River Song - Music Hack Day Scotland

This weekend saw a music hack day in Edinburgh. I signed up with a couple of ideas of things I might do but I wasn't really sure if I'd get much done. In the end my hack was quite successful and I won an iPad!

One idea I had was to make a virtual Singing Bowl using a wire and capacitive touch sensing. I thought this would be quite difficult because to do it at all well would probably require quite a sophisticated sensor, something like used in Disney's interactive plant project.

My other, which I built, was related to my touring bike. I was thinking about what to call my new bike when I get her, and I think I might choose River Song. The bike is for open ended touring without any particular rush to get anywhere. It is for living. I like the idea of the bike flowing through life, time and space.

Make the bike sing.

This gave me the idea that she ought to have a song. I wanted something to represent movement and flow. The most obvious idea was the sound of a river. I could also have tried to compose something but that seemed more difficult because it would require musical ability. I decided to make river sounds.

I wanted the sound to change with movement. The simplest thing is to take the current speed. I also thought about using distance traveled recently (i.e. adding integral action to the music controller). I considered modeling a water system, such that movement caused rainfall, which then soaked through the ground and eventually reached the river. For this hack, I kept it simple and used only speed.

Block diagram of system.

Above is a diagram of the system I demonstrated. I used a unicycle rather than a bike for the demo because it was easier to get it into the lecture theatre and turn the wheel. I'll now discuss the design choices.

I considered two ways of making the sound. One was synthesising from scratch, and the other using samples. I realised that I actually had recordings of a river and of water flowing in a pipe, the later which I took when walking on La Palma. I chose to use synthesis because it seemed like it would be easier to modify the sound with data and it made it more hackable for future changes to the sound.

I had never done any sound synthesis before so I didn't know what software I should use. I thought about using a library for some programming language I already knew but decided to try using something designed for sound. The main contenders seemed to be SuperCollider and Pure Data. Asking around I found Pure Data seems to be the most popular, and this was confirmed at the presentation when I saw several hacks used it.

Pure Data was difficult to get started with, and I almost gave up. The documentation is very poor and the Ubuntu package had various things wrong with it, like the sound test not working. I managed to get it working in the end. I didn't have time to learn much about the language never mind actually designing synthesisers and sounds but I found a Pure Data patch which made something which sounded like running water. Random hacking at this discovered a place where I could change a value to make the water sound more violent. I used this and also increased the volume when the bike went faster.

To detect movement I used a magnet on the wheel and a reed switch from an old bike computer. This I connected to an Arduino (actually Seeeduino) which measured the time between switch pulses and sent this over a USB serial connection to a laptop running Pure Data.

In Pure Data, I used the comport module to receive data from the serial port. This was also not well documented but I worked it out from some blog posts.

I finished soldering connectors together about 10 minutes before the presentations were meant to start and then ran to the event. I was tweaking the sensor position and patch parameters during the talks but soldering proper connectors paid off because there was no trouble - amazingly the thing actually worked at a demonstration! I was now on stage with a unicycle, so of course I had to try and ride it. I managed to idle briefly and long enough to trigger the sensor, so overall successful.

I would have been quite pleased at that, but then there were prizes, and I won an iPad! I'm not sure what to do with it yet. Maybe duck tape it to my bike. :)

Demonstration with unicycle at the hackday.

Preparing unicycle for talk.

I was still tweaking while the presentations were happening, but the demo worked!

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