Instruments Lab - Hackoustic Field Trip

The Augmented Instruments Lab at the Centre for Digital Music (C4DM) at Queen Mary University of London, is a place of wonder. It focuses on developing new instruments and interfaces for creative musical expression, and is led by Dr Andrew McPherson. Hackoustic arranged a Field Trip to meet the team there and explore some of the unique instruments, and unsurprisingly it was quickly fully-booked.

Magnetic Resonator Piano - pic Terry Tyldesley

Dr Andrew McPherson explained that the idea behind the Lab is to take something familiar and make something new. He introduced us to an amazing array of augmented instruments, from the Magnetic Resonator Piano, to accessible instruments so new they didn’t yet have names. It was an incredible experience, especially as we got to play them too.

The Lab creates one off prototypes but also also develops products such as the Bela Platform and TouchKeys, that anyone can buy.

Andrew McPherson and his Magnetic Resonator Piano - pic Terry Tyldesley

Magnetic Resonator Piano

The highly expressive Magnetic Resonator Piano is a ‘must-see’ for anyone interested in new instruments. A scanner scans your finger movements and gives you a huge amount of extra responsiveness including effects on individual keys. It can be installed in any grand piano, and the electromagnets induce vibrations in the strings independently of the hammers, creating infinite sustain, crescendos, harmonics, pitch bends and new timbres, all controlled from the piano keyboard.

The otherworldly sounds were unique, and it was hard to believe there was absolutely no additional amplification involved.

The Lab has the prototype Piano, but there are a few others in existence, and a repertoire is building up of work specially composed for the instrument - 25 pieces and counting. It has been used on the These New Puritans album ‘Field of Reeds’, and by the London Chamber Orchestra. Xenia Pestova has written pieces such as ‘Glowing Radioactive Elements: 1. Radium’, which she performed in April 2018 at Cafe Oto.


TouchKeys - available as kits - turn your keyboard into a hyper expressive instrument with individual key effects. The thin sensor overlays attach to any standard-sized keyboard, and each key uses capacitive touch sensing - the same technology used in smartphones and trackpads - to precisely measure the location of each finger touching the keyboard, so you can add vibrato, pitch bends, timbre changes and other expressive effects to your playing, just by moving the fingers on the key surfaces.

TouchKeys works with any MIDI synth or instrument, software or hardware, and you can connect it to your computer (Mac, Windows, Linux) or get a standalone hardware kit.

It was great to play the prototype and get a feel for the possibilities the augmentation opens up, as we’d featured the TouchKeys Kickstarter a while back.

Touch Keys - pic Terry Tyldesley

Bela Platform

The Lab has built its own Platform - Bela - for instrument building, specially designed with ultra low latency audio and sensor processing. You can embed it into instruments, interactive objects, effects boxes and more - no laptop required. Bela is open source, and provides stereo audio along with 8 channels each of 16-bit analogue I/O and 16 channels of digital I/O, all of which are sampled together at audio rates.

Many of the newer instruments on show at the Lab visit are based on Bela, and a mini version was recently unveiled and is available on pre-order.

Bela Platform and Bela Mini - pic Terry Tyldesley

Accessible Instruments

The Lab has been working with the One Handed Musical Instruments Trust in Birmingham, to create new ways of making music. PhD Researcher Jacob Harrison demonstrated a suite of instruments he had been working on with other lab members, one of which was a One-Handed Bass Guitar prototype. Part of the development included surveying bass guitarists to see what was most important to them, which turned out to be gestures and plucking.

Jacob Harrison - pic Terry Tyldesley

Further instruments included a new kind of guitar, compact interfaces that give you guitar sounds, and a D Box, which is a hackable musical instrument that allows you to rewire all the circuits.

They were all simple to use, expressive and great to play.

Augmented Instruments Lab prototype

Instruments Competition

The OHMI Trust, in collaboration with Birmingham City University and Queen Mary University of London, is hosting a major conference in September 2018, exploring the barriers to music-making faced by people with physical disabilities. The event will also encompass the annual OHMI Competition awards.

In June OHMI will put out a call for entries, and instrument-makers can sign up here.

CS1 installation - pic Terry Tyldesley

CS1 interactive installation

Giacomo Lepri had set up his compelling CS1 installation in the studio. It’s based around an augmented typewriter, creating visuals and sounds when you type, combining drone sounds and typewriter samples.

The CS1 is made up of an Olympia SM9, an Arduino based interface and interactive audio-visual elements (Max-MSP and Processing).

Hackoustic founders Tom Fox and Tim Yates were also trying many of the instruments for the first time, making it a truly memorable night. Big thanks to Dr McPherson and all at the Augmented Instruments Lab.

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Hackoustic’s Tom Fox - pic Terry Tyldesley