#DMLabChallenge hack event

On Friday 9th September an amazing group of musicians, creatives, makers and coders came together to develop and design musical instruments that are accessible to disabled musicians.

This event is called a hackathon, and on this occasion we were very fortunate to be supported by the British Council.

Together with the British Council we added an international twist to our Innovation Challenge, and also welcomed their guests from South Korea and Japan, who came to see the innovative and exciting work carried out by our community.

Visitor to hackathon plays Touch Fiddle

This is Drake Music’s fifth hackathon, but this time there was a unique difference: We held an Innovation Challenge in the run up to the event, giving the nine winning makers a budget to develop their concept for presentation on the day.

This meant that we had a really vibrant and exciting event, with complete, or near complete, projects on display, combined with our standard collaborative atmosphere and steep learning curve, as we all helped each other and marvelled at the brilliant ideas and prototypes.

Group of makers discussing kit

Also taking part were John Kelly, James Rose and Kris Halpin, three musicians who have led accessible musical instrument projects with us. (See links for more info)

We were delighted to be joined by Matthew and Alice from Walled City Music, who are working with us to develop John Kelly’s Kellycaster with support from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

We would like to thank the British Council for their generous support and enthusiasm for this project, and also to offer a big thank you to all the delegates who visited (local and international) for their enthusiasm for and interest in what was being built.

Read on for more details about all of the nine projects presented as part of the Innovation Challenge.

DMLab Innovation Challenge


  • Tom Fox – Proximity Mixer

Tom described his creation as an ‘interesting mistake’, something which he discovered and then saw potential in to be developed further.

Maker demonstrates 'Proximity mixer' instrument

The Proximity Mixer makes sounds by touching a guitar pickup to electric cables, each of which has a separate sound source.

This means that on one cable can be a guitar line, on another drums and on the third could be even a backing track or sample.

Tom plays it by lightly touching the guitar pickup to the cable, with the sound coming out of a portable amp. Plus when he touches the points where two cables cross it triggers both sounds at the same time, creating an interesting opportunity for experimentation and play.

  • Hugh – Stretchi Controller

The Stretchi Controller has been designed by Hugh as part of a university course, aiming to bring the feel of an acoustic instrument to a more accessible piece of electronic kit.

Hugh playing the 'Stretchi Controller'

It is a midi-based instrument with rubber strings which have a wonderful tactile quality and offer real playability.

The strings are housed in a wooden box. This gets away from the usual plastic housing for electronic instruments and is designed to be small, so that it is easier to play and therefore more accessible.

Hugh also brought along an optional accessible plectrum which he had designed to offer more than one way to pluck the strings and create sound.

  • Chris Ball – Sensilo

Chris approached the task with the aim of building the most general and most affordable instrument possible. No mean feat!

The Sensilo costs less than £10 for all the parts and can be used with a wide range of different types of sensors, depending on the preference or needs of the musician.

For example, it could be an accelerometer, a pressure sensor, light sensor or others, all of which can be plugged in and the readings converted into midi notes on any scale – major/minor/pentatonic/chromatic etc.

  • Billy – Electric violin/’Touch Fiddle’

This instrument can be broadly understood as a hacked violin which is played with touch onto the neck, rather than by bowing or plucking strings.

Billy explaining the 'Touch Fiddle' to a guest

The inspiration struck when Billy was given a broken violin and realised that there were more of these hanging around, and that it was possible to adapt them to open up access for more musicians.

He uses copper tape on the neck of the violin, which he sands down so it feels embedded into the instrument, instead of separate from it. Inside is a light and it is all powered using a Teensy 3.2.

Billy wanted the ability to change the note once you’ve started playing it, like with an acoustic instrument, so he included sensors which allow you to adjust the volume of the note and to get a vibrato effect by shaking the violin.

  • Charanga Music – SENDBOX

The SENDBOX is a prototype for an affordable piece of kit for primary schools, inspired by old-fashioned pencil boxes!

The thinking from Charanga Music is that, often, pieces of expensive Accessible Music Technology get left in the cupboard because they are either too complicated to use, or the teacher is worried about them breaking.

Their SENDBOX is aiming to be both user-friendly and affordable, offering schools a tech & music project in one – first building the kit, then making music with it.

It uses an ultrasonic sensor to activate C pentatonic scale for classroom improvisation, and can also be operated with foot pedals and other sensors, converting the inputs into midi outputs using a Raspberry Pi and the coding language Python.

The team are hoping to add eye tracking in the future, to make it even more accessible.

  • Dave Darch – Fist Piano

Dave demonstrated the prototype he has built of his ‘Fist Piano’.

The idea is loosely based on an African instrument called an Mbira, and also known as the Thumb Piano.

Dave’s idea was that instead of a tricky-to-play series of metal keys, he would create an easy-to-play series of wooden switches.

Dave explains 'Fist Piano' prototype

The instrument is very cheap & easy to build, using everyday items like clothes pegs and scrap wood to build switches, which then link in to Raspberry Pi to trigger WAV sound files.

The switches are mounted in a lever arch file with a small speaker enclosed, giving great resonant feedback. The low latency and resonant feedback transform the playing experience.

Dave’s initial prototype cost £50 to build, but he believes it could be made for as little as £15/£20. He will open source the code to build it, so that it can be used to make an accessible instrument anywhere in the world.

  • Mark – Octonic Midi Keyboard

The starting point for Mark’s project was a small mixer controller which he felt had potential for other – more accessible – uses.

The instrument is designed for people with restricted mobility, using a small piece of existing kit and customizing it to your specific requirements.

He had created a prototype which used a custom octonic scale, the original buttons of the mixer, and the many tuning controls, to create an expressive mini keyboard.

  • Charles Matthew – Muscle Rebab (one handed)

Charles is an experienced hacker and Gamelan player, who managed to bring not one, but two new instruments to the hackathon.

His first prototype was an electronic version of a Rebab Gamelan stringed instrument – one which is notoriously difficult to play!

Electronic gamelan instrument prototype

His aim was to create a version of the Rebab which could be played with one hand and which works with a sensor feeding into a Bela platform.

His second instrument is a simpler construction, based on the discovery of a muscle sensor which can be used to trigger sounds.

Using a Bare Conductive Touch Board and a muscle sensor the instrument can be played using muscles on different parts of the body, such as legs or arms.

It measures the electrical signal generated from flexing a muscle and this triggers sounds which can be set to a random sequence for easy playability, or which can be combined with the electronic Rebab for a more sophisticated instrument.

Hacked instrument using a muscle movement sensor, powered by Bela
Hacked instrument using a muscle movement sensor, powered by Bare Conductive TouchBoard

The muscle sensors development kit costs £80, with a further £10 needed for four single-use electrodes.

  • Zen and Robert – Beard Organ

We finished the presentations with a fun idea from Zen and Robert, both active members of our regular hackmeet.

Drawing of beard organ and wires

They began by thinking about whether there was a part of the body which could be moved by most people, in order to use that as a starting point for their instrument.

They chose the jaw and designed an instrument where jaw movement is used to control a synthesizer.

Beard Organ prototype in action

Their ingenious design uses a bowler hat with a Midi port at the back and a conductive rubber strap under the chin.

The designers felt that with a little more time and equipment their basic prototype could perhaps be developed into a more playable musical instrument.

However, they also thought it important to open up conversations about what may be able to be used for sensor input. They want makers and developers to think more broadly about different starting points for instruments.

The Winner

The group of hackers, observers, musicians and international delegates all came together at the end of the presentations to vote on the winner of the #DMLabChallenge.

And the winner was….

The Touch Fiddle! Well done to Billy on his ingenious creation!

Thanks once again to our partners at the British Council – read about their short film on Accessible Music Technology and view it here.

British Council logo

Read more: Storify from the Hackathon

A blow-by-blow account from the day, as shared on our @DrakeMusicRandD twitter account.




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