BBC Culture

The Ototo synthesiser takes on the world

(Dentaku)

(Dentaku)

A new way of making music from everyday objects is accessible to all. But it’s not just for amateurs – can musicians use it too?

A synthesiser that allows users to make saucepan drum kits and turn drainpipes into saxophones is a semi-finalist in a competition for new musical instruments.

Users of the Ototo experimental synthesiser board have previously created a musical cactus and a drawing that sings: now they join a Tree Guitar that models the growth process of branches and a BubbleSynth which “translates motion tracking and blob detection data collected from floating soap bubbles into sound” in the Margaret Guthman Musical Instrument Competition.

In its sixth year, the annual event aims to find the world’s best new ideas in musical instrument design, and has previously featured a vintage slot machine, kitchen utensils and footballs. Performance artist Laurie Anderson was one of last year’s judges; the People’s Choice Award went to artist Merche Blasco, who later created a musical composition for bicycle bells in New York’s Make Music Winter project.

Anderson told The New York Times that building a new instrument is “a godlike thing to want to do... There’s a crazy sense of achievement and creation”.

Held at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta on 20 and 21 February, this year’s competition brings together 23 inventors, composers and designers from 14 countries.

(Dentaku)

(Dentaku)

The Ototo was developed by London studio Dentaku. With 12 touch inputs arranged like a keyboard and an onboard speaker, it is the size of a cassette and can be powered by batteries.

The studio’s co-founder Yuri Suzuki says: “We wanted to create a kit that makes physical computing and interactive projects accessible for everyone.”

Using different combinations of objects, sensors and sounds, they’ve made musical bikes, singing fruit and cardboard orchestras.

Ototo has been compared to the Makey Makey kit: developed at the MIT Media Lab, it allows users to create banana pianos and play Mario on Play-Doh. Dentaku’s Joseph Pleass is an admirer of Makey Makey, but claims that the Ototo is different because it does not need to be attached to a computer. The synthesiser can be carried around, turning a plank of wood into a guitar.

It is not just for amateur musicians, though, and can also be attached to computers, allowing the user to manipulate sounds with sensors like light, speed and pressure. “If you put a sensor in your shoe, you can trigger sounds by walking,” says Pleass. “Electronic musicians have been contacting us, saying that they want to use it in performances. It’s a different way of performing as well as recording music.”

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