Robo-Rockers!

Published Date
20 - Aug - 2009
| Last Updated
20 - Aug - 2009
 
Robo-Rockers!
Rock stars might soon be made of heavy metal, with a new robot called the Cybraphon that composes music from its mood swings, and an all-robot band from New Zealand called The Trons
 
CYBRAPHON
Mechanisation and automation of musical instruments has been going around for the longest time now. But a truly robotic musician that can compose its own songs is astounding by any standards. 
 
The Cybraphon was created by Simon Kirby, a lecturer at Edinburgh University's Language Evolution and Computation Research Unit, with the help of Ziggy Campbell and Tommy Perman – members a real-life British band named FOUND. The combined effort took just eight months to develop the world’s first true robotic rock star.
 
"It's really moody," confirms Kirby. "A total diva."
 
The Cybraphon in all its glory
 
Built like a cupboard, the robot has an impressive array of instruments. The machine uses a PC and microcontroller to drive the 13 robotic servos that play the Shruti box – an accordion-like Indian classical instrument.  A fan pumps air into the organ, while more servos press the keys.  
 
The percussion features 12 chimes struck by suspended solenoids, and beaters for other percussion pieces attached to motors.  
 
To round out its unique instrumental arsenal, the robot has a set of antique brass gramophone horns that plays a custom record on queue.
 
Infrared sensors tell the robot that someone is around it.  It occasionally plays by itself, but it usually likes an audience.  
 
"The Cybraphon is switched on all the time but it really wakes up when someone walks up to it," Kirby says.
 
Creating a machine like this, while not easy, is still common place. But the ability to incorporate emotions into its self-composed music is an achievement that is a class apart.
 
Like a moody rock star, the Cybraphon’s emotions are dependant on its current popularity, based on the followers and comments it has on the Internet through Twitter, Facebook, Google and other networks. Its current mood can be seen via its Twitter updates, or through the Emotion Meter it is fitted with.
 
The moody rock star's Emotion Meter
 
Kirby told Wired magazine that the Cybraphon is devised as a "tongue-in-cheek comment on people's obsession with online celebrity."
 
The brain of the system is a Macbook Pro notebook hidden inside one of the drawers of the wardrobe. The computer runs software written in Python and MAX/MSP to monitor the web and update Cybraphon's emotions according to its rate at which its popularity is changing. 
 
"The software takes email alerts from Facebook, Google and so on, processes them and compares the current activity to that in the last 24 or 48 hours to calculate the rate of change," explains Kirby.
 
Kirby states, "It is happy when it feels its popularity increases but is miserable if it is being ignored.  We modelled it on an insecure, egotistical band.  Bands by their very nature tend to be volatile and prone to implosion.  I'm surprised that the Cybraphon, a highly neurotic beast with some questionable electrical wiring, hasn't hit self destruct yet."
 
And when the Scotsman asked the robot what it wants, its answer was simple: “I want what every band wants – a record deal, big budget music videos, world tours, fame, fortune and groupies.”
 
You can check out various videos of the Cybraphon online at its official Web site, or you can follow it on Twitter for its latest mood update.
 
THE TRONS
The Cybraphon is an impressive piece of machinery, but can you really imagine its huge wooden cupboard body as a performing artist on stage? Not quite. Personality is key when it comes to doing live shows, and no one knows this better than 40-year-old New Zealand-based bass guitarist Greg Locke, who has been playing with a local band for a long time now.
 
A mechanic by trade, Locke told The Waikato Times that he initially wanted to create a robotic dummer for his band. From there sprang the notion of an all-robot rock band, and soon, an image was born that wowed audiences when they hit the stage: 
 
Ladies and gentlemen, The Trons!
 
The Trons are a self-playing robot rock band consisting of four members, which Locke created from scratch using a variety of spare parts and electronic equipment.
 
Ham is the band leader with the huge speakerphone, playing rhythm guitar and doing the vocals. The vocals are produced through bits of tape loop created on an old tape machine and looped.
 
Wiggy is the lead guitarist, although his guitar has only a single string! “The bots can play only four chords,” Locke told Radio New Zealand. 
 
The band originally had a bass guitarist, Fifi, but she didn’t do quite as well with it. You could perhaps chalk this up to Locke being a bass guitarist himself and Fifi not meeting his standards! Still, he was kind enough to set up the robot with a keyboard and Fifi now uses five fingers to come up with great rhythms. “I will probably fit her with more fingers soon… to give her a hand,” Locke joked around, while talking to 3 News.
 
Setting the beat is Swamp, who has to use a pie-plate as a snare in addition to his drum. 
 
The music being played by all the four robots is controlled by a single computer with a ‘top-secret’ software package, with Locke refusing to divulge even the slightest detail about it. The single computer brain relays instructions to all four band members; and if anything goes wrong or a bot goes out of tune, the computer can slow down the rhythm to bring them all back in sync.
 
Ham hamming it up in Berlin
 
The Trons have been Internet phenomena for the past year or so now, and especially since January when they played their first big event at the Big Day Out music festival in Auckland, playing alongside big names such as Arctic Monkeys and Neil Young.
 
Their YouTube videos have gotten over a million views, with responses such as: "This is the sickest thing I have ever seen: better than the space shuttle launch".
 
In fact, Locke even told 3News that he has received fan mail asking if the bots would available to go out on dates!
 
Locke is now planning to get more live shows done, give Swamp an actual snare, and perhaps even come out with the band’s first album. Till then, here’s their most popular video yet for your viewing pleasure.
 
 
 
You can find out more about The Trons at their MySpace page, or check out their videos on YouTube.
 

Mihir PatkarMihir Patkar