Carnegie Mellon University School of Art / IDEATE

Building Hybrid Instruments

Course:         60-439/739 - Advanced SIS/ETB

Times:                Friday         1:30pm-4:20pm pm | Lab on Thursday 6:30pm - 7:50pm

Location:         ArtFab Blue Doherty Hall-C200

Facilities:         CMU ArtFab: ArtFab Lab, ArtFab Shop, Hunt Library Fabrication Facilities

Contacts:        Instructor: Ali Momeni (, Associate Professor

Topics and Approach

The course covers theories, practices, aesthetics and communities surrounding new musical interface design.  The course focuses on hybrid instruments that consist of analog, digital, acoustic and synthesized elements. The course will explore hybridity by both

  1. Creating sculptural sound objects that acoustically produce rich and expressive sounds
  2. Prototyping interactions through physical computing (sensing, haptics) and real-time software (mapping, audio synthesis) to hybridize these sound making objects.

Research | Theory and History

“We probably should never have started calling it improvisation”. Indeed, I wonder whether all the things we include under the rubric of improvisation have enough in common to justify a collective term. We are talking, after all, about Hindustani and Carnatic raga alapana, about all the things in jazz that Paul Berliner (1994) analyzed, about rural folk singers making new variants of traditional songs, about seventeenth-century keyboard players ornamenting, about virtuosos playing cadenzas, about performers in Lukas Foss’s “Time Line,” computers that have been taught to improvise, South Slavic singers of epics manipulating basic materials, Persian musicians giving their personal interpretations of the radif, accompanists of dance classes doing their thing, young children making up rhymes for games, about nineteenth-century German students creating quodlibets, Franz Schubert improvising in his mind and quickly writing down what has gone through it, about what church organists do when they improvise a fugue, or just play chords to encourage generosity during the offering.” 

Bruno Nettle, “Contemplating the Concept of Improvisation and Its History in Scholarship” 2013

In regards to theories and histories, the course focuses on improvisation as a critical and playful methodology for designing, building and evaluating instruments.  Building on pedagogic methodology from historian, theorist and master improviser Vijay Iyer, course expectations are as follows:

  1. Complete the weekly reading and contribute to class discussion
  2. Each week, three students will be assigned to open and lead our discussion by summarizing the key points of the readings, prompting and mediation class discussion with prepared questions and a discussion format.  Discussion leaders are expected to meet before class to coordinate their summaries, questions and plans for the full-class discussion.
  3. Each student will submit a short (500-750 words) reading response each week, including some questions for discussion.  Your responses must be posted on the course website by noon each Thursday, with an accompanying link submitted to Blackboard for grading.  You are expected to read each other’s responses in preparation for class discussion on Friday.

Design | Building and Playing

In regards to sculpture and fabrication, the course will delve into computer-aided-design (CAD) and computer-aided-manufacturing (CAM) for prototyping acoustic sculptural object.  Students are encouraged to approach the fabrication of instruments itself as a hybrid practice that includes hand crafts, digital fabrication, outsourcing of parts and novel assembly techniques.

The first half of the semester engages students in a series of rapid prototyping projects where students make several simple hybrid musical instruments, each one exploring a form of gestural interaction interaction thru sensing, a mapping between gesture data and sound, and electroacoustic sound synthesis scheme. The course requires familiarity with basic digital fabrication workflows (including a design environment like Rhino or Solidworks as well as fabrication with laser cutters, CNC-routers and 3d-printers) as well as basic physical-computing and real-time programming (e.g. Arduino, Max, Puredata).  

The design portion of this course unfolds in two phases:

  1. literature review and rapid prototyping exercises
  2. final projects 

The first half of the course will introduce students to a wide range of relevant projects from contemporary music and composition, installation art and human-computer-interaction, tangible interaction design and socially engaged interventionist practices that utilize hybrid instruments.  Students will study theoretical and computational frameworks for working with gesture in instrument design.  Topics of interest include: gesture data acquisition, data analysis, and mapping gesture data to hybrid-software-hardware computational systems that generate sound/image/movement.  We will investigate the software and hardware technologies underlying the design and fabrication of hybrid instruments with electronics, sensors, signal processing, digital fabrication.

While learning about the repertoir, four rapid-prototyping assignments introduce students to the facilities and cover a broad range of physical computing and interaction design skills.  The assignments are organized into three 2-part projects, each motivated by a specific gestural interaction; the first part for each project involves devising a gestural interaction and creating a physical acoustic object with desirable acoustic sound-producing properties; the second part of each project involves hybridizing it by adding software, hardware, electronics, sensing , actuation, and interactivity.  The three gestural motivations are the following.

  1. The Hand: Striking, Rubbing
  2. The Hand: Plucking, Bowing
  3. The Mouth: Vocal or Mouth articulation

The second half of the course will allow teams of students to choose a focus area, develop and proposal for an instrument, then design and fabricate a functioning instrument.  The course culminates in an event where all students demonstrate their final instruments in a performance setting.

Course expectations are as follows:

  1. Create a working prototype for each Design Assignment due date poste in the course calendar
  2. Be prepared to demonstrate the performance with a 1-minute performance on the instrument, followed by a 1-min description of the process and your evaluation
  3. Give a 5-7 minute presentation on your final project plan during week 7 of the course
  4. Produce weekly prototypes with updates each week of the second have of the course
  5. Participate in the final course exhibition on May 6, 2016


In addition to various fabrication tools and techniques, this course will make extensive use of Cycling ‘74’s real-time programming environment Max, the Arduino micro-controller platform, as well as the computer aided design (Rhino) and machining tools (RhinoCam) in use in the school of art and architecture.  Students are expected to have familiarity with these environments, or be prepared to gain familiarity independently and swiftly.  The instructor will provide learning resources and consultation as needed but the course curriculum does not include introductory level teaching of physical computing or programming.


During the course of the semesters students will gain training on various fabrication machines.  Upon completing training, each student will gain access to an online reservation system that allows him/her to book hours on various machines.


Please refer to the course calendar.



Computer Music - Synthesis:

Computer Music - Mobile:

Computer Music - Mapping and Gesture

Computer Music - Instruments and Controllers


Consistent attendance is mandatory.  Students are allowed two unexcused absences; further unexcused absences will lower your grade for the session by one letter for each additional absence.  Attendance will be taken at the beginning of class.  If you arrive later than 15 minutes into the class period, you will be counted as absent.  Every three occurrences of arriving to class more than 5 minutes will count as an absentee.

If you have a class or work schedule issue & anticipate being somewhat late on a regular basis, please see the instructor during the first week of the semester.

During class time, students are expected to be completely present.  While students are free to chose how they spend their time during class (including non-work related emailing or social media), non-class related activity is considered a form of absence and marked accordingly for the entire class period.


Attendance on critique days is absolutely essential.  Failure to attend will impact both your class participation grade and your project grade.  On critique days, all students are expected to be set-up & ready to participate at the beginning of the class period.


Attendance is mandatory; inadequate attendance will lower your final grade.  Class participation is based on conduct and contribution to class blog, presentations, discussions, and critiques.  Please note that your contributions to the blog (sharing resources, references, example works, relevant research, etc.) is the most concrete metric by which your participation grade will be assessed.

Each of the first three assigned projects from Units 1 to 3 will be graded on a scale of 0 to 2 (0 = incomplete/insufficient, 1 = adequate but uninspired, 2 = good) in regards to concept, execution and documentation/presentation.  Each assignment will therefore be graded on a scale of 0 to 6 (i.e. three times the 0-2 scale for each of the craeteria).  Late assignments are not accepted.

The final project will be graded on a scale of 0 to 10, with 10 representing excellence in conception and execution.

The final grade for the course will be calculated based on the following formula:

Attendance:                         mandatory

Class participation:                 20%

Assigned projects 1 to 4:        30% (10% each)

final project:                        50%