Tag Archives: Chuck Stephens

We Want Your Blog Posts!

27 May

guest bloggers welcome We know you’re out there – incredible makers doing amazing things with electronics, wood, textiles, concrete blocks,pvc pipes, old chairs, Spanish moss – you name it, we know you do it!   So we’re inviting you, the awesome makers of the Gulf Coast, to contribute articles to our Gulf Coast Makers blog.  There are a few simple rules:

  • We’re looking for informative, interesting ideas, opinions, news, stories & how-tos  (See How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Arduino  and Show & Tell isn’t Just for MakerCon , both by Chuck Stephens)
  • No overt advertising and self-promotional pieces please, although we invite you to include a bio and links we’ll use at the end of your article
  • Keep it family friendly
  • Be generous with illustrations – photos, sketches, CAD and more are welcome
  • Videos are welcome

Beyond that, we got nothin’ , not even word limits! Although if your piece is really long, we might run it in multiple parts.  Just write,  share, have fun!

Please note  that we do reserve the right to reject contributions that are not in what we believe to be the spirit of Gulf Coast Makers. There is no compensation for contributions, just the joy of sharing your awesomeness!

Please drop us a line via our Contact page, to let us know if you’d like to be a guest blogger , and help us show everybody what an amazing Maker Community we have in the Gulf Coast!  We also welcome news of your events, meet ups, open makes and more on our Calendar page.




Guest Blog: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Arduino

16 Apr

Maker of all trades, Chuck Stephens, shares his insights on learning to love the Arduino.


I have an admission to make- I was an Arduino resistor. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate what could be done with microcontrollers; I saw many awesome projects at maker fairs and online that proved the Arduino was more than a toy. Part of my disdain was because I wanted to design circuits, not write programs. Arduino and similar microcontrollers seemed like cheating. To really understand what was going on, I reasoned, you would need to build physical circuits. Also the process of learning a programming language seemed daunting to someone who’s last programming experience was writing BASIC 25 years ago. Finally, I was somewhat of an analog purist. My main interest is in synthesizers and sound devices. I thought that analog synths were the best way to get the sounds I wanted and that digital sound synthesis was not nearly as versatile.

Well boy, was I wrong!

An Expensive Way to Blink an LED

arduino blinky lightWe’ve all seen it- Someone posts a project that uses a $30 microcontroller to do something that I could do with a couple of dollars worth of components. What a cheater! I’ve spent the last four years learning electronics and breathing solder fumes while this guy just waltzes in here and makes an LED blink like he’s Tesla or something. He probably doesn’t even know who Forrest Mims is. What nerve!

Of course this kind of thinking assumes that the person using the Arduino to do something simple is interested in learning electronics in the first place. Maybe they’re an artist who just wants to add some simple interactivity to a sculpture without having to earn an electrical engineering degree. Maybe they’re a programmer wanting to add some peripheral input to a bit of code they’re writing. Maybe they just want a blinky LED and this was the easiest way to get it. Ultimately, who cares?

While microcontrollers do make electronics more accessible to noobs and folks outside the field, that’s hardly the point for experienced users. The important thing about microcontrollers is the incredible power and versatility they offer the active hobbyist and inventor. In the hands of someone with a good grasp of electronics, the Arduino can save a lot of time and space and get you from the design phase to a working prototype very quickly. Just because you can build a circuit from components doesn’t mean you have to. What do you have to prove? Victory comes from a successful project, not the number of steps involved.

Root, Hog, or Die!

I was required to take two years of a foreign language in high school and, being very stubborn, I refused to take Spanish and opted for French instead. The fact that I had no one to practice with besides my classmates meant that very little of what I ‘learned’ was actually retained. Years later I visited Paris, and within days I was amazed by how much of my French came back. While I was far from fluent, I could ask directions, make purchases and order food with ease. The key was to be totally immersed in the language. It’s amazing how easily you learn when you have no other choice. As they used to say in the south when they turned the pigs out to forage- root, hog, or die!
Learning a computer language seems quite a bit harder then learning my broken tourist French. At least a foreign language will have recognizable syntax and grammar. Even if you don’t understand the words, you will have some understanding of how they go together. When I looked at some Arduino code nothing was familiar at all. It looked alien. I checked out some tutorials and the code samples they used seemed just as confusing. My Arduino sat on the shelf for months while I thought about ‘setting aside some time’ to learn how to use it.

intel gallileoFast forward to the recent Make/Intel Galileo Hacks Session on Google Hangouts. The folks at Make sent me a nice package with an Arduino starter kit, an Intel Galileo microcontroller board and a few more goodies. We were given three weeks to develop a project and present it in an online hangout. Usually when I participate in these kinds of programs I do the physical build and have a partner do the programming. I started building a prototype of a 4 axis laser spirograph confident that the programming would be taken care of. As the last week of the session got closer and other responsibilities piled up I began to panic- There was little time to try to schedule a session with a programmer before the big show and tell.

With the final hangout scheduled for Thursday night, I woke up on Saturday morning determined to do something. I had no choice- I was under the gun and I could not fail. I would cram and buckle down and try to learn some basic functionality to turn into a project for Thursday evening. I opened Lady Ada’s tutorial and resigned myself to the task at hand. I had no one to rely on but myself, so I plugged the Arduino into the computer, opened the IDE and loaded the Blink sketch. I realized that each step of the program was explained in plain English throughout the sketch. Maybe this wasn’t quite as bad as I’d imagined…

Success! The LED was blinking.

I followed Adafruit’s tutorial and determined what the variables were. I tried shorter blinks with longer gaps and long flashes that blinked off and back on quickly. I copied the main part of the sketch and pasted it onto the end to make a long flash followed by a short flash, over and over again. I added a new sketch that allowed me to control the speed of the flashes with a potentiometer. I doubled the sketch and changed the pin assignment and was able to control two separate LEDs.

I felt kind of foolish. This was easy! Why haven’t I been doing this for years? I soon realized that learning to use the Arduino wasn’t like learning an entire new language at all- it was more like being a tourist learning some key phrases and how to combine them. By using them they began to make sense and I spent the rest of the day adding new phrases and seeing how they worked together.

I needed to assemble a motor shield that plugged into the Arduino and allowed me to control multiple motors or servos simultaneously. This meant downloading a new library. The library contains new commands and code for accomplishing specific tasks as well as examples of how to use these new commands. I found an example sketch that read the value of a potentiometer and used it to control the speed of a motor. This formed the backbone of my project’s code.

The great thing about the Arduino IDE is that it comes with its own built-in phrase book. By opening examples in the file menu of the IDE you will find a selection of very arduino idebasic sketches with plain English explanations. You can alter and combine these small bits of code to create a more complex sketch quite easily. By Tuesday evening I had a sketch capable of using four potentiometers to precisely control the speed of four motors with mirrors mounted on them slightly off center. By bouncing a small laser pointer between the four spinning mirrors and onto a wall you get complex swirling patterns and shapes. Since I still had two days until the show and tell and I love noisy projects, I decided to add another bit of code to create sweeping sounds to go with the light show. I used the input from the pots to control the pitch and other parameters of the sound from a speaker so the light and sound would sync up.

One problem I ran into was that the Galileo, being new, wouldn’t recognize several of the libraries that I needed to make my project to do what I wanted. The project ran perfectly with the Arduino but the Galileo just would not work. Since the Galileo was the focus of the hack session, I was determined to incorporate it in some way. The Arduino has six analog pins which are perfect for reading variable voltages from a potentiometer. The motor shield uses two of the analog pins to communicate with the Arduino, so after connecting the four speed/sound control pots, all of my analog pins were used. I decided that having the laser blink at a variable rate would add another facet to the potential patterns created by my projector. I loaded the basic blinking LED sketch onto the Galileo with a pot on one of the analog pins and the power to the laser connected to one of the digital pins. Yep- I used Intel’s feature-packed new microcontroller to blink a single LED.

Don’t you hate it when someone uses a $70 microcontroller to do something that you could easily do with a couple of dollars worth of components? What a cheater! What nerve!

When Thusday rolled around I was given a few minutes to explain my project and demonstrate it during the hangout. I was amazed that I had gone from a basic blinking LED to an impressive and interactive project in less than a week. My mistake was trying to understand the Arduino before I actually plugged it in. That’s like trying to learn to swim by reading a description of swimming. The only way to learn how to use the Arduino is to plug it in and follow the tutorials. Go step by step and it will all make sense. All of my assumptions about learning to use the Arduino IDE were wrong. Much like on my Paris trip, when I immersed myself in the language it quickly began to make sense.

Confessions of a Hipster Music Snob

I grew up with a fascination for electronic music. From the fat synthesizer bass lines of disco and early hiphop to the futuristic sounds of new wave, keyboards, sequencers synth boxand drum machines offered an exciting musical palette. For me, the ideal electronic instrument is designed to create unique new sounds rather than simulate other instruments. Since most digital keyboards were loaded with samples designed to recreate existing instruments they tend to sound fake and inauthentic. Analog instruments, on the other hand, can produce a wide variety of sounds, from familiar organ and horn sounds to far out sound effects and noises with no real-world comparison. Analog synthesizers and drum machines are coveted by music producers for their warmth and versatility.

This preference is one of the main reasons I wasn’t in a hurry to experiment with the Arduino. While it might be great for controlling a robot or other mechanical device, I didn’t have high hopes for the board’s musical potential. When I loaded the basic synthesizer code into the projector it created interesting sounds but a grounding problem caused motor noise to bleed through. Since I had another Arduino, I decided to build a stand alone synthesizer. I used a sketch called Auduino that used five pots to control the filter and cutoff of a stepped tone synthesizer. The pitch was controlled by a pot and was divided into steps in the key of E major. Turning the knob automatically created a musical scale, from deep, throbbing basses to piercing clear high notes. By controlling the pitch with one hand and the filter and cutoff with the other you can create very impressive and dynamic sounds with a unit that costs less than $50.


Chuck and his sound machines at Gulf Coast MakerCon 2014

The real test came when I got to demo the synth for my friend who is a vinyl DJ and analog synth player. He hates digital gear even more than I do and I knew he would be a tough critic. I started off with some clean mid-range melodies and rhythms. I adjusted the cutoff and raised the pitch for some gritty brassy leads and my buddy seemed to be enjoying it. Then I went for the jugular and dropped the pitch down way low while tweaking the filter for some funky bass lines and dubstep-style filter wobbles. When I stopped he was quite impressed and asked what circuit I used. I just grinned, opened the enclosure and showed him the Arduino.
So much for hating digital synths.

Hallelujah! I’ve Seen the Light

So now I’m an Arduino convert. Microcontrollers are another useful tool for making the things I make. While the Arduino and other boards are very useful, to get the most out of them you need a general knowledge of electronics. You could choose to learn circuit design first and then move on to microcontrollers or you can start out with an Arduino and a handful of components and learn the electronics as you go. The important part is that you are learning and creating. Learning what you need when you need it is what ‘making’ is all about.

I no longer see the Arduino as cheating but as a way to do complex projects quickly and with a small footprint. I also found that the language is easy to get started with and the only thing standing in the way of getting started is actually getting started. The most important thing I learned about the Arduino is that it’s a flexible platform for building sensor projects, robots, interactive devices and even, gasp, musical projects. The only real limitations are the specs of your particular board and your imagination.

Go wild!

Thank you to the Unsung Heroes of Gulf Coast MakerCon 2014!

3 Apr

GCMC logo There are a lot of amazing people who make an event like Gulf Coast MakerCon not only possible, but fun and rewarding to create. We want to take a moment here, before we head into the Maker Maelstrom this weekend, to thank some of them, starting with our friends at Studio 7 Communications,  who created our fantastic Maker Skull and Cross-Tools logo!

Studio 7, which typically likes to keep a low profile despite all the fantastic good they do, Studio-7-1024x212is also a big supporter of FIRST Tech Challenge Team Duct Tape, and helped craft their awesome logo, too.   We’re very grateful to Studio 7 Communications for the gift of their talent and expertise.

We also want to thank Maker of All Trades Chuck Stephens, for the gifts of his amazing

2012 Maker Fair poster, by Chuck Stephens

2012 Maker Fair poster, by Chuck Stephens

artwork.  Chuck, a local artist and a volunteer with sponsor Learning is for Everyone,  created our first Maker Faire poster in 2012, still one of our favorite pieces.

Future is brightHis custom designs for this year’s Gulf Coast MakerCon event are equally fantastic, capturing the playful and somewhat rebellious spirit of our next generation DIY Celebration of the Inventive Spirit.

maker con poster1


TBICWe also want to thank Wayne Rasanen of the Tampa Bay Inventors Council, for his energetic networking and nudging to help populate our Inventors Showcase with the amazing people who are joining us this weekend.

Many thanks, too, to Dominick Transcritti of  Suncoast Skirmishers, who has been coordinating our Tabletop Day event, which has  generated some of our most enthusiastic traffic and suncoast skirmishersinterest, with a lot of people looking forward to a day of tabletop game play on Saturday, and more opportunities to play on Sunday.

Sam McAmis, of the University of South Florida Robotics Interest Group (USF-RIG) has been busy organizing B.A.M. (Battles at MakerCon) just for Gulf Coast MakerCon. BAM With 30 students from area high schools competing with 15 lb. class fighting robots, MakerCon guests will be treated to high energy battlebots competition all day Saturday.  And on Sunday, look for some creative destruction of old electronics with larger robots.  It’s been no small task organizing the competition and exhibitions, especially while trying to get through Engineering studies, so Sam has our deepest appreciation for his creative multitasking in the service of Gulf Coast MakerCon and celebratory robotics!

fairgroundsAnd  we can’t end our Makers Hymn of Praise and Thanks without a great big shout out to the Florida State Fairgrounds Authority!

Your Gulf Coast MakerCon organizers have put together a lot of different events in Tampa Bay – TEDxYouth, ROBOCON Tampa Bay, previous Maker festivals – and we’ve never encountered such amazingly warm, patient, collaborative, cooperative, and helpful venue representatives.  The Florida Fairgrounds staff has gone out of their way to make event planning smooth, helped us through logistical bumps, and generally exuded Florida Sunshine and hospitality with abundant generosity.

So if you happen to see anyone from the Fairgrounds at Gulf Coast MakerCon this weekend, or a quiet lady with FTC Team Duct Tape at the FIRST exhibit area, or a fellow with a cap and coveralls and some funky electronic musical devices, or a pleasant looking gentleman with glasses at the Tabletop game tables, or a somewhat wild haired guy officiating over the battle bots, stop and tell them thanks!

They’re some of the signature Makers of Gulf Coast MakerCon, and at the heart of everything that makes our Maker Community so excellent!

Guest Blog: Show & Tell Isn’t Just for MakerCon

24 Mar

chuck stephensLI4E Volunteer and Maker of all Trades, Chuck Stephens, shares his thoughts on the power of sharing.

Have you ever heard of Luigi da Vinci? Luigi was a brilliant maker during the Italian Renaissance. He spent all day building models and perfecting his ideas. He was a happy man doing whatever he wanted and exploring his curiosity. One day he’d play with his model flying machines and the next day he’d imagine new buildings or study the nature of living things. He was content to pursue his passions and the world left him to it. He mostly kept to himself but once in a while he liked to share a wineskin with his neighbor Leonardo the artist, and they would spend a nice evening talking about Luigi’s toys while Leonardo sketched amusing pictures. “

“Ah , Leonardo,” Luigi would tease. “You live your life in pictures. Men are remembered for doing, not dreaming! I build machines that fly while you sit and doodle them on parchment. What legacy is that?”

At these times the artist would smile slyly and offer Luigi another drink and soon he was off on another wild demonstration while Leonardo scribbled away.

You’ve heard of Luigi da Vinci, right? He was a genius!

To do is to be- to document is to be heard


Familab sharing at LI4Es 2013 maker festival.

How is a maker different from a hobbyist? I’ve had a few lively debates about this in various forums and I think it boils down to communication- makers love to share their work and knowledge. Makers don’t read Popular Mechanics and write letters to the editor- they read tech web sites and leave comments that other readers can comment on. Makers don’t just use gadgets- they hack and modify them and then go on their blogs and tell others how to do it. While a hobbyist can enjoy their craft in isolation, a maker has a need to share what they do and how they do it. Openness and sharing are at the core of the maker movement.

Much like academia, in the maker community it’s ‘Publish or perish‘. The growth of the maker movement was fertilized with millions of blog posts, Instructables, Youtube videos, comment threads and Tweets. The internet allows enthusiasts to become ambassadors. I’ve learned everything I know about electronics from Forrest Mims’s Basic Electronics book and the internet. No matter what problems I encountered or questions I had, the answers were just a few mouse clicks away. I was able to learn everything I wanted at my own pace.

Most important- I stayed interested. I got exactly what I wanted out of electronics when I wanted it thanks to thousands of other hobbyists who took the time to post a video or answer a question on a message board. Through this easy access to shared information makers become self replicating. User created resources inspire new users who create their own resources- rinse and repeat. By documenting our work we help others become makers.

OK I’ll confess- I’m the worst! I hate to break my work flow with camera work or blog posts. Stopping to set up a camera and tripod takes time that could be spent learning and building. Even as I’m writing this article I’m thinking that the four channel mixer I’ve been working on for my lunetta synthesizer isn’t building itself. When I finish a project I’m already thinking about my next one so I rarely stop to shoot a video. I rarely even get good photographs of my projects- I just play with them and then go build new stuff.

Even when the video or photos get shot the job’s not done. At the least it needs to be trimmed and edited. You may want to add graphics and titles, animations, music or voice-overs. It may need to be reformatted to load quickly on Vimeo or Youtube. You’ll also want to write a description and add the right tags so folks can find it. In the end picking up my soldering iron and starting the next project seems like a lot less hassle.

A New (Maker) Year’s resolution

In the last couple of years, Tampa Bay Mini Maker Faire, now Gulf Coast MakerCon, has become the focus of my year, project-wise. Everything falls into two categories- things to get done before MakerCon and things that I can’t start until after MakerCon. Since it has become the bookends of my year, maybe a New (Maker) Year’s resolution is in order. Mine is to better document my work.

This happens to coincide with the start of Hackaday’s new Projects page.  I signed up and started a page there but I really need to change my approach to documentation. I want to focus on video since my projects are mostly sound based. As usual I went to the internet to see what others were doing. People make instructional videos on how to make instructional videos- now that’s meta. After a few hours of good and bad advice, I found my game plan for documenting my work. Here are a few tips to keep in mind as you set out to document your projects with video.

Plan your work and work your plan

overlap project notes 2Planning is the key. Figure out what you want to say and show before you start recording. It can be as simple as an outline that covers your key points or a full script- whatever works for you. Also plan the visual aspect of your video. Is there good lighting? Can the camera ‘see’ you? If you need to move or change positions can you do so without blocking the shot? If your dealing with lots of steps or movements in your video it may help to create a simple story board, a comic book-like set of sketches planning out key scenes, movements and actions. You can download story board templates from Incompetech here http://incompetech.com/graphpaper/storyboard/ Planning and visualizing your video project will help you see problems and solve them before your cameras are rolling. When I’ve made videos in the past I’ve found that hand written cue cards and a plan for the shot save me a lot of time and frustration. Planning your steps will also help you insure that you have all necessary materials handy when you need them.

Make it easy for yourself

After you have your video planned out it’s time to start filming. In my house this is always a daunting task. My workbench is in the living room so things need to be rearranged a little to make room for a tripod and lights. Since my bench is along a wall it’s hard to get a good camera angle. The best way to avoid these hassles is to plan your work space with video in mind. Avoid tripods and design camera mounts into your workbench. Action cameras like the GoPro with lots of mounting options are great for this. It can also be as simple as using squares of adhesive Velcro with a cheap webcam.

instructional video

Chuck’s instructional video on how he made a drumbot.

While it’s possible to shoot a simple video in one single take, it can get a little boring and it increases the chance of flubbed lines.. Using two cameras, or even one camera with two separate mounting spots, can make your video much better. Use a wide shot when you are talking and explaining things and a close up to show details. If you do moving shots look into making a DIY steadicam set up to make your camera movements smoother. Watch TV with an eye towards the technical details. Observe how the way something is shot makes it more interesting.

I’ve decided to use an old Manfrotto lighting clamp modified to accept a standard camera mount for my main camera. It mounts easily to my bookshelf and gives a nice long shot along the bench. I also have a small webcam with Velcro for closer angles and a custom mount for my tablet for overhead close ups of my workbench. These are all things I had laying around.

Use a similar approach to lighting. Good lighting will make a cheap camera look better. Flea markets and yard sales are a good source for lighting fixtures and lamps. The main thing to keep in mind is to provide even lighting. Avoid a single bright light as this will cause bright glare and dark shadows. Use several softer lights for better illumination from many angles. Keep your work area well lit and you will always be ready to shoot a video. I have two angle-poise desk lamps mounted on my workbench as well as a couple of small fluorescent tubes. I also use a rechargable LED flashlight with a diffuser for a detail spotlight.

The main thing to keep in mind is that the easier it is to shoot your video the more likely you will be to shoot a video. Having your camera mounts and lights in place all the time makes it much easier.

Don’t forget the audio

how to video

FTC Team Duct Tape students offer a nice little instructional video for FIRST teams.

Great video quality is no good if the audience can’t hear what you’re saying. Keep the audio in mind in your early planning stages. When you’re ready to shoot turn off the A/C or fans. If you live near traffic or playing children, close the windows. Most cameras have a built in microphone. This is fine, but if you are shooting in a noisy environment try using an external microphone or an inexpensive clip-on lavalier mic. If your demo is really loud you can always do a separate voice over later. I have a small collection of microphones and a couple of digital audio recorders but I usually just use the mics on my cameras. Think about adding some music or sound effects. Keep in mind that using music that you don’t have permission to use may get your video pulled by Youtube or Vimeo. Use royalty free music or create your own with Garage Band, Fruity Loops or similar software.

Putting it all together

video editing

Ryder, with FTC Team Duct Tape, prefers full featured editing software, but Movie Maker will do for basic needs.

The final step is editing. Editing allows you to combine video and audio clips to create your final video. You can also add titles, video and audio effects and transitions that add variety to the way one clip fades into another clip. There are plenty of free video editing programs out there, and new ones pop up all the time. Do a little research and find one that fits your needs. There are many video editing tutorials out there that will teach you the basics of your chosen program. Don’t go overboard with the effects and transitions- the information you are presenting should always be the focus. I use Windows Movie Maker and a shareware video format converter. I’ve used expensive, feature packed software in the past, but this does everything I need and it came installed on my laptop.

When you see a video you like, make a mental note about what made it interesting. Was it well written? Was the camera work smooth and clear? Were there interesting extras like graphics, titles or music? Was the presenter enthusiastic and engaging?

Don’t be afraid to learn from others and borrow from other peoples successes. That’s what being a maker is all about.

Keep it simple

The most important thing is to keep it simple. Relax- you’re just talking to some friends, not going out for an Academy Award. Just be yourself and have confidence. Don’t rely too heavily on fancy effects. A clearly presented video done in one shot without titles or effects is better than a video with so much music and graphics that it distracts from the subject. Keep your budget simple, too. A well planned, well lit video shot on a low end camera will be much better than a disorganized, shadowy mess shot in HD. If you don’t have space or decent lighting in your home, go outside. If you don’t own a camera check with your friends, local library or makerspace to see if they have equipment you can use. Work with what you have, but just do it. Learn by doing and experimenting- you can always shoot it again.

Sharing is an important part of making. Chances are you have learned a lot from others around you. Documenting your work is a great way to pay it forward and inspire someone else to try their hand at making something. Makers make makers!

Do your part or you’ll end up like Luigi da Vinci.

Remember him?

Guest Blog: The Soundtrack of Tomorrow is Being Made Today

2 Mar

chuckChuck Stephen is a maker, musician and self described, “very lazy writer” living in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa, Florida.  He’s also an awesome LI4E volunteer, sharing his many and varied DIY inventive skills at a events and programs throughout Tampa Bay, most recently at the USF Engineering EXPO, where he showcased some of his own personal musical aesthetic.    Here he shares a nuanced look at the influence of makers in music.


Planning for the Gulf Coast MakerCon got us thinking about music and more specifically, what constitutes ‘maker music’. Of course we’ve seen talented instrument makers, circuit benders and guys playing the Mario Bros. theme on floppy drives at various maker events, but what else is there? Is there a maker sound or musical aesthetic? Do makers approach music differently?

With the traditional music industry losing ground to digital music distribution and the explosion of innovation and openness fostered by the internet and demonstrated by the maker scene, we are at a crossroads of musical possibilities. This trend has roots going back to the sixties and earlier as musicians began to explore the intersection of technology and sound. With technological innovations and new ideas about the role of musicians and producers, this exploration quickly grew into many varied forms of electronic music and new, intuitive interfaces for the creation of music. The basic concepts of the new musical forms, that music can be created from snippets of other audio sources and arranged like a collage, that technology once frowned on by ‘real musicians’ could open a whole new sonic pallette and that existing, accepted technologies could be re-imagined in new ways, initiated changes that are still being felt in music today. These new forms of electronic music and unique musical interfaces and controls go hand in hand with the ideals of the maker movement.

Modulating with Electricity

The idea of creating music with electricity was popularized in the twenties by Leon Theremin’s eponymous invention. Not only wastheramin the Theremin‘s sound unique, it was controlled by waving the performers hands in the air above the instrument to affect the electrical field it generated. It was a finicky machine that took a long time to master, but it’s eerie ‘WoooWoooo’ sound became the go-to spooky sound effect for Hollywood for years to come.

The shift toward new musical forms and interfaces really got under way in the sixties with early pioneers like the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and American psychedelic rock band Silver Apples. Both used industrial test equipment and oscillators to create sounds that where impossible to create with traditional instruments. Suddenly music was being created by turning knobs, pushing buttons and flipping switches. These sounds became popular for scifi movie soundtracks and influenced the prog rock movement of the late sixties and the new wave of the late seventies.

Enter the Disc Jockey

Herc_on_the_Wheels_of_SteelThe seventies saw the emergence of disco and the popularity of the DJ. In the night clubs the songs themselves became less important than how the DJ presented them. This culminated with a young DJ from Jamaica named Kool Herc developing the basics of what became hip hop and break beat music in a basement in the Bronx. When he noticed how people on the dance floor got excited during the accents called breaks on certain records, he started using two turntables with two copies of the same song to juggle the break in a loop over and over again making the dance floor go wild. This is the origin of the term break dancing. By using records and turntables in a new way to remix and customize music, a new generation of musical creativity was born and attitudes toward intellectual property and copyright law began to change, foreshadowing the open source movement and creative commons movements.


Another important development in the seventies was the emergence of punk rock, with it’s reliance on a DIY approach and its 800px-Roland_TR-505_drum_machinestripped down musical aesthetic. Punk, in direct reaction to the excesses of the sixties rock scene, put message and attitude ahead of musicality to create a new, accessible music that spoke to the disillusioned youth of the time. Punk dissolved the psychological barriers between the bands and the fans, insisting that any kid with a cheap pawn shop guitar and something to be angry about could start a band and be a part of the scene. Punk democratized music and paved the way for many new genres to come.

At this time people began to look at music technologies in a new way. Roland’s 808 drum machine and 303 bass line synthesizer were popular with the Holiday Inn lounge singer set. Used as directed they had a distinctively cheesy sound that serious musicians laughed at. Soon some enterprising producers realized that if you purposely adjusted these units to not sound like traditional instruments at all some really cool sounds could be produced. Soon these producers teamed up with DJs to create the game changing sounds of hip hop and house music.

Get Your Groove On

The next big evolution in how we think of music came with 1985’s must-have music toy the Casio SK1. Besides having some cool sounds and beats programmed in, it also had the ability to record a short sample of audio from a built in microphone and play it back through the keyboard as separate notes. What had been an expensive studio technology was now available to anyone. Soon every ten year old was burping their way through Mary Had a Little Lamb to a disco beat. As William Gibson wrote ‘The street will find it’s own uses for things’. Soon hip hop artists were adding this technology to their arsenals with the wall of sound noise carpets of Public Enemy, the snarky pop culture references of the Beastie Boys or the poppy bounce of De La Soul. Taken to the extreme, one six second drum solo sample from an obscure 1968 funk single, dubbed ‘the Amen Break’, became the basis of the entire genre of drum and bass music.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs the nineties rolled around we saw an influx of multifunction production boxes like Roland’s Groovebox or Korg’s Electribe. These devices allowed the user to program both rhythm and melody parts on multiple tracks with multiple parts and various effects. Aspiring musicians, producers and performers could create professional sounding, complex back up tracks with very little formal musical experience. Along with advances in computer software this removed the economic barriers to music production. The growth of the internet provided a fertile ground to distribute self produced music all over the world. Suddenly a kid in his bedroom in London could collaborate with a singer in New York to have a club hit in Ibiza without ever performing live or even leaving the house.

Multi-axis Control

The late nineties brought us another innovative bit of equipment- Korg’s Kaoss pad. This new effects processor allowed musicians to control two different effects simultaneously by tapping or dragging their finger across a touch sensitive pad. Instead of setting the levels on a traditional effect pedal and playing your instrument, the Kaoss pad allowed you to dynamically change multiple settings in real time as you played. This was soon followed by the Kaossilator which removed the instrument from the equation all together and allowed you to control the pitch and effect level of built in instrument samples and sound effects. Users could easily set a scale and key for the chosen instrument so that any notes played will sound ‘in tune’. This allows even non-musicians to create basic melodies, bass lines and rhythms. This device also allowed you to record loops and layer multiple sounds on top of each other, creating beats and grooves. Soon many other companies, as well as the DIY community, latched onto the idea. The advent of touch screen tablet devices in the 2000’s gave rise to many apps using multi-axis touch to control sounds and musical events.

2010 brought Korg’s next big step- the Monotron series. These simple, pocket sized analog synthesizers had ribbon controllers monotron_duorather than keyboards, keeping the production cost low and lending to cool, bendy sounds. Not only did Korg make a fun little analog sound effects machine that was very affordable, they also marked the outputs for pitch, cutoff, control voltage and other settings on the circuit board of the device and released the full schematics online with a reminder that, while modifications would void the warranty, you were free to do whatever you want to your Monotron with their blessings. This created a cult following of hackers and modders who fell in love with the simple machine and made it the center of many cool projects.

Mixing it up with Makers

The early years of the twentieth century also saw the full emergence of the maker movement. Fueled by the internet, geeks and makers all over the world were suddenly sharing tips on everything from circuit bending to DIY synthesizers and noise circuits. From simple circuits like the Atari Punk Console or short circuited Speak and Spell toys to more complex sound generators like Lunetta synths or DIY digital interfaces like the Monome, the DIY electronic music scene has exploded. This has lead to musical devices using all kinds of physical interfaces, from light sensitive circuits to Kinect enabled full body dance controllers.

All of these musical innovations have lead, not just to new forms of musical expression, but to a new democratization of music production. Punk’s ‘come as you are’ inclusiveness has melded with hip hop’s embracing and re-imagining of technology to create a new way of thinking about music’s role in our lives. Music no longer requires years of practice, rote memorization and training. Anyone who can turn a knob, press a button, click a mouse or drag a finger can create music. Any kid with a laptop and an internet connection can distribute and promote their music worldwide.

With a handful of components from Ebay, some schematics from various hobby sites and a little soldering experience anyone can build their own analog synthesizers, sequencers, drum machines and experimental musical devices. Like revolutionaries of the past we have stormed the ramparts, seized the means of production and thrown the money changers from the temple. Artists can now make and share whatever their creative drive dictates, free of economic concerns. Music fans no longer have to rely on the accountants at the record labels for their listening material- everything is available right now. While the music industry produces more derivative, sterile ‘product’, the bedroom studios and laptops of the world are creating the soundtrack of tomorrow.

The Sound of the Future

making musicThe exciting thing is that this time of great musical innovation and possibility coincides with a major cultural shift. The youth of today are the first generation to grow up without preconceived notions of traditional interfaces. Today’s young people control video games with gestures or full body movements. They have grown up with any number of physical devices replaced with phone or tablet apps. They drive RC cars and fly quadcopters via Bluetooth connections with their smart phones. They have had access to Arduino, Raspberry Pi, 3D printing and robots their entire lives. They spend large amounts of time in virtual environments like Minecraft. They have grown up with a level of technological integration only dreamed of by the futurists of the past and it’s still changing. These kids seem far less likely to gravitate towards the limitations and learning curve of traditional instruments outside of a retro affectation or nostalgia.

What kind of music will they be making in ten years and how will they be making it? One thing’s for certain- it’s being incubated in the open source, DIY world of the maker scene.

Come on out to the Gulf Coast MakerCon to see some of the Bay Area’s music makers in action. In the meantime, take a look at – and have a listen to – some of these unique sounds:

  • Silver Apples consisted of drummer Danny Taylor and Simeon, who played an unconventional homemade synthesizer. Their work was groundbreaking-
  • The BBC Radiophonic Workshop, best known for creating the Dr. Who theme, made sound effects and theme music for BBC affiliates around the world using very innovative sounds and techniques
  • Grimes is a one-woman musical force from Vancouver who uses production boxes, samplers, and keyboards layered with ethereal vocals to create dreamy, haunting pop
  • The Petebox uses his voice and a Kaoss Pad sampler to arrange loops like legos to build complex songs-
  • Brett Domino is a geek superstar who uses odd electronic instruments to cover pop songs in a unique way-
  • Lunetta synths are DIY sound generating devices that use CMOS logic chips in simple circuits connected by patch cords to create complex, self generating musical patterns

And here’s the project that got many people started in sound circuits- the Atari Punk Console from Forrest M. Mims-

And of course- circuit bending. This gets real weird around the 3:00 mark.

Have fun, and keep your ears open for some awesome sounds at Gulf Coast MakerCon!

-Chuck Stephens

Beating the Drum for Gulf Coast MakerCon

28 Jan

LI4E Volunteer and Maker Extraordinaire, Chuck Stephens, is making some noise for Gulf Coast MakerCon 2014. Check it out!

LI4E Heads to Pasco EcoFest with Artist and Maker Chuck Stephens & LearningMan

6 Nov

Tampa artist and maker,  and  Learning is for Everyone volunteer, Chuck Stephens, is bringing  his concept art,  “LearningMan”to Pasco EcoFest, in keeping with LI4Es mission to support “the ecofestCuriosity Driven Life.”

“LearningMan is a participatory interactive sculpture designed to bring attention to the plastic cycle and encourage discussion of better and more efficient recycling solutions,” says Chuck.

Inspired by the annual Burning Man Festival, our large human shaped sculpture will be constructed of bamboo with an LED lighting system (reused from our Red Bull challenge project!). Festival attendees will be encouraged to tie empty plastic drink bottles and other plastic waste to the frame throughout the day Friday and Saturday. Saturday evening the sculpture will be raised and lit up. The plastic will diffuse the light of the LEDs creating an eye catching display that will flash and change color with the music from the festival stage. After the festival the sculpture will be disassembled and properly recycled.

Besides being a fun and interactive art project at EcoFest, the purpose of this project is to increase awareness of plastic and its place in our world.

“Plastic is everywhere but few of us know how it is made or what happens to it after we put it in the recycling bin,” Chuck notes. ” With the rise of the maker movement and the advent and growth of 3D printing, the role of plastic is changing. I see a future where consumers will have access to closed loop home recycling systems where waste plastic will be turned into the raw materials for home manufacturing to create an endless array of goods. Someday, hopefully, throwing away an empty plastic bottle will be as foolish as throwing away perfectly good printer ink.

“The first steps toward this change is awareness and consumer education and LearningMan is meant to be a fun way of engaging this issue.”

Come out and indulge your curiosity with Chuck and Learning is for Everyone, at Sims Park in New Port Richey this weekend!


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