Synthux Hackathon 2023


A repurposed sewing machine for ambient sound production.
Light sensor
Proximity sensor
Touch sensor
A reclaimed artefact
Performance instrument

Coaches & collaborators

Queen Mary University of London
The project utilised a hand cranked sewing machine and a mechanical hand. The main aim was to use as many of the mechanical motions of the sewing machine as possible. The addition of a mechanical hand not only added to the visual interest but also provided a different playing style. While initially the concept was to have the user only control the sound using the hand crank this quickly grew to incorporate many different playing techniques whilst keeping the hand crank as the main sound altering method. Another level to the machine was the age and fragility of the design. Parts of the sewing machine were delicate, and the threading process was intricate. This adds to the symbolic nature of the piece. While it worked as intended there was always a sense that you were using a reclaimed object which had a history that should be respected. This was further added too by leaving wires visible and sporadic. We wanted to show how the machine worked and that it truly was a combination of old machinery and new digital technology. When creating this piece, we found that the process was like that of improvising when playing an instrument. At first, we had a rough idea of how we were going to proceed but as we explored the machine more, we found ourselves creating something we had not imagined. Overall, the sound and machine matched well and produced an interesting playing experience.
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the tech

How does it work?

We added three main sound producing techniques all linked to the motion of the sewing machine. A light sensor produced an audio signal and modulated a sine wave. This was achieved with the holes present in the sewing machines wheel. As the wheel turned the light intensity went up and down. This could then be transformed into a sound wave. This created a machine-like sound which fit well with the mechanical mature of the project and provided a low frequency backdrop for the soundscape. We used the needles motion to modulate the amplitude of a choral sample. This was also directly linked to the speed that the wheel turned. This helped unify the audio created by the light and the needle motion. This was done using a proximity sensor. The closer the block was to the sensor the quieter the audio was played. The sample was then played but with a varying rate modulated by a low frequency sine wave. This helped create a more ethereal feel to the overall soundscape. Finally, the sewing machines threads were used to control the motion of a mechanical hand. By using a secondary wheel which could be activated by the user a pair of knitting spools of differing sizes were spun. This circular motion was then changed into vertical motional, much like the mechanism in the sewing machine. This vertical motion moved the fingers up and down. When the fingers touched a sensor, a synthesised noise was created. This was created by modulating the frequency of a triangle wave with a saw tooth wave. This was done to cut through the more ambient sounds. On top of this a low pass filter was mapped to a slider control built into the machine. With these four elements the user had a lot of control over the sound created. All these sensors and sounds were combined using the Bela audio device. We found during use that not only could the controls be used in the intended method, but different playing techniques were discovered during the testing phase which made other interactions possible.
Open source code
Click here to grab this project's code
Light sensor
A light sensor detects light in its proximity
Proximity sensor
A proximity sensor detects movement
Touch sensor
A touch capacitance sensor can detect anything that is conductive
Bela is a maker platform for interactive design and sound
About the instrument
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