The University of Massachusetts Amherst
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M5 Marches to the Beat of a Different Drummer

As M5 Technologist in Residence Sean Klaiber puts it, “My interests pretty much all surround sound in one way or another.” That is certainly the case with the electronic Spinning Drum Machine that Klaiber and two students from the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department put together, partly from cannibalized parts, in M5. They displayed the machine, which beats out 80 different drum sounds with an infinite set of patterns, at the huge Maker Faire ( convention, a sort of Renaissance Faire for do-it-yourself creativity held on September 17 and 18 in the New York Hall of Science. The machine is an electronic ode to engineers who march to the beat of a different drummer.

A drum machine is an electronic musical instrument designed to imitate the sound of percussion instruments. The machines are used in a variety of musical genres, not just purely electronic music, and are also used when session drummers are not available or desired.

This machine is a variation on that theme. “The Spinning Drum Machine is a combination between a turntable and a drum machine in the sense that you have a disk that is spinning, kind of like a turntable,” explains Klaiber, “and you can manipulate the disk with your hand by scratching it. It’s very interactive.”

The Spinning Drum Machine was actually a twinkle in various eyes at M5 long before Maker Faire. Klaiber is a recent ECE graduate with music in his soul and electronics in his blood. “I’m still bumming around the valley mostly to continue playing/composing with the band Bella’s Bartok and because I love this campus,” he says. “Especially M5!”

M5 also gives creative vent to his passion for “taking things and smashing them together,” as he says with tongue firmly smashed in cheek.

While smashing things together quite creatively at M5 last summer, Klaiber volunteered to help teach two community service “Circuits and Beats” workshops, given at day camps in Springfield and Holyoke. The M5 volunteers taught each camper how to put together his or her own drum machine to keep and take home.

What can kids do with a machine that pours out a torrent of drum beats? “Make loud sounds that are obnoxious,” Klaiber says with the same twinkle in his eye that helped conceive the concept in the first place. “There’s always a future for loud obnoxious sounds.”

He agrees with a wide grin that the kids’ parents must have been thanking Circuits and Beats ever since last summer for this musical addition to their homes.

But the Circuits and Beats workshops were also profoundly educational, with a twofold goal. “One was to get across the idea that projects that seem very complex at first sight can actually be understood and dealt with in a relatively short time if taught the right way,” says Klaiber. “The other was to get them interested in college and the sciences in particular.”

Later, M5 decided that its Spinning Drum Machine was the perfect creation to display at Maker Faire. Maker Faire is an event created by Make magazine to "celebrate arts, crafts, engineering, science projects, and the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) mindset." The first Maker Faire was held in 2006 at the San Mateo Fairgrounds and included six exposition and workshop pavilions and a five-acre outdoor midway, with over 100 exhibiting makers, hands-on workshops, demonstrations, and DIY competitions.

“Whatever people have made, whatever they’ve put time and creativity into, they have a chance to display that,” notes Klaiber about Maker Faire. “It’s grassroots creativity. Our project was an attempt to say to this larger DIY community that ‘We exist!’”

Yes, he might well have added. Not only do we exist, but we have an infinite number of drum beats to prove it! (November 2011)