The Springboard (Pt. 1, Ideas)

This is the first of a number of posts pertaining to the progress of my 21M.299 (The Social Lives of Instruments) final project, The Springboard.

For our final project in 21M.299 we have been tasked with designing and building an instrument. I’ve decided to build an instrument that utilizes springs as the vibrating body. Springs under tension can be tapped and plucked to create harmonic and dissonant tones, so it is likely that, with a bit of experimentation, they could be played in pitch consistently. The key part of this project is to play the springs with a standard violin bow, as this would allow pitched and sustained, rather than percussive, sounds.

This isn’t a completely original idea; musical devices that utilize springs, such as spring reverb units and spring noise boxes have existed for decades. Spring reverb units are typically used to reverberate the signal from a guitar or other instrument, however they have also been “played” in a percussive manner by artists to generate wild thundering tones. Spring noise boxes (video) play on this idea by exposing small springs to direct manipulation. Despite this, I’ve only come across one example (video) where the springs are bowed. While a good start, I believe there is room for further experimentation and improvement on the premise.

The audible output of a bowed spring is likely to be quiet, and would require electrical or acoustic amplification. To achieve this, my instrument will use piezo contact microphones and / or custom wound electromagnetic pickups. Additionally, the instrument may be designed with a resonating chamber to help in creating a richer and louder tone.

I’m unsure of what the tone, or proper technique of how to “play” this instrument will be. The springs will likely be stretched over a neck-like structure, which would allow pitch alteration by pushing the spring down at different points. Fretted vs unfretted is still unknown, and will require experimentation to determine the best sound. To begin experimenting, I have ordered a cheap 4/4 sized violin bow (full, adult sized) along with dark rosin (which according to cursory studies has more grip than light rosin) since springs are considerably more massive than typical violin strings. I have also ordered a number of piezo sensors and various springs with a low spring-constant of differing diameter and wire gauge. These springs at rest are around 11″ long, and I expect can be stretched much longer because of their low spring constant.

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