Hackathon helps students invent musical instruments

Inaugural Guthman Musical Instrument Design Challenge was sponsored by Moog and the Georgia Tech Office of the Arts

October 7, 2016

Atlanta, GA

A distorted commotion of sounds filled the room. Electronic scratches, drum beats and eerie echoes flowed from the musical instruments.

About 50 Georgia Tech students hammered, drilled and plucked strings as they raced to put the finishing touches on the devices they created.

The students participated in the inaugural Guthman Musical Instrument Design Challenge, sponsored by synthesizer maker Moog and the Georgia Tech Office of the Arts. The event added a student component to this week’s annual Margaret Guthman Musical Instrument Competition, which seeks to find the world’s best new ideas in musical instrument design, engineering and musicianship.

“It was important for us to expand the focus of the Guthman Competition toward our own campus and our own students,” said Gil Weinberg, director of the Georgia Tech Center for Music Technology. “A student challenge, combined with an opportunity for students to present their inventions as part of the competition, seemed like the perfect way to do that.”

Students spent about a month designing their musical creations and added the electronic elements Sunday during an eight-hour hackathon. Each of the 15 teams received sensors, Arduino boards and Moog Werkstatt kits to hack, manipulate and add to the base instrument.

Raja Raman, a master’s student in music technology, belonged to a three-member team that created the “VCG” instrument, which looks like a guitar but incorporates a breath controller that functions similarly to woodwind instruments. To play it, a musician breathes into a tube attached to the instrument’s body and runs his fingers along ribbon sensors placed along the guitar neck.

“We wanted to create something that was truly playable and fun,” Raman said.

The team succeeded and won the first place prize of $1,500.

“I was blown away by what the students created in a short period of time,” said Michael Adams, CEO of Moog Music and one of the judges.

The other judges were: Aaron Lanterman, a Georgia Tech professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering who specializes in digital signal processing; and Lee Lerner, a research scientist with the Georgia Tech Research Institute.

All 15 teams will present their instruments this Friday during the main Guthman Competition. That contest will be held Thursday and Friday at the Klaus Advanced Computing Building on campus.

Before the hackathon students spent hours designing their instruments.

Some constructed instruments using 3D printing, welding and other methods found in Georgia Tech’s Invention Studio, a student-run design-build-play space that offers students access to cutting-edge machines.

Other students scavenged dumpsters, yards and attics to turn found items into instruments. One team used part of an abandoned bike. Another group added sensors, an accelerometer and Bluetooth technology to a clear beach ball.

Some instruments resembled a Frankenstein assembly of parts. But that was part of the charm.

“A lot of work went into the design,” said Collin Garnett, a second-year architecture major. “This was probably one of my favorite projects.” 

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Laura Diamond 
Georgia Tech Media Relations
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