Noise Machines: Translate Light into Sound R&D project

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Noise Orchestra, sound art duo David Birchall and Vicky Clarke, blog about their research and development project on Noise Machines.

Noise Machines: Translate Light into Sound R&D project
1st August 2017

Noise Orchestra, sound art duo David Birchall and Vicky Clarke, blog about their research and development project on Noise Machines.

Sound art duo David Birchall and Vicky Clarke blog about their research and development project on Noise Machines.

Noise Orchestra are Manchester sound art duo David Birchall and Vicky Clarke. Inspired by the radical spirit of artists and scientists in post-revolutionary Russia, their practice explores methods of synthesizing sound out of light with self-built machines through performance and installation artworks. For the past year, following a residency at the National Media Museum, a research trip to Moscow and an Arts +Tech accelerator at Madlab in 2016, they have been developing electronic Noise Machines; synthesizer modules such as drones, delays and sequencers that translate light into sound via a light sensor interface.

Noise Orchestra partnered with Brighter Sound on their recent research and development project funded by Innovate UK. The study question was:

“How can light to noise synthesizers expand the creative possibilities for electronic music making and performance?”

We wanted to explore whether these machines could offer new modes of audio-visual performance, aid collaboration between interdisciplinary artists and make the live electronic music experience more gestural. We wanted the units to be portable, playable and patchable and test how chaos and chance could be built into the instruments.


Manchester & Berlin Focus Groups:

Brighter Sound helped us to recruit a focus group of fifteen electronic musicians and sound artists to test our early prototypes and identify what they would like to see in the machines. In the sessions at Band on the Wall we discussed

  • Sonic characteristics – wave shapes/timbres/manipulation
  • Design and ergonomics of the hardware
  • Light, what sonic parameters would the light input control?
  • Playability/patchability/workflow: How might you use these machines within your own set ups?

These sessions both in Manchester and at UdK Berlin were vital for us to identify our nine key areas for technological development, which directly informed our electronic circuitry development in our studio. Brighter Sound were a perfect partner for us on the project, this was a process of co-production, with some of our focus group participants invited to perform as artists at our live demo.

Studio Development and International Residencies: 

The next few months were an intense period of studio development, working with our technicians Harry Taylor and Chris Ball. We undertook international residencies at STEIM in Amsterdam investigating the light sensor interface and at Music Makers Hacklab for CTM Festival in Berlin, based at Native Instruments and performing for the closing event of the festival at Hau2. By the end of the project we had developed eight distinct noise circuits; these were Polyphonic Light Delay, Light drum sequencer, Randomised Light, Double VCO, Little Mean Machine, drone, Randomised Machine/White Noise.

Music Tech Industry Research:  

We investigated  the international music tech market, characterised by a resurgence of analog synthesizers (reissues from leading companies such as Korg), a growth in the boutique synth market, the explosion of Eurorack system of modular synthesisers, and a return to hardware synth products (alternative to soft synths) – looking at hybrid methods of workflow. Research took place through attending Synth Fest UK, Schneiders Laden (Berlin) and ‘Designing creative interfaces for music’ conference in Brighton. This made us aware of the creative landscape, new products  and also the academic research and cultural policies innovating the sector, such as the brilliant #Musicbricks from Music Tech Fest and EU funded project Giant Steps demonstrated the growing interest in the pursuit of new creative interfaces for electronic music.

Community and Open Source:

One interesting dynamic of the project was the open source nature of the sector, with people keen to share schematics, discuss circuit design and collaborate through online forums, social media, hacklabs and sound art networks. This sense of DIY was really important to us, and a culture we actively encouraged through an open studio approach, and sharing our work online through posting our circuit updates with short videos on social media. We were bowled over by the support and interest in the concept – and we felt a noise community had started to develop!

Live Demo:

As a culmination to the R&D study and to test the stage two prototypes, we held a live demo performance at Manchester’s specialist AV venue Texture. The artists we invited to rehearse and perform with the machines represented different musical styles and musical set ups which we thought would produce a good testing platform for the machines in a live context. These included:

  • Dan Valentine: Dan sampled our double VCO and used light modulation to create his live piece with Ableton and live effects processing.
  • Andrea Pazos: A visual artist who created real time live visuals using Isadora.
  • Tech Hermits: MJ and Brandon used Pure Data patches, video feedback loops and Ableton.
  • Alex P Macarye: Alex worked with his modular synth set up, live vocals with our light delay unit.
  • Sal Maguire: A dancer we worked with to test movement and gestural response.

Feedback from artists was that they found the concept of light into noise captivating. It encouraged them to think differently about their process of composition and live performance, employing different workflows, thinking across the disciplines and some even developed new software/setups for the machines.

“The machines are well developed for early prototypes, and have an extensive sonic vocabulary. I took it a step further by connecting the machines to Ableton Live via a Pure Data patch that converted audio signal pulses into MIDI messages, which in turned triggered sound. This was a very informative process, which helped me to develop an understanding of Pure Data and Ableton Live that I had not had the chance to pursue.” — MJ Mizra

“I love how the machines rarely make the same sound and how this is all in the moment and relative to lots of things, as the lighting was rarely rehearsed in exactly the same way. This made part of the improvisation process organic, real and fresh!” — Sal Maguire

“I worked with the Machines creating a live video set, where the light, colour, intensity, speed and shapes of the moving image, among others, were the parameters used to make the machines react, playing the sound.” — Andrea Pazos

Workshops and DIY Kits:

An unexpected success of the project was interest in our DIY Noise Machine Kits. We developed these as an introductory route into electronics and instrument building and graphical sound and have delivered these sessions to Greater Manchester Libraries, Manchester International Festival, UdK:Berlin and many youth projects. We are now developing more solid robust versions of the kits for soldering courses which will launch at the new Madfablab in Autumn 2017.

What’s Next:

Our next steps are to continue with the technological development and further explore the light input dimension to the machines, continuing to refine the individual modules into workable prototypes that patch together and influence each other sonically.

This summer we are presenting our first multi-channel sound installation ‘Journey Through the Mirror Pool’, at the National Science and Media Museum and have been selected for ENLIGHT, an international touring light commission from Curated Place and Fondazione Mondo Digitale, where we are developing our DIY Noise Machine Kits as wearable oscillators for ‘SWARM’ a new public realm work that will premiere at Rome Media Arts festival in 2018 and tour.

A huge thanks to Brighter Sound for their support. Their expertise was vital to helping us find the very best musicians to work with and providing us the time, space and advice to develop our work on this project, we hope to continue our partnership as we develop the machines further.

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