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Focus On: Steve Summers and his Noisy Toys

Gareth Halfacree

Our friendly journalist Gareth Halfacree recently attended the Manchester MakeFest on our behalf, talking to the thronging crowds find out what's hot in the maker world at the minute. This series of Focus On features takes a look at some of the event's exhibitors, finding out what they're up to and what makes them tick.

"Shall we electrocute you while we wait?" It's an unusual question, but the Noisy Toys crew is made up of an unusual bunch. While waiting for organisation founder Steve Summers to arrive, 'Chantelle' and 'Doctor Norbert Umpty' - nomme-de-laboratoires of his companions in sound - are eager to show off the Audio Assault Buggy. A previous crowd having dissipated, giggling over the exuberant show, the equipment is free for a two-on-one demonstration. "Doctor Numpty, if you could hold onto that, and I shall hold onto this, and you two hold hands, and now, would you care to touch my nose? Merely quite gently squeeze it for a while..."

The reward for such behaviour is immediate: a loud buzzing noise, varying in pitch as the pressure on Chantelle's nose is adjusted. There's a take-away, too: an ink-stamp, proudly proclaiming the wearer a recipient of an official Noisy Toys nose test, applied by Doctor N. Umpty. "Only one of three in the multiverse," he jokes, "if there might be a multiverse, I don't know. You have been nose tested."

It's all in good humour, but there's a method to the madness - and other, equally mad, experiments, including watching homebrew non-Newtonian fluids react to sound waves and spinning a recycled hard drive platter to produce a descending bass note that rattles your fillings. "Really, we were looking for a way we could make noises like that one," founder Steve Summers, a music teacher revelling in his part-time role as a mad scientist, explains, "and to take around to events. A bit more of a walkabout act rather than always being static, and we wanted something that looked a little strange, that people might go 'ooh, what's that,' and come and have a go, and then we can conduct our experiments on-the-go, on the move, anywhere."

Those experiments, for all the theatrics and steampunk-stroke-Metropolis trappings, have a real purpose. "It's really to show people that it's fun, and you can do it quite easily. It's about making instruments, making sounds, out of everyday objects, out of junk that people have thrown away," Steve explains over the noise of a transducer microphone feeding back. "I'm a music teacher, and I just found that a lot of music technology was very computer-based, people looking at screens, getting good at using software, but not actually really thinking about the fundamentals of sounds, wave properties, the physics of sound - which is something that's always interested me. So, I was looking for ways to use simple instruments that people can try out themselves. Everything we do is interactive, even the demonstrations have got elements where people come up and get their hands on things, feel them and experience them, so it's not just looking at screens or watching things.

"The workshop I'm doing, which is Computer Scavengers Workshop, is all about how you make little noise circuits and instruments out of just junk that you can get off computers that people have thrown away or aren't being used any more," Steve adds. "It's accessible materials and it's quite a strong message of sustainability through all that we do, 'cos it's talking about electronic waste and disposable electronics, where it comes from and where it goes to, the consequences of that. We are scavengers, so obviously we're trying to alert people to the consequences of the disposability of electronics, but we're making use of it at the same time by scavenging."

If the crowds that gathered around their stand just outside the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry's main hall weren't clue enough, the feedback Steve and his team receive shows that the interactive approach to education pays dividends. "We've had people come back to us, coming back the next day and showing us their own creation," Steve smiles as he recalls, "whether it's a pot of goop they've made, alien goop, or even some instruments and things like that, we've had feedback where people have gone home and tried the things out."

More information on the Noisy Toys project can be found on the official website, where you can also find their event schedule if you'd like to have your nose tested in person.

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