Experimental Sound Instruments

When musicians go to a shop and buy the last Roland or Korg, they just take the music in the middle of the process I think, instead of taking it from the beginning. When you go and buy a robot or a machine or electronic device, you just forget half of the pleasure. It’s good to start with the origin and design your own sound sources and than play with them.
–Pierre Bastian (interviewed by Svetlana Maras)

Experimental Sound Instruments Workshop, TAIK MediaLab Helsinki from macumbista on Vimeo.

This is a workshop which I teach yearly at the Media Lab of Aalto University, Helsinki FI.

During this workshop, students will create an electronic or electro-acoustic sound instrument over 5 days. A variety of technologies will be introduced, including acoustic pickups and transducers, resistive sensors, CMOS electronics for creating simple oscillators and signal generators as well as motors, solenoids, relays and the circuits to control them (with or without the Arduino).

I will also show you a basic (and cheap!) contact microphone pickup system with a 1/2 Watt audio amplifier to boost the sounds of your instrument. From there, we will focus on the electronics and mechanics necessary to create movement, and from this movement how to create sound involving one or more of the classic instrument types: idiophones (wood or metal bars), aerophones (wind instruments), membranophones (drums) and chordophones (string instruments).

Other possibilities include simple electronic synthesizers or feedback systems which can be manipulated by the player of the instrument. In any case, these instruments should not rely on the computer to be played. There will be a final presentation in the Kipsari cantine on the last day of the workshop where students will present their instruments and teach others how to play them.

You are required to bring objects to use in your construction. Think about things which can be moved, vibrated or struck to produce sound. Hollow shapes, strings, springs, wooden boxes, tubes, metal objects, etc etc. Objects may work in strange combinations as well. If you want a larger speaker than the 8-10cm ones I will provide, please salvage one from an old boombox or clock radio. The objects you bring will shape the instrument you create, so check the second hand shops, junk stores and flea markets beforehand!

Prior knowledge of electronics or programming is not necessary, however each student should have a basic understanding of sound and how it functions. Also, since many of these instruments require some kind of construction, it would be very helpful if students take the orientation course in the woodworking shop before the start of this class.


1) A circuit-bending workshop. We won’t be hacking found electronics, but building simple circuits of our own.

2) A detailed programming workshop. I can teach very basic input/output with the Arduino in Processing, but that is all. If you want something more sophisticated, you will be responsible for getting it to work based on your own programming skills.


Collins, Nicolas: Handmade Electronic Music: The Art of Hardware Hacking (Second Edition). Routeledge, 2009.

Hopkin, Bart: Musical Instrument Design: Practical Information for Instrument Making. See Sharp Press, 1996.

Mims, Forrest M. III: Engineer’s Mini Notebook Vol I: Timer, OpAmp & Optoelectronic Circuits & Projects. Master Publishing, 2004.

Mims, Forrest M. III: Engineer’s Mini Notebook Vol III: Electronic Sensor Circuits & Projects. Master Publishing, 2004.

Mims, Forrest M. III: Engineer’s Mini Notebook Vol IV: Electronic Formulas, Symbols & Circuits. Master Publishing, 2004.



Oct – Aalto Media Lab, Helsinki FI


Nov – Aalto Media Lab, Helsinki FI
Feb – Aalto Media Lab, Helsinki FI


Feb – Aalto Media Lab, Helsinki FI


Mar – Aalto Media Lab, Helsinki FI


Mar – TAIK Media Lab, Helsinki FI


Images from a workshop with students of the Media Lab at Aalto University, Otaniemi/Helsinki, OCT 2014.

Images from a workshop with students of the Media Lab at TAIK (Taideteollinen korkeakoulu/University of Art and Design) Helsinki, 8-12 March 2010. Photos by Liisa Tervinen.