Illinois technician combines engineering and creativity in a DIY synthesizer

Skot Wiedmann creates music on a synthesizer that is only slightly larger than a sandwich and that took him just a couple of hours to build. He can experiment with sound by using his fingers to press on the surface to create chords and move up and down octaves.

Wiedmann – an electronics technician in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and an instructor in the School of Art and Design – designed and built his Hyve Touch Synthesizer.

Skot Wiedmann, an electronics technician and art instructor at the University of Illinois, talks about the Hyve Touch Synthesizer he built.

“It was a way of trying to inspire some interdisciplinary ideas to happen on campus, for engineers to meet musicians and to talk about the commonalities and the ways this project could inspire learning across those boundaries,” Wiedmann said.

The synthesizer resembles a keyboard along the bottom and has a grid of hexagons along the top. The keyboard is an octave wide, but someone playing it can change octaves by moving vertically up the keyboard.

The grid of hexagons connects notes in harmonic chords, based on a system developed by the 18th century Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler to geometrically represent tonal intervals. Moving up from one hexagon to the one above it creates a perfect fifth chord. Moving up and to the right creates a major third chord. Pressing on those three connecting keys at once produces a triad. Moving up and to the left creates a minor third chord.

Pressing harder or softer allows a player to produce a louder or softer sound, and moving left or right on the instrument provides a stereo effect, producing more sounds in one direction or the other.

“When people hear the sound and move their fingers, there is natural learning that happens and they start to explore, they start to experiment. I’ve found that people who take the synthesizer home and really get interested in playing it are really exploring something in a different way than the other instruments they play. They are not trying to adapt piano technique or violin technique to this instrument,” Wiedmann said.

“I like the idea of giving people the chance to explore that in a really visceral way, in a tactile way, and see what interesting things come out of that experience,” he said. “You don’t really need to know music theory. It’s really easy to just press your finger in an area and start to hear those chord relationships and those intervals, and slide your finger around and find things that are related. It’s a way of approaching and learning about music theory in a less analytical way and more of a playful way.”

Wiedmann said he is building on the campus’s “brilliant history in electronic music” that goes back to John Bardeen’s invention of the transistor. Wiedmann said Bardeen made the first transistorized synthesizer as a way of demonstrating what a transistor is and how it works.

“I think there’s something really rich about that idea of making music to show people about other things,” Wiedmann said. “Music has the potential to really draw people in and get them interested in something and really explore an idea.”

The campus’s history of electronic music includes James Beauchamp, an electrical and computer engineering professor who was involved with the U. of I.’s Experimental Music Studio and who in the early 1960s invented a synthesizer that he called the harmonic tone generator. Wiedmann was influenced by Lippold Haken, an instructor in electrical and computer engineering who invented a musical instrument called the continuum fingerboard.

Wiedmann developed a workshop that allows people to build their own Hyve Touch Synthesizers in a few hours. He’s redesigning the synthesizer to make it easier to build at home.

“My idea was to take the continuum fingerboard as an inspiration to make something people can build and play with that is not expensive,” Wiedmann said. “The Hyve Touch Synthesizer is on the other end of the spectrum, but there’s a similar dedication to the idea that human gesture contains a lot of expression.”

He developed a soldering kit that allows people to build a synthesizer in a few hours and take home a musical instrument they can play. In the past three years, he’s held workshops on the University of Illinois campus and in Chicago to help others build their own Hyve Touch Synthesizers.

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