Neal Spowage > The Electronic Dumbell

This is a link to a video of me rehearsing with the Dumbell in Studio 3
I arrived at STEIM with the partially completed second version of my instrument called the “Electronic Dumbell”. My areas of interest are: Hardware Hacking, Circuit Bending and DIY electronics; Found Objects, Dada, Readymades, Fluxus, Ergonomics and Sculptural Instruments. My intentions for this residency at STEIM were to finish this instrument and to begin the process of learning and composing.
The Dumbell consists of two amplified oscillators that have six short circuits built in to them. These short circuits are triggered by six on/off tilt switches and two variable resistors in the form of grip sensors that are positioned on the central stem. It is designed to be completely self-supporting, cheap, visually arresting, and to have directional control of the sound in the performance space. Its sound is intended to be glitch and noise based.
In the studio I made adjustments to the physical balance of the Dumbell by placing counterweights at key locations around the instrument. I became aware of the strength of the materials that I was using, and what kind of movements and stresses I should be aware of during performance. In this I mostly refer to the central stem of the Dumbell which is made from a piano key and designed to take years of stress from specific directional planes when it is mounted and played within a piano. It was not designed to take the forces that will be exerted on it from all angles during a performance as a component of the Dumbell. We tested the key and it seems able to take strong forces from many directions in the short term, I will keep a keen eye on the piano key to see how it copes in the long term.
I also repositioned the tilt switches and solved various technical problems with the readymade amplifier that, like the piano key, was not designed for the task. I make a point of abusing electronics in this way as I find the outcomes unpredictable and fascinating. As it turns out, the amplifier has uncommon grounds that we postulate are there to prevent earth loops and phasing when used in applications such as automotive audio systems. This was a useful discovery as isolating the earth like this probably helps prevent phasing between the three circuits in my design when they are running from the same power source.
I spent a large portion of my time rehearsing with the Dumbell, getting to know its idiosyncrasies, and deciding what movements and postures should be associated with the six short circuits and their combinations. I’d used trial and error procedures to position the tip switches accordingly and replace certain short circuits that didn’t ‘sound’ as required. The gesture and posture that an instrument like this forces upon the musician is also important, because it is beginning to develop the persona of a marching band or carnival instrument, and this persona will affect any composition written with for this instrument. This carnival or marching band persona was unintentional but still a highly desirable path to follow.
I also managed to grab some rehearsal time in Studio 3. This was invaluable because the fundamental design of the instrument uses the Doppler effect and acoustic reflections as performance tools; so, doing this allowed me to compare the harsher acoustics of Studio 3 to the muted reflections in Studio 0. These differences impressed me to keep the basic pre-amplifier equalisation so that I could adjust the tone of the Dumbell to suit different environments. Even though the pre-amplifier only contained the basic “bass and treble” filter bands, it provided enough sound manipulation to compensate effectively to the two different acoustics of the studios. Rehearsing in Studio 3 also allowed me to experiment with the instrument as a performance tool as well as a sound generator.
Thanks to Taku, Jun, John and Daniel, I am already looking at what new possibilities the format of the Dumbell may hold.

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