Where DIY Music Meets Tech Culture: Searching for Future Sounds at the World Maker Faire

What makes a “maker”? By definition, the term can apply to artists, crafters, and anyone who creates anything. But the past decade has seen a more specific “maker movement” emerge amongst nerds and techies, one focused on making mediums like electronics, robotics, and 3D printing more accessible for hobbyists, connecting the dots between open-source tech projects and Etsy-centered handmade craft culture.

Make Magazine, which launched in 2005 and serves as the focal point of said maker movement, has hosted annual Maker Faires around the world since 2006 to celebrate this culture. First came the flagship faire in San Mateo, California, followed by annual events in Detroit and New York — and now, smaller, self-organized community maker faires around the world.

Maker Faires play out like some combination of open-air DIY market, science fair, hacker space convention, carnival, and experimental art exhibit. And while musical projects are not necessarily a focus at these events, there are often a good number of music-related exhibitors showing off new instruments, sound projects, synth hacks, and other musical oddities. Amongst the laser cutters, lock-picking workshops, and soldering demos, Maker Faires have over the years hosted makers of circuit bent instruments, laser cut ukuleles, and analog synthesizers, to just name a few.

World Maker Faire 2014. (Liz Pelly)
World Maker Faire 2014. (Liz Pelly)

“I think one of the big inspirations of the maker movement was the DIY mindset of punk,” Mark Frauenfelder, the editor-in-chief of Make, told me, drawing connections between the maker world and music world. “A lot of makers are old punks, myself included.”

Today, Maker Faires are hardly punk-spirited affairs, in terms of logistics and infrastructure. This past weekend, the New York Hall of Science hosted the fifth annual NYC installment — now dubbed the “World Maker Faire” — with hundreds of maker tables, workshops, and presentations. A single-day ticket cost $40, and sponsors included Disney, RadioShack, and Toyota, amongst other household names. But the spirit of DIY and the encouragement of experimentation and self-empowerment to just make stuff does continue to inform the ethos and general excitement of Maker Faire.

After arriving on Saturday afternoon, I quickly stumbled upon a table hosted by the Theremidi Orchestra, a DIY audiovisual community from Slovenia, selling kits to make your own DIY electronic instruments out of finger synths and sensors. Upstairs, Brand New Noise sold their locally-crafted mini sound boxes, completely hand-made wooden audio recording boxes that allow users to capture 30-second clips and then manipulate the pitch and speed as they playback their short recordings. (They’re a big hit with kids.)

brand new noise
The Brand New Noise booth. (Photo credit: Liz Pelly)
Theremidi kits. (Liz Pelly)
Theremidi kits. (Photo credit: Liz Pelly)

Elsewhere, another maker, Ezgi Ucar, merged the worlds of wearable electronics with sound art through The Sound Necklace, jewelry that makes music when you push its beads, creating a sort of mini-synth that can be worn anywhere. Later, I listened to music through a lollipop called the Audiopop, designed by Aisen Caro Chacin, which she describes as “lollipop bone conduction unit that can be played through any audio player.”

At the Maker Shed — essentially the Faire’s gift shop, a mini-mall selling everything from DIY drone and robot kits to portable solar-powered panels and synth-making kits — one of the most fascinating music-related innovations of the weekend was London-based studio Bare Conductive’s Electric Paint and Touch Board. When combined, these two inventions make it possible to literally paint a keyboard anywhere and then make music out of your drawing.

Bare Conductive's Touch Board. (Liz Pelly)
Bare Conductive’s Touch Board. (Photo credit: Liz Pelly)
Bare Conductive's Electric Paint. (Liz Pelly)
Bare Conductive’s Electric Paint. (Photo credit: Liz Pelly)

The “maker” take on music is unique — maker sensibilities aim to make weird and complicated technologies accessible to artists, but also to encourage the reuse and repurposing of everyday materials. Adam Matta, a beatboxer and artist from NYC, was demoing a new instrument he had created out of a bike wheel and cassette tape (as seen in the main image above). Another exhibitor, the London design and invention studio Dentaku, was even showing off a synth kit called Ototo, with 12 touch-sensitive inputs that allows users to make music from literally anything.

Hive76, a hackerspace and DIY event space in Philadelphia, tabled their handmade instruments and accessories, like a light-activated guitar pedal. Like many other hackerspaces represented at the Maker Faire, Hive76 hosts DIY music nights, where hackers and makers work on music-related projects and new instruments.

Light-sensored guitar pedal. (Liz Pelly)
Light-sensored guitar pedal. (Liz Pelly)
The Make a Tune booth. (Liz Pelly)
The Make a Tune booth. (Photo credit: Liz Pelly)

Hacking, in the context of maker culture, refers to the process of deconstructing and reconstructing everyday objects and ideas in new ways. It suggests looking for new perspectives on what seems ordinary, and seeking creative collaborations across different mediums and materials. For those reasons and more, musicians — and artists in general — can learn a lot from the maker movement.

“The thing that always impresses me about music projects at Maker Faire is the fact that people are creating new instruments,” Frauenfelder said. “Because they’re making them themselves they have an intimate knowledge of those instruments and more of a sense of ownership over them. Instead of just buying something, if you make it, you get it, you understand it. If it breaks, you can repair it. You understand its idiosyncrasies, you have a deeper relationship with the instrument, and I think that reflects in the music that you make with it too. It’s very personal, it’s not traditional, and in many ways, I think it’s more interesting than music made with traditional instruments.”