Creativity Restored by Human Instruments


Today’s episode of the Coaching Through Chaos Podcast features the Human Instruments company. They are creating musical instruments for people who otherwise thought they could only listen, rather than create beautiful music. I’m talking with Vahakn Matossian, a designer and creator and partner at the London-based company. Human instruments redesigns instruments that allow people to work around their physical limitations in order to create music. The company was started by Rolf Gelhaar and Vahakn Matossian. Rolf is an artist, composer, musician and early creator of electronic and computer music. Vahakn, Rolf’s son and business partner, is an artist, maker and musician with BA’s and MA’s in Product Design from Brighton and Royal College of Art respectively. Their work focuses on creating “accessible musical instrument devices”.

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The Human Instruments company began when Rolf and Vahakn were helping out the British Paraorchestra by setting up their tech and sound support. The British Paraorchestra is the only one of it’s kind so far. This orchestra is the world’s first professional ensemble of disabled musicians. Their mission (from their website is to “shift the perceptions of disability and disabled people by creating a visible platform for gifted disabled musicians to perform and excel at the highest level”. For as much as the orchestra was designed to give people opportunity, Rolf & Vahakn watched as people wanted to join the orchestra had to be turned away because there just weren’t any way they could play traditional instruments. They decided to change that. Their first creation, a re-made piano, is designed for people who have some dexterity and control in their hands and fingers, but lack the strength to manipulate and instrument accurately. They’ve also developed a horn instrument and are designing a breath-only controlled device. I’ll tell you more about that further along in this article. They use open-source hardware to develop tools to create their instruments which relay on their use of their breath, sight and slight use of their hands to create music. They use synthesizer technology that even allow for varied expression of the tones (think loud verses soft, long notes verses short, staccato notes).

How do they do it?
When you see the keyboard device, it hardly looks like an instrument, let alone a keyboard. Its comprised of 2 pieces of plywood with wires connecting them together to a computer motherboard and they have some black lines representing the keys painted on them.

They screen paint the design onto the plywood. The paint they use is an electric, quick-drying conductive paint by Bare Conductive. There is a mouthpiece with a tube which is a breath sensor which helps to give the instrument expression without very much lung or touch power. The mouthpiece is a key component to the Human Instruments designs.  Breath can be used to conduct sound, even if a person can’t use their hands to press keys. The lines are connected to the motherboard at the top of the plywood. When touched, they send a signal to the computer. The board is loaded with a basic sound program, but they wrote a custom program which sends midi data to the computer. Midi is the musical digital interface data language which all computers speak. This program allows the Human Instruments users to have precise control over their sounds and how they create them. The computer takes the midi data and uses whatever program they are using (HI uses Massive & LOGIC) to process the information.

The Human Instruments piano can play the sounds of most any instrument, much like ay other standard electronic keyboards. Throughout the podcast episode, you’ll hear Vahakn playing the keyboard in various sound modes.

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