Musical Frankensteins

When a Robot Makes Music, What Does It Sound Like?

By Sarah Estes Graham (MFA, Creative Writing '06)

PAM (the Poly-tangent Automatic Multi-monochord)

PAM lies motionless on the dining room table, resembling a futuristic Plexiglas xylophone with a guitar head along the top. With the click of a mouse she comes to life, her mechanical fingers clamping down on the frets with superhuman speed. She plucks the strings faster and faster, creating a tune reminiscent of Middle Eastern music.

The inventors of PAM (the Poly-tangent Automatic Multi-monochord) smile proudly at this display. Troy Rogers (Grad ’10), Scott Barton (Grad ’10) and Steven Kemper (Grad ’10) are all doctoral students in U.Va.’s composition and computer technologies program, but they’re becoming more well-known as the guys who created the avant-garde music robot.

While the trio isn’t out to replace any pit orchestras, they do dream of creating an ensemble of musical robots, perhaps even a resident group of machine performers.

PAM is somewhat of a retro novelty, bringing back the hardware aspect of the player pianos of yesteryear that was lost with the advent of digitized sound. "People have really gotten into software lately—we’re trying to get away from that," Rogers says.

PAM’s ability to entertain and educate is as evident as her deft finger work. Already in her short career, she has performed at several local venues, attracting media coverage each time. "We’ve been amazed at the response," Kemper says, adding that his parents finally have something tangible they can tell their friends about his unusual major.

PAM’s mechanical fingers are a blur as she runs along on a complex version of "random play." But her creators are quick to point out that nothing is truly random; rather, an algorithmic sequencing produces a scalable amount of randomness.

Companies such as Toyota and Honda have begun a musical robot arms race, building machines that are able to play trumpet and violin. Unlike these products, the purpose of PAM is not to recreate human sound. "Even with prosthetic tissue, you’re never going to be able to improve on human sound," Rogers explains.

"Applying varying amounts of pressure with expression to create a certain mood is not where machines excel," Kemper adds. "We’re interested in paving new ground. The best human flutist can trill eight to 10 times per second tops, but a machine might be able to perform at much higher speeds and sustain that for an hour. You could create a whole new frequency of sound."

As the robot whirs along and a conjoined laptop flashes an alarmingly complicated series of musical directives, the room takes on the glow of a mad scientist’s lair. Rogers and Barton point across the yard to a rustic yellow shed in the back yard, where (to hear them tell it) this robotic Frankenstein was pieced together with Plexiglas and scrap metal. "We like to use things that society has thrown away," Kemper says. In spite of the eclectic nature of her makeup, PAM is the sophisticated product of laser technology provided by friends and colleagues in the architecture department. "We’re musicians, not architects," Barton emphasizes. "We never would have been able to make her without their help."

Read the original article on the U.Va. Magazine website.