How do I birth a new musical instrument?
May 13, 2019 8:30 PM   Subscribe

I've been thinking about what I think could be a cool new hand-held musical intrument that's entirely electronic in function. I think the hardware and software pieces exist in the world today. I do not have the skills to make it happen. How do I go about bringing it into the world without getting ripped off?

Once upon a time I was a computer programmer, but COBOL isn't going to cut it on this job. I created a Reddit account, thinking that would be a perfect place to find the sorts of people from various backgrounds and skill sets that could make it happen. But as soon as I posted my inquiry a Reddit bot informed me that my post was being quarantined (my word not theirs) because I don't have enough Reddit karma or something like that. I have no inclination to even try to figure out how to acquire their karma points. Too old for that shit, is my take.

Still, I think my idea is viable. It is a hand-held programmable device that can be used to make music. Being programmable, obviously its output is not limited to music per se, but could make any kind of sound or noise that can be created electronically. Think MOOG synthesizers and effects boxes for guitars, and even sampling for what it's worth.

How do I make it happen? Difficulty level: I'm retired on fixed income with no contacts in any of the worlds of music or engineering or product development or whatever else would be involved.
posted by qurlyjoe to Media & Arts (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
i'm a programmer and a musician, if you want to MeMail me on here and give me a little more info maybe I could help you figure out what would be required to build a protoype. there are a lot of tools out there to help you prototype electronics. Maybe look into Arduino if you have specific hardware you want to control, or you might be able to do a lot of stuff purely in software at the prototype stage.

On reddit, I think you have to comment on some posts and stuff before they let you make posts in certain subreddits, basically to prove you're not a bot.
posted by capnsue at 8:52 PM on May 13

I design and build synthesizers for a living -- feel free to MeMail me if you'd like to discuss your idea.
posted by bradf at 9:17 PM on May 13 [5 favorites]

You might want to check out Sonic Pi. It's software that would let you turn an inexpensive Raspberry Pi computer ($25-$35) into a programmable synth. It was designed in part for hardware hacking, so you could build control interfaces on top of it. The default hardware audio output isn't world shattering, but there are extensions to improve that. The Sonic Pi software works on windows and Mac too, so you could get started playing with it without any hardware outlay, and that should then translate to the pi hardware.
posted by roue at 4:19 AM on May 14 [2 favorites]

There’s also MobMuPlat if it’s something that would work on iOS or Android.
posted by doctord at 5:25 AM on May 14 [1 favorite]

I don’t know what your new concept is, but if you haven’t done so already, it would probably be a good thing to look at what has already been done - the electronic music biz has been thriving and there are a LOT of new / experimental music devices out there.

You may want to begin with a peek at the Margaret Guthman New Instrument Competition. There’s at least a decade of past winners out there on the site.

Also, in no particular order, here’s an incomplete list of websites that track current developments in electronic music:

Create Digital Music



Discchord - largely oriented to iOS.

I’m very much in favor of new and experimental and alternative musical devices, but my sense is that it can be extremely difficult and expensive to develop such a thing into a successful product.
posted by doctor tough love at 7:37 AM on May 14 [3 favorites]

In terms of related products / literature search, another related-sounding product that comes to mind is the Axoloti.

As for the core of your question: in my very limited experience, if you want to hack together a hobby project or a prototype synth, it's not that hard if you have a bit of background in audio programming and are willing to do some reading. (Audio programming background probably optional, reading not.) I built a tiny synth last year where the only electronics were a $25 Circuit Playground Express and a battery, and it was a pretty enjoyable experience.

In terms of where to start out, I'd probably start with whatever makes your concept most distinctive. If it's the controls or the hardware design, maybe start with that? If it's the sound synthesis, on the other hand, I'd probably recommend a software-first approach: prototyping on a computer using whatever tools you find easiest to use - Max, Reaktor, Pd, Supercollider, or any one of a wide variety of tools and frameworks - along with a MIDI control surface that approximates whatever you think your final controls will be.

Some audio programming resources, in case that helps:

MusicDSP code archive
Julius Smith's book on audio synthesis
Designing Software Synthesizer Plug-Ins in C++ (I haven't read it but folks seem to like it)
The Audio Programming Book (Same, haven't read it but folks seem to like it)
An AskMe thread from 2017

I can only speak from the prototyping perspective, though. Getting from a good prototype to a fully-realized, production-ready, salable product is far beyond me.
posted by Serf at 5:50 PM on May 14

Thank you all for your instructive comments. I will take these under advisement and see where I get. There's a lot to look at in your suggestions. It will take me a while.
posted by qurlyjoe at 7:04 PM on May 14

Just got this in my mail this morning:

Hello from Roger Linn--
I do have one little piece of news. I'm co-teaching a one-week workshop on instrument building at Stanford's CCRMA computer music school on June 24-28. No prerequisites other than a basic familiarity with computers, music and music software.

As usual, please pass this link on to anyone you think might enjoy it.
posted by doctor tough love at 7:57 AM on May 16

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