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10 Obscure Electronic Musical Instruments

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You are no doubt familiar with the Moog synthesizer, the 1960s instrument that came to represent electronic music for most people, and the Theremin, which gave us spooky electronic sounds since the 1920s. But along the way, there were dozens of other instruments using various technologies that combined talent and technical developments to synthesize music. Here are a few you may not be familiar with.

1. Orchestrion 1805

Orchestrion is a name for an instrument that reproduced the sounds of many instruments. These music machines were powered by electricity and read music from a roll, much like a player piano. The first such instrument was the Panharmonicon, invented in 1805 by Johann Nepomuk Mälzel, a friend of Ludwig van Beethoven. The idea was expanded on by companies like Wurlitzer and Seeburg, until they became huge music machines that contained multiple instruments such as pipe organs, percussion, violins, and pianos. Large and expensive, they were used in saloons and other public places, where they were the precursors of the jukebox. Although they were electric, they produced music mechanically, so do not really fit the definition of electronic music. However, it’s a good starting place, as these instruments inspired others to recreate orchestral sounds by machine.

2. Helmholtz Sound Synthesizer c. 1890

The Helmholtz Sound Synthesizer is a steampunk wonder. Controlled by a tiny keyboard, it generated sound by manipulating tuning forks with magnets. It was designed by German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz sometime in the late 19th century while he was working on many other things. By combining overtones and varying the frequencies, he was able to mimic the sound and tone of a human voice, as well as other instruments. This particular model, from 1905, will go up for auction in October. 

3. Telharmonium 1897

Thaddeus Cahill invented the instrument he called the Telharmonium in 1897. The huge instrument produced music electronically by turning different-sized tone wheels with electric generators (dynamos). The tones generated were sent down telephone lines. The tone wheels could be adjusted to sound like different musical instruments, so the player at the keyboard could imitate an entire orchestra. The Teharmonium took up a lot of room: the first version weighed over 200 tons and required twelve train cars to move it! But the Telharmonium didn’t have to be moved often; concerts were arranged to be heard over telephones. There were only three Telharmoniums ever built before it was eclipsed by other, less expensive instruments. Unfortunately, no recording of the Telharmonium exists.

4. Ondes Martenot 1928

Maurice Martenot invented the Ondes Martenot in 1928. The electronic sound was generated by oscillation inside vacuum tubes, the frequency of which was varied by a keyboard or a band stretched across the keyboard. Above is a 1934 performance by Martenot himself.

5. Trautonium 1929

German engineer Friedrich Trautwein introduced the Trautonium in 1929. It is played by pressing one’s fingers on a resistance wire onto a metal bar, with the volume depending on the pressure. The sound is reminiscent of a theremin. The sound was produced by frequency oscillations in vacuum tubes, which were later changed to transistors. In fact, Trautwein’s colleague Oskar Sala continued to develop and improve the Trautonium until 2002! Hear the Trautonium in this video

6. Clavivox 1956

Photograph by Flickr user Brandon Daniel.

Composer Raymond Scott was a pioneer of electronic music. He patented the Clavivox in 1956, which was a synthesizer containing a theremin built by his young assistant Robert Moog. Scott built several version of the Clavivox, each with different features.

7. Electronium 1969

Scott started working on a machine that would compose its own music in the late ’50s. The only working model of his Electronium was unveiled in 1969. It could not play written music, and indeed had no keyboard, but it was programmed to compose music on the fly and play it simultaneously. Berry Gordy bought it for Motown, and ended up hiring Scott to run Motown’s electronic music division. During those years, Scott never actually finished working on the Electronium, and it is unknown whether the instrument was ever actually used in any Motown recording. The Electronium now belongs to Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo, but it’s not in working order.

8. Eigenharp 2001

The Eigenharp is promoted as a replacement for a piano, guitar, and woodwind all in one instrument. The Eigenharp has only been in use by the public since 2009. John Lambert began research on the electronic instrument in 2001, with the expressed goal of creating an instrument that would be more expressive than conventional electronics, and more versatile than the array of instruments that musicians have to haul to live performances. The Eigenharp is close to a classic instrument in that the keys respond to pressure and velocity and the breath pipe can also be used to control the sound. It also has the advantages of electronic instruments in that there are controllers that add effects and drums and a sequencer that can be programmed for accompaniment. There are three models available with different levels of features, priced accordingly. Hear an Eigenharp trio at YouTube.

9. Zeusaphone 2007

A Zeusaphone is what you get when you create music with Tesla coils, although some called this instrument a Thoremin. Both names are puns made by applying mythological gods' names to earlier instruments (Sousaphone and Theremin). The best-known Tesla coil band is ArcAttack. They use two homemade Tesla coils to send arcs up to twelve feet long between them, and lately they even include humans wearing Faraday suits in the coils' performances. Hear a variety of tunes at the band's website.

10. Otamatone 2009

The Otamatone is an electronic instrument that resembles a musical note with a cartoon face. It was invented by Novmichi Tosa of Maywa Denki, an art collaboration of the Tosa family that specializes in nonsense machines. You can buy an Otamatone here. Hear this cute little instrument in this video

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Here's How to Change Your Name on Facebook
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Whether you want to change your legal name, adopt a new nickname, or simply reinvent your online persona, it's helpful to know the process of resetting your name on Facebook. The social media site isn't a fan of fake accounts, and as a result changing your name is a little more complicated than updating your profile picture or relationship status. Luckily, Daily Dot laid out the steps.

Start by going to the blue bar at the top of the page in desktop view and clicking the down arrow to the far right. From here, go to Settings. This should take you to the General Account Settings page. Find your name as it appears on your profile and click the Edit link to the right of it. Now, you can input your preferred first and last name, and if you’d like, your middle name.

The steps are similar in Facebook mobile. To find Settings, tap the More option in the bottom right corner. Go to Account Settings, then General, then hit your name to change it.

Whatever you type should adhere to Facebook's guidelines, which prohibit symbols, numbers, unusual capitalization, and honorifics like Mr., Ms., and Dr. Before landing on a name, make sure you’re ready to commit to it: Facebook won’t let you update it again for 60 days. If you aren’t happy with these restrictions, adding a secondary name or a name pronunciation might better suit your needs. You can do this by going to the Details About You heading under the About page of your profile.

[h/t Daily Dot]