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Focus On: Matthew Shotton and the Amazing B0rkestra

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.

There's plenty to distract visitors to the first Manchester HackFest at the Museum of Science and Industry, from light shows and fabric workshops through to Noisy Toys and their Audio Assault Buggy, but there's one auditory experience enjoying a constant stream of visitors: the B0rkestra, a bizarre collection of frankeninstruments housed in a small round annex off the main hall. Visitors are first attracted by the presence of MIDI keyboards and electronic drum kits, then captivated when their interaction results in real-world instruments - rather than their digitised equivalents - being played.

"The idea behind this is that electronic music has always been sort of made in computers and you always hear it out of speakers," explains Matthew Shotton, a BBC research and development engineer who has been working on the B0rkestra project with his friend Max, amid the thump of drums and pizzicato plucking of strings. "We wanted to see if we could turn it on its head a bit and make electronic music but using acoustic instruments. Each of our instruments is wired up to a central computer, and then you can use any kind of MIDI sequencing software to make music on it."

It's a clever combination of the world of analogue and digital music, and something that was largely unproven until the event's doors opened. "We've been at it for a couple of months, now .We've sort of been building it in our respective spare bedrooms," Matthew explains, "and this is the first time it's actually all been together in the same place and we've had the chance to hear it all playing together."

The B0rkestra - named for the words 'orchestra' and 'b0rk,' an engineer's corruption of the word 'broken' often used to describe hacked-together kludges - brings together a wealth of technologies. The central control, an off-the-shelf laptop running commercial MIDI sequencing software, is shiny and new; the solenoids driving the 3D printed components that actually play the instruments, by contrast, are bulky and many look salvaged. That's a large part of the project's appeal, of course: cutting-edge 3D printed components sit next to roughly-hewn and unfinished chunks of wood, all held together with stretched springs and bits of twine.

"We're sort of building them as we go along," admits Matthew, apologising for the lack of information on the project available to the public at present. "Basically, we were just rushing to get it ready for this event. All the 3D printed parts are on GitHub at the moment, I think all our code is on GitHub at the moment, but all the instruments are kind of quite bespoke, really, so it's quite hard to share. We've built some custom-made PCBs to drive all the big solenoids and stuff, and they're all released open-source as well, the PCB design files.

"You sort of build these things in your bedrooms, and it's nice to give them a bit of an audience, to take them out and show them to people," Matthew explains. "Also, it's great to see people's reactions to it. The kids love it. Anything that makes a lot of noise, they're just there hammering away on it! It's fantastic. Our plan, eventually, is to build a few more instruments and maybe take it out on a few gigs and stuff, so it's like a little robot band."

The B0rkestra project has a placeholder website, with PCB design files available from Matt's Upverter account and other files available via the official GitHub repository.

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