Calling band's sound mechanical is accurate

October 16, 2002|By J. Clyde Wills | J. Clyde Wills,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

If Battlebots had a house band, it would look kind of like this.

Supported by steel frames and maneuvered by a festival of wires, levers, electrodes, pulleys, servos and circuit boards are a violin, a series of guitars, a bass and a drum kit. Behind a computer console and running a series of programs stands Kurt Coble, creator and conductor of this motley crew of robotic musicians.

"It is a retro-renaissance approach to music," he says.

A musician by training, Coble turned scientist five years ago: combining his music passion with enthusiasm for mechanics, engineering, computers and sculpture.

One of the things that makes Coble's orchestra unique is not what it is, but rather what it is not, says Jeffrey Johnson, music director at the University of Bridgeport, Conn., where Coble is a teacher and where his mechanical, musical creations are currently on display.

Unlike other forms of mechanically produced music, Johnson says, the sounds created by Coble's musicians are physical, rather than digital, events.

In most cases, Johnson says, a musician would rely on MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), a digital language used to interface computers with electronic instruments, to produce the different instruments' sounds. In contrast, Coble's orchestra consists of real musical instruments played by robotic musicians.

"Just the sheer number of events you can coordinate here leads to so much potential," Johnson says.

It took Coble three years of experimentation, testing different pressures and distances for strings and bows, before he had a working robot. Most of the instruments in Coble's orchestra were built this year. Every aspect of the machines is a product of a great deal of time and effort, Coble says.

It began with the Puppolin.

Unveiled in May 1997, and far simpler in design than his current work, the Puppolin is a puppet hooked up to a variety of strings and pulleys connected to a violin.

After playing "Mary Had a Little Lamb" using the Puppolin's hand-powered levers, Coble thought, "What would happen if I hooked this thing up to a motor?"

Thus began the genesis of the many robotic instruments now decorating the University of Bridgeport's Austin W. Mather Theater.

"What is fun about these is they have real musical personalities," Coble says. "There is a slight random quality in the mechanics of it."

In addition to designing the mechanics behind his robots, Coble also engineered the software that runs them. To develop the software, Coble needed computers that predated Windows, he says. Needing to run only DOS programs, he acquired a variety of laptops that probably sold for several thousand dollars in 1981 but today go for between $5 and $10 on eBay. They have about 10K of memory, he says, but they are portable and easy to program. Coble's brother-in-law, James Sedgwick, helped design the circuit boards.

Coble's professional accolades can be attributed to his training as a violinist.

His main gig is University of Bridgeport faculty member, teaching violin and improvisation. He also has worked the past four years as assistant concert master for Broadway's Phantom of the Opera. Before that he played violin for Sunset Boulevard.

His knowledge of mechanics and engineering comes from a youthful propensity to take things apart to see how they work. This includes his knowledge of computers.

"This is definitely the first step," Coble says. "I definitely see this as the Kitty Hawk."

J. Clyde Wills writes for the Stamford Advocate, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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