OrchLab Instruments – Touch Trombone & Oboe

A hand touches a key on an oboe which is hooked up to a LCD screen

For several years now we have been collaborating with the London Philharmonic Orchestra on OrchLab.

The OrchLab programme brings together the music of the London Philharmonic Orchestra with accessible instruments and technology designed by Drake Music to enable high quality, inclusive and creative music-making with Disabled adults.

We are proud to now share two new instruments which have been developed and built by creative technologists Joe Wright and Tim Yates, in collaboration with the OrchLab musicians, as part of this partnership.

Touch Trombone & Touch Oboe

The instruments were inspired by the instruments of the Orchestra, and in fact use traditional orchestral instruments, adapted to make them more accessible to play.

Many traditional orchestral instruments aren’t very accessible, so we worked to create a bridge between accessible music tech and traditional instruments.

How the two instruments were selected

Tim selected the two instruments so they could be paired with two of the LPO musicians working on the OrchLab project.

The hope was that the instruments could be used to allow musicians in OrchLab to play trombone and oboe duets on instruments that look, sound and work in as similar a way as possible to the traditional instruments.

Technologist Joe said:

“One goal in the creation of these instruments was to try and retain the look and feel of a classical instrument.

It might have been easier to make analogues of the oboe and trombone from scratch, making more use of 3d printing or custom-designed enclosures and parts. But, from the outset, we worked with an actual trombone and oboe as a starting point, which made for some interesting design challenges (both Tim and I had to learn how to take the trombone slide apart and braze it back together which was interesting!).

We hope that the instruments we’ve we’ve ended up with have more visual impact – and a clearer link to the orchestral instruments they mirror – as a result.

We also couldn’t have got these instruments to where they are without the help of the OrchLab musicians at Leonard Cheshire and the Flying Angel, who helped us test some early prototypes and gave us some really useful feedback.”

An older Disabled man smiles broadly as he activates the Touch Oboe
Tony testing out the Touch Oboe. Image: James Tye

How they work

Both instruments work with touch as the primary trigger for sound. This means that they can both be played without the need for breath control/blowing.

The two instruments enable music-making at different levels of engagement. Each instrument can produce a sound with a single touch which allows anyone to play them.  They also offer the capacity to be learned and played more fully.

In the oboe, 8 keys have been enlarged which act as touch sensors for individual notes.

On the trombone, the whole trombone slide acts as a single large-surface trigger for notes. The trombone has an additional sensor on the slide that means notes can be changed when the slide is moved, just as they are on a traditional trombone.

A hand touches the slider of a trombone which is separate from the main instrument and mounted on a wooden board
Image: James Tye

Beyond this, both instruments are the same, synthesising the sounds on a small microcontroller. Settings – like key, timbre, volume etc. – can be selected via an LCD screen, two buttons (with jack sockets for external switches) and a potentiometer.

The sounds can then be sent out of an inbuilt speaker on the instrument itself, or sent to a headphone jack on the side of the screen housing.

The synthesised sounds were designed using the FAUST programming language. This allowed us to get the sounds to sound as close as possible to their traditional counterparts, while also running within the processing power of the microcontroller.

See the Prototypes

And a quick clip of the final instrument in action:

Technical Details

Both instruments use an MPR121 capacitive touch sensor, and the trombone uses a roller along a 50cm ’SoftPot’ membrane FSR sensor for the slide readings.

The instruments used a Teensy 4 microcontroller for data processing and sound synthesis, a common 20×4 LCD display, and a MAX98357A i2s amplifier for sound output with small 4 ohm speaker drivers.

London Philharmonic Orchestra Logo

OrchLab is generously supported by JTI