Creating instruments that surprise, amuse and excite

OK GO, KORG and the Royal College of Art recently collaborated on a project that explored innovative musical instruments.

By now, most of you probably know that the band OK GO is a large advocate of the Maker Movement. The group recently collaborated with music instrument producer KORG and students from the Platform 21 unit in the Design Products Department at the Royal College of Art in London. The project, called Hack ’n Rollencouraged participants to create a series of objects that would not only generate sound, but would do so in a visually appealing and entertaining way.

The Makers were divided into three teams: Team OK, Team G and Team O. Each team used a variety of KORG products as a starting point, devising instruments or a space that would enable the musician to play while being free from traditional constraints imposed by existing tools. The goal was to have a set of devices that would interface between the performers and the instruments/system and could be played on stage with their bodies. The song that they would perform was “Another Set of Issues” by OK GO, of course.


First, Team OK based their creation on the concept of “visual amplification” where the circuitry of a KORG MS-20 mini was hacked and rewired to play only four notes from the song’s repeating bassline. Rotating a handle on its side triggers the circuit and oversized keys to play the corresponding notes. Aside from the mini synth, the system was comprised of a half-dozen Arduino boards, stepper motors, stepper shields and Fresnel lenses, as well as some pieces of clear acrylic and lumber.

“The faces and bodies of the band members are magnified and distorted as the chorus of the song, ‘Another Set of Issues’ is played on KORG’s MS-20 mini. The six notes to play the chorus sequence are programmed as triggers that rotate six stepper motors that are attached to large Fresnel lenses within the frame,” the team writes.


The next group, Team G, focused on “floating keyboards.” This consisted of eight modular keyboards linked together to make one long keyboard. As its name implies, each keyboard’s height changes with the music and is choreographed to the lyrics. This was achieved by attaching the keyboard to two motors, one on each side. The system is complemented by pulleys that create an extra visual effect and an optical light illusion.

“The concept for the floating keyboards is creating an object that both enhances the stage, audience experience through light and visuals, as well as creates a new humorous platform to play electronic music. Thus, making the experience more human based compared to pushing a button on a stage and just counting on lighting and visuals. The floating keyboard also allows OK GO band members to choreograph a routine both in tune with the song and their humorous style,” the Makers explain.


Lastly, Team O was tasked with “inflatables and contemporary busking” — an instrument specifically for one person that lets them deliver a range of different sounds. This particular unit was made up of five KORG synthesisers and a KORG Wavedrum. A trio of KORG Volca synthesizers was triggered by a foot switch, that when pressed, delivered one note programmed into the synthesizers. Meanwhile, a pair KORG Monotron were hacked and put through an Arduino to ultrasonic distance sensors. From these sensors, the pitch is controlled by hand on the side of the plinth.

“The closer your hand is to the sensor the lower the pitch and vice versa. All the devices are sent through a mixer, which is connected to an amp that outputs the sound. Having all the devices on display it allows the user to adjust anything and also shows the audience what devices are being used. A completely portable product contemporary busking brings its own style to street performance,” its creators mention.

When all is said and done, Hack ’n Roll was one pretty impressive project. However, you have to see it all in action to truly experience the full effect. Read all about it on its official page here.

[h/t Creative Applications]

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