When Synthesizers Meet Science Fiction: The 2019 Moog Hackathon

By Josh Smith

The Moog Hackathon, sponsored by Moog Music, allows students the chance to build their own musical instrument with a Moog synthesizer for cash and prizes. The winning instrument, "Mission Control," was a series of three control panels that required expert coordination with multiple musicians to create an original sound.

The Hackathon took place in Georgia Tech's Invention Studio, a maker space for the Georgia Tech Community. The competitors took full advantage of the studio's arsenal of 3D printers, water jets, and woodworking equipment to create an impressive array of prototypes in only 48 hours.

The Hackathon hosted a large number of Georgia Tech students, but also attracted teams from Florida, Virginia, and Michigan.

Returning judges Chris Howe and Aaron Lanterman noted that once again, the bar was raised on the quality of instruments. They noted that many of the finalists in this year's Hackathon could've won a prize in previous years. The new judge for this year, Vernelle Noel from the School of Architecture, brought her design expertise as a fresh voice to the Hackathon's metrics of design and musicality.

The Invention Studio allowed students to press the boundaries of their imagination for what they could create. The instruments ranged from a playable helmet, an instrument played with small coin-sized sensors, and a desk converted into a playable synthesized drumset.

FIRST PLACE: MISSION CONTROL

Created by Richard Savery (Ph.D. candidate in Music Technology, Georgia Tech), third from left, Ryan Rose (Master of Science in Music Technology, Georgia Tech), and Astrid Bin, their instrument consisted of three panels that required continuous communication and teamwork between the three stations to make music. The judges were Aaron Lanterman, far left, Vernelle Noel, second from left, and Chris Howe (far right). The team was awarded entry into the Margaret Guthman New Musical Instrument Competition, and a $3,000 cash prize.

SECOND PLACE: CAR AUDITORY RESPONSE SYSTEM (C.A.R.S.)

Created by Mason Mann (Electrical Engineering and Music Technology, Georgia Tech), Jack Thomson (Electrical Engineering, Georgia Tech), and Krish Ravindranath (Computer Engineering, Georgia Tech), their instrument wirelessly taps into the on board diagnostic port on any car built after 1996 to pull out sensor and performance data to be fed in as parameters to different synthesizer patch algorithms. A patch using the engine RPM and fuel trim (continuously adjusting fuel mixture), among other parameters, was used in the demo ride, and switches built into the dash were used to modify the patch on the fly. They were awarded a $2,000 cash prize.

THIRD PLACE: THE MONUMENT

Created by Wenyu Mao, Ning Yang (Master of Science in Music Technology, Georgia Tech), and Yi Wu (Master of Science in Music Technology, Georgia Tech), their instrument wass designed to be the monument to scientists. The base design with eight pillars is inspired by the Waterphone and each pillar represents an achievement in the history of electrical science. Two Moog Werkstatts are used in The Monument: one is for melody and the other is for percussion. The signal from the percussion Werkstatt splits into two paths: one fed into speakers and the other fed into the Tesla Coil. Eight force-sensitive pads are maps to different notes in the scale. When the note is triggered, the Tesla coil will "sing" in the same frequency as the Werkstatt and light up the fluorescent tubes. Four photoresistors on the pillars are mapped to VCFs and scales. The environment brightness will change the scales setting of the force-sensitive pads so when the Tesla coil turns on, the color of the music will completely change. The players move the flashing fluorescent tubes to interact with the photoresistors to create interesting filter modulation. The player can also spin the leaves on top of the monument to deliver further modulation. Mao, Yang, and Wu were awarded a  $1,000 cash prize.

JUDGES' MENTION: THE TIME HELMET

Created by Tien-Sheng Wang and Thomas Watkins, their instrument used a unique visual in addition to the music to tell a story about the passage of time. Watkins also read a poem the team composed to go with the presentation. The Time Helmet made music both independently, and also when worn on a user's head.

JUDGES' MENTION: MOOGJAM

Created by Jeung Hwan Suh, Andrew Dziobak, and Kiran Thawardas from the University of Michigan, their instrument was an application for phones that interfaced with a synthesizer. If a user had access to the correct url, they could log in and play the instrument along with anyone else that was also using Moogjam. At one point, multiple members of the audience were playing it at the same time. Even Kiran's roommate from Michigan got in on the act, displaying the possibility for long distance jamming with friends that the Moogjam presented.