What do you get if you cross a Raspberry Pi; 57 geometrically tiled, thumb-sized joysticks; a spot of multiplexing; and some Bach?

A completely new musical instrument, that’s what.

David Sharples says:

We wanted to invent an entirely new electronic musical instrument, and there were two things we wanted to focus on in the design of the interface. The first is that we wanted to improve upon the physical design of musical instruments. Most acoustic instruments are designed around physical phenomena that make sound rather than convenience for the user (violins are smaller than cellos because shorter strings make higher notes). This instrument uses a hexagonally isomorphic layout, which means that the notes are distributed on a hexagonal grid, and they all have the same physical size and shape. They also have the same musical relationships to each other – if you move to the right by one thumbstick, that corresponds to going up a perfect fourth musically, and this is true no matter where you start on the grid. This means that musical structures like a major chord or a minor scale are always the same shape, no matter which note you start on, which is pretty rad. The second thing we wanted to focus on was making the instrument really expressive. Lots of synthesizers only measure how hard you strike the key and other timbre controls are available on knobs that you have to remove your hands from the keyboard to use. We’re using little thumbsticks, which give you two dimensions of analog control in a familiar physical interface.

The Joytone is David’s Senior Design project for his BSE degree at the University of Pennsylvania, where he majors in digital media design.

cutaway joytone sketch

David has documented the process from concept to build exhaustively on the project’s blog, where you’ll find everything you need from discussion about the ideal physical layouts of keyboards and thoughts on the way musicians express themselves with different controllers; to wiring diagrams, considerations about digital analogue conversion (DAC) for this sort of project and much more. I’ve a particular soft spot for music projects, and this is one of the most exciting I’ve come across so far: thank you David, and good luck in this last year of your degree course!