and robotics. He also created interactive musicians that listen to live performers and actively play along with them.

One of the goals of LEMUR is to find new ways to create music. “The current reality is that 99 percent of the music that is created involves the use of electronics and technology in some way or another,” Singer said. “Short of beating drums around a bonfire, musicians are going to use technology in some part of recording, performing, or creating music.” Singer focuses on exotic and lesser-known instruments, and he also is inspired by non-musical objects; he tries to find ways to make them into instruments. Singer jokes that instruments sometimes come “from the dark, strange recesses of my mind.”

Singer has been interested in both music and robotics since a young age, and it was at Carnegie Mellon that he started to combine his interests. After meeting Richard Boulanger, a music technology professor at Berklee College of Music, he began to uncover different and innovative methods to combine music and technology. Singer’s technical background allowed him to lead the implementation of his ideas: “I do all the electronics, PCB design, firmware, and most of the control software for LEMUR’s instruments and installations.” More information can be found at www.lemurbots.org and www.ericsinger.com.