The Fluke

A feedback/gestural instrument made from a broken flute

The idea for this instrument came off the back of using Max/MSP a lot for live electronic music. The patches I had been writing didn’t make me feel like I was making music as effectively as I do when I’m playing the Saxophone. I wanted to try and produce something that could make use of my existing skills on a woodwind-like intstrument.

The answer came from an old flute that I had lying around. I wondered what effect the keys would have if there was a microphone and speaker feeding back through the flute body. I set about finding materials to transform the old instrument.

The first incarnation of this instrument used a few main things:
• the body and footjoint of the flute
• a plastic bottle
• a portable speaker
• a cheap lapel microphone
• some foam padding
• lots of duct tape and glue

I fashioned a crude new flute headjoint using the top of a plastic bottle. The neck attached into the body of the flute and the open end held the small speaker. The bottle was lined with some foam in an attempt to absorb any sound not going straight through the flute.

The cheap lapel microphone was designed for conference speakers, and was fitted with an enclosure for a small button cell and a 3.5mm jack socket. I played around with this for a while but eventually soldered in an AA battery box and a 6.3mm jack socket instead. This was for longer battery life and easier connectivity with other audio equipment. I padded out the sides of the mic head with some more foam in order to wedge it at the bottom of the flute footjoint.

The flute worked reasonably well when the mic output was fed back into the speaker through a mixer. I was quite surprised at how well the flute body changed the pitch of the feedback. I was able to use my experience with woodwind instruments to play things I intended, while also being surprised at the unexpected fluctuations and quirks that often came up in the sound. For this reason, I named the instrument ‘the Fluke’.

The instrument came to life with the addition of patches in SuperCollider. I wrote a patch that compresses the mic output and automatically controls the amplitude of the feedback. I also added features that allow me to introduce sine tones that are pitched relative to the current feedback tone. These could either support or destabilise the feedback pitch, giving either rigidity or constant movement. When I set the sine pitch on a harmonic above or below the feedback, interesting cascade effects were produced. I had ended up with a surprising range of results.

After this first phase of building, I decided to add a piezo mic, a mount for a smartphone, a hook for a saxophone sling, and re-introduced the headjoint to the design of the fluke. These additions were all made to give me more options for the textures and sounds the flute can make.

The piezo mic is mounted on the body of the Fluke, allowing me to use the sound of the keys coming down or percussive uses of the Fluke’s body. I found this a really effective way to get the Fluke to ‘play’ samples, by convolving the piezo output with samples in SuperCollider.

The phone also helps me get information from the Fluke into SuperCollider. It uses an app called TouchOSC to send useful data to SuperCollider. I also had to use a separate app, AirDroid, to get my Android phone to connect to my MacBook. I have found TouchOSC’s most useful feature is the ability to access the phones accelerometer, which lets me add gesture control to the possibilities of this instrument.

The most significant change came when I decided to put the original headjoint back on the Fluke. Without it, I found the higher keys (the area around B and A on the flute) were less effective without the full length of pipe they were designed for. By pulling the tuning cork out of the top I was able to add a similar bottle design to it. Liquid plaster was used to make a more solid enclosure for the bottle neck.

I recorded two EP’s with duck-rabbit using this instrument. One before and one after the second wave of work on the instrument. You can hear the results here:

Shackled

duck-rabbit, Media Release, UK

Scattered Voices: Part II

duck-rabbit, Media Release, UK

Slumber

duck-rabbit, Media Release, UK

Scattered Voices: Part 1

duck-rabbit, Self Release EP, UK

In Hindsight…

When I made the Fluke, I set out to make an instrument and interface that built on my experience with woodwind instruments.

I was happy that the fluke used the acoustics of the flute body to produce it’s sound. I also enjoyed it’s tactile nature, particularly the way minuscule finger movements could have quite a big effect on the feedback sound. The instrument also had it’s drawbacks as a result of this. When performing live, the instrument was cripplingly sensitive to any amplifiers. PA systems would often wash out the effect of the small speaker in the headjoint, meaning the fluke would feedback with the PA and not itself. Although the software dealt with this in a similar way to the head joint speaker, it left the flute body much less able to manipulate the sound.

As a software interface, it was also very limited. It didn’t produce a wide enough range of data on it’s own to be very versatile when manipulating recorded sound. I had tried to remedy this with the addition of the smartphone running TouchOsc, but this had the drawback of lessening the woodwind-like feel of the instrument. I had to spend time with my hands off the flute keys changing settings on the phone screen in performance, which isn’t ideal for my purposes.

Despite these shortcomings I am happy with it as a first attempt at a woodwind-style electronic instrument.