I recently Heard Oren Ambarchi’s beautiful Stacte Motors album. I understand from a review that the performances involve a fairly simple application of motors to cymbals and guitar respectively, producing a rhythmic smattering and shivering, morphing, harmonic clouds of sound. The review also said he was indebted to Keith Rowe for this technique, but that all in all it didn’t matter, the album is lovely. I saw Rowe for the first time recently, and he was absolutely captivating. I recall finding his use of small fans to drive guitar strings to be an inspiration. For some reason though, I never thought of applying the technique to anything else the way Ambarchi did (though I have no idea if it was his original idea or not).
The application of this technique to cymbals is brilliant, and the resulting sounds are magical and transportative. Being a person involved in improvised music, I am always looking for a way of doing many things at once, or ways in which to automate things. I have my cassette loops, oscillators, radios, and circuit-bent toys, but variety being as they say, I am always looking for more. And of course, being an ex-drummer, I adore cymbals, especially my small collection of them.
So I set out to make a simple device that could ring a cymbal. I grabbed an electic toothbrush I had laying around and went to work. Removing the motor from the toothbrush was the first goal, as I want to have the battery container and the motor seperate, so that the motor can bounce freely on the cymbal without the added weight. Once the motor was removed I soldered 2 foot-long wires to the motors’ terminals and created a strain relief by knotting the wires close to the solder points and pinning the knot down with a piece of heavier gauge wire. I finished it all off with a few winds of elecrical tape to cover the terminals and keep the strain relief in place.
For a battery/controls container I used an Altoids tin. I used the original battery terminal cap from the toothbrush and made some small modifications to fit it in the tin. I then made two new top terminals out of looped pieces of wire and taped the whole thing together. I now had a nice little battery-pack to power the motor.
Since I will need to mount the tin somehow to keep it stable while the motor does it’s cymbal dance, I dug in my toolbox and found an angle bracket. Just from looking at it, I could tell it was a good size to both hold the tin and mount using the same bolt used to keep the cymbal on it’s stand.
The motor needed an on/off switch, so I added one, and while I was at it I added a 100ohm pot in line with one of the battery leads. If anyone decides to build one of these, a 50ohm will do, all I had was 100. The pot allows me to control the speed of the motor, and thus the volume/frequency of the vibrations.
The first test didn’t go well, I had forgotten to add something to the motor to make it wobble enough to strike the cymbal. So I went back and hot-glue-gunned a small screw to the motors drive gear.
The second test was perfect. I ended up playing with it for about a half hour. The speed control works great, and even the position of the motor adds a few possible differences in sound quality.
I have used this in improvisation a few times, and it’s been a great addition to my setup. Especially in combination with a contact mic. Of course, I always have to mess with stuff, so I have been experimenting with running it through a bunch of effects.
A couple of days ago I tried a fuzz box I had, and I was really blown away. It’s amazing how little you need to make a really beautiful racket. Shifting tonal colors just submerged by a fog of white noise.
I’m including a longform version of that at the end of this post that I might make into a little release, just because I enjoy it so much, that I want to see it in full artwork and everything. I’ll definitely re-post it here if I manage to pull it off.
The recording is 20 minutes or so of improvisation with just the cymbal ringer and a couple effects boxes. Enjoy!