Creating the Next Musical Instruments

February 27, 2017

Atlanta, GA

The world’s weirdest musical competition is returning to Georgia Tech.

The annual Margaret Guthman Musical Instrument Competition showcases the innovation taking place where engineering and musicianship intersect. The contest highlights what’s next in muscial instrument design.

This year’s nearly 20 semifinalists represent 10 countries. The finalists will perform a free concert at 7 p.m. on March 9 at the Ferst Center.

Think of these peculiar inventions as the X-Men of musical instruments. But these mutants are also clever devices that expand our assumed notion of what constitutes an instrument and the sounds it can produce.

Here are some examples:

  • Infinitone: About the size of a soprano saxophone, this is a technologically enabled woodwind instrument. Instead of keys, the Infinitone uses a series of five slides, each controlled by a servo motor in real time via custom iPad interfaces.
  • Optron: It looks like a fluorescent lamp, but this instrument is held and performed like a guitar. With the power of 144 ultra-bright, individually addressable RGB LEDs, Optron can rapidly switch between using light as a visual effect and using it as control input.
  • Peeper: Ballerinas wear an electroacoustic "tutu” that uses light sensors that enable them to produce sounds through the interaction of their movements and the surrounding light.

Joining the semifinalists are three Georgia Tech graduate students who earned an entry to Guthman by winning the Moog Hackathon, which was held earlier this month on campus. The students – Somesh Ganesh, Lamtharn Hantrakul and Zack Kondak -- invented “Moog’s Greatest Hits,” a drum and synthesizer attached to a cardboard box.

Gil Weinberg, director of the Georgia Tech Center for Music Technology, has worked to grow the program into an international phenomenon.

“It is exciting to see the great quality of our semifinalists this year,” Weinberg said. “I’m really looking forward to play with these instruments myself. I hope we will see at least some of them commercialized in the future, so they can be enjoyed by everyone.”

 The contest awards $10,000 in prizes, including a $5,000 first prize.

The judges consider three elements: the sound, the design, and the interaction between the musician and the instrument.

Here are this year’s judges: Mike Adams, CEO of Moog Music; Elain Chew, professor of digital media at Queen Mary University of London; and Daedelus, a music producer and performer.

Learn more about the competition here.

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