hacky/DIY music electronics aimed at teaching kids/youngsters

I teach at a music school. Lot’s of great teaching happening there, but (as I imagine it’s common most places), it’s a lot of focus on learning things “correctly” and/or tying into the (quite mainstream) music the students can relate to. I always try to stretch my students, but I proposed a class with a different angle, and luckily the director of the school was quite supportive! I’m teaming up with a colleague who’s a open minded nerd, we have a lot of overlaps in experiences and interests but we also have a very different background and approach and compliment each other quite well.

I only have a vague idea about what the class should be about , and would really appreciate any inputs from you amazing people here on lines!

  1. we’re not set on age, which accounts for some of the fuzzy thoughts, maybe 12-25ys, potentially not in the same group (for social reasons) or potentially in the same group (for social reasons)…
  2. main focus should be on the creative process, curiosity, playfulness and challenging what we accept as music + (important) teaching creating “music” with what we make (included, nut limited to: dynamics, tension/release, letting the music breathe, counterparts, musical structure)
  3. projects should be small (in terms of time from start to finish), cheap, hands-on, and should be able to be part of a performance (either by it self, together with other projects of the same type, other projects from the class and/or with other students playing traditional instruments)
  4. i feel coding should be kept to a minimum and have a clear impact on the ability of the project
  5. optimally projects should be able to make sounds by them selves, if amplification is needed we would like to go with small battery-powered speakers to keep things intimate
  6. we discussed that iPad(s) could be allowed for gluing things together (looping, reverb, granular etc) + lego could be the unifying build material

Here are some projects we talked about:

  1. circuit bending cheap toy instruments
  2. our own take on an electro-accoustic resonator (ala microphonic sound box)
  3. cheap diy kits/paper citcuits
  4. old tape recorders, experimenting with splicing and/or tape loops
  5. field recordings could be fun to allow in the mix

So any ideas on concrete projects? Anyone tried something like this and would like to share experiences or advice? Any random thoughts?

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This is an awesome idea! Would have loved to be a student in such a class a few years ago.

I don’t have experience teaching anything like this, but I did recently put together a super simple piezo-amplified music box, and I thought it was super quick while giving pretty cool results. Also for a beginner in electronics with some notion of music it’s a very visual way to get introduced to hacking things together.

Music box kit: https://www.amazon.com/Kikkerland-Make-Your-Own-Music/dp/B000HAUEFY

Then I just got a premade small wooden box from an arts & crafts store, drilled some holes to mount the music box and the jack, wired the diy piezo to the jack and glued the piezo disc to the box. If you want to be even quicker you can use a piezo speaker that is already wired, but that is less illustrative.

Result fed into my modular rack through ears (apologies for the Instagram link in advance, I don’t have it anywhere else):

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I’ve done years of this when I was freelance.

Circuit bending is very fun but not necessarily cheap as components get pricey when you have to buy a few of them, and toys are hit and miss depending on if you find ones with non-surface mount electronics (plus they die). Also keep in mind safety with soldering and drills. But that said, it’s very fun and rewarding.

An easier and fun option is experimental compositions and field recording. So a few handheld recorders that kids share/take turns with, and include using some coil mics and contact mics, then show them how to use audacity…they can work in pairs. They make a 5 minute composition each. Then press them to CD for them/their parents - or post it on a soundcloud link. And have a little end of project concert. Very rewarding and fun. Easy to integrate ideas about soundscape, ecology, interviews with people, listening game…works like a charm and no issues with burned fingers!

Good luck!

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We participated a workshop called Sound Monsters facilitated by Johann Diedrick with our six year old. Learned soldering and made a fun sound-toy (not a toy by my account) which we got to decorate with paint (turns out electronics are fine being painted with acrylics) and goggly eyes. Some details on the workshop are found here (look to Sound Monsters) and there is a GitHub for the board. I think making a sound-electronics project is a good starting point because there is immidiate joy from getting it to work. The monster came to life!

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It’s summer time (at least in the Northern Hemisphere!) and it’s still safer to be outside so can I suggest Solar Sounders? You could incorporate this with field recording, by recording an orchestra of solar sounders that are built in the workshop.
There are a number of designs around, with PCBs available. Some have Gerber files available so you can have a stack of PCBs made, which will probably be cheaper than buying PCBs individually from a vendor.
Here’s a Ciat-Lonbarde design, with PCBs by our very own @crucFX

Other ideas: Lunetta style mini synths are always fun. The Atari Punk Console is the classic. The Bugbrand Workshop Oscillator Machine is amongst the best I’ve seen, but I don’t know if PCBs are available:

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This really reminded me of a few pinhole camera workshops I did while on a photography degree, but the music version. Give some photography students a camera that you simply cannot make traditional photographs on, and see ehat art comes out of it.

I definitely think there is a lot of scope in the ‘give them contact mics and let them play’ method, especially if the goal is to get them to explore ‘music’ making outside the realm of ‘’‘real music’’’. Remove the structure and safety net of the familiar (so it’s physically impossible to make ‘’‘real music’’’), and some amazing stuff will happen!

Could breadboards and jumpers be a good alternative to PCBs and soldering, to avoid extra risks and make it more experimental and playful?

Here are a ton of Gerbers that I have made up for various ciat-lonbarde based projects.

Thanks for the mention @barrford :slight_smile:
https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1NG6PmajJLfO447J70yOOa25E9C6Umjp8?usp=sharing

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You can definitely do the soldering thing but just need to plan well and be prepared. It depends on the age group too. With 12 and under you probably need an adult around each soldering station. The kids can still do it once you show them but I wouldn’t feel comfortable with a bunch of 8 year olds and several soldering irons going on without some support.

So when I worked alone, I’d have up to 5 or 6 max, larger groups I’d have another workshop helper.

For costs - I planned on 3 pots per kid (a 10, 500 and 1meg) and a couple of switches, some LDRs, plus wire, nonlead solder, and maybe a button or two. Once you figure that out, plus adding soldering irons, multiplied by the number of people in the workshop, it can get a bit pricey.

Then for toys, back in the day they were all through hole components and easy to bend. But now, it’s harder and harder to find them. I’d order them off of ebay and it was about 60/40 that I’d get non-surface mount ones. You might have more luck than me. But again, it get’s pricey.

The field recording/contact or coil mic/plus audacity is not cheap either but slightly easier to manage and everything is reusable per workshop. You’d need one recorder per 3 kids (they take turns recording, making sound and writing down what they record). Headphones and splitter per kid. Computers with audacity. So often, much of that you can find. Recorders are about £100, Headphones £20 or less. Contact mics/coil mics - £5. So there you go. Also fun but comes with management issues too, i.e. taking a bunch of kids on a walk to record still need supervision and planning.

This is from about 10 years ago but here’s a link to a couple of the workshops I’ve done - one with kids and another with adults:

Good luck!

Bill

Ps haven’t ever done kits with kids but seems totally doable.

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