OSU prof wows crowd at Georgia Tech new-instrument competition

April 4, 2017
Udell photo
Udell and his Optron won top performance honors at a prestigious new-instrument competition. OSU and Georgia Tech photo

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Playing an instrument that looks something like a light saber crossed with a skinny fretless guitar, Oregon State University’s Chet Udell won honors for best performance at a prestigious worldwide competition for inventors of new musical instruments.

Udell, a faculty member in OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences, was one of 18 semifinalists in the annual Guthman Musical Instrument Competition, held at Georgia Tech in Atlanta in March. 

Udell’s Optron is a glass wand that looks a lot like a fluorescent tube. In fact, it started life as a shop light. It’s powered by 144 color LEDs and linked via a cloud of wired and wireless technology to amplifiers and distortion pedals, a videocam, and light- and motion sensors, all of which send digitized signals through an array of sound- and light-producing instrumentation.

A webcam placed in front of the performer uses computer vision (similar to that used in many self-driving cars) to track the light from the Optron and break it down into its red-green-blue spectrum. Then it translates the different frequencies into signals that trigger various sound effects—red for a glitchy “Wall-E” sort of voice, green for electronic noise and blue for bell tones.

Sensors also track Udell’s gestures as he tilts and swings the Optron around. The computer translates the sensor readings into music. The sound the computer makes is analyzed for spectral components that feed back into the Optron, enriching its light-saber effects.

Udell, trained as both a classical composer and an electrical engineer, hopes his invention will be the next big thing in music-performance technology--“the electric guitar for the 21st century,” in his words.

“For maybe 40 years, we haven’t seen a new instrument completely transform musical performance on a magnitude like the electric guitar, DJ turntable or Moog synthesizer,” Udell said.

To encourage its widespread use, he plans to make the technology, code and design schematics freely available through the tech-sharing platform GitHub by June this year. (The Optron that Udell played at the competition is a tenor model; his instrument also comes in alto, bass and piccolo versions.)

When he’s not inventing musical instruments, Udell directs OSU’s Openly Published Environmental Sensing (OPEnS) laboratory, devoted to the advancement of open-source technologies to solve environmental problems.

“If you want to change the world fast and without a multimillion-dollar budget, you allow open source,” he said. “Our philosophy at the OPEnS Lab is that people who need a given technology should be able to access it.” 

Udell got the idea for the Optron from Atsuhiro Ito, a Japanese “noise artist” who plugged a real fluorescent tube into electric guitar pedals, creating and amplifying a high-volume buzz that wavered in pitch according to the voltage activating the starter terminals.

While slightly alarmed at the danger of using raw electrical current, Udell was fascinated with the potential for enhancing the instrument’s visual and auditory effects by adding a variety of sensors similar to those used by environmental scientists.

He engineered his Optron so that the performer can control the whole performance—all the light, sound and movement made possible by the sensors and instrumentation. 

“Think about the halftime shows at the Superbowl,” Udell said. “They are so highly produced, so dependent on technicians running the sound and light boards and the movements of the stage, that the performer gets locked into the production. You might as well be lip-synching. It’s hard to give an expressive performance in those conditions.”

Udell’s performance for the Guthman competition is expressive by any definition. Alone on a darkened stage, dressed in a hooded Jedi Knight-style robe, he cradles the Optron’s light bar like a Fender Stratocaster. Sensor strips capture the position and pressure of his fingers along the “neck.” Another set of sensors detects his right hand strumming the air where the strings would be.

The performance can be spontaneous, like improvised jazz, Udell said. Or the performer can preprogram the signals from the sensors so that they map to certain notes, or to prerecorded snippets of sound like those a DJ produces through sampling, or to a musical scale. Given the right program and some practice, he said, a performer could play “The Star-Spangled Banner,” or solo as part of an orchestra.

Udell is scheduled to perform on May 18 at 4:30 p.m. in the Learning Innovation Center (LINC) on the OSU campus. The performance is sponsored by SPARK, an OSU initiative celebrating the interplay between science and art.

Author: Gail Wells
Source: Chet Udell