Didjerinews issue 10 Vol 2

An interview with Kyle Evans about his electronically modified didgeridoo.

The youtube video of a young man playing a seriously hacked piece of plastic pipe through an elaborate array of digital music processors in real time caught the attention of many. I was fortunate enough to get the musical instrument inventor and artist Kyle Evans to do an interview with me to learn a bit more about his creation. But first a couple of videos from Kyle that showcase the instrument :

And with some video effects ...

[Ed] How long have you been playing the didjeridu and how did you first come into contact with the instrument?

[Kyle] I have been playing the didjeridu for only about three years now. My first experience with a didj was actually from my teacher. My second year at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago I took a class called "Music of Asia and the Pacific". One day my teacher brought his didjeridu to class and performed for us. I had of course known of the instrument before this, but I had never experienced the instrument in person. I was immediately overwhelmed with excitement and an unbelievable amount of curiosity (I'm sure all didj fans experience something similar on their first encounter). Though I didn't get the opportunity to play the instrument, I did spend the remainder of the semester studying and listening to didjeridu music. That summer I left to Australia to visit my girlfriend who had been studying abroad in Sydney. We traveled to Cairns where we visited a small didj shop that was recommended to us. It was there that I bought my first beautifully crafted didjeridu and received my first lesson from the man who made it. I guess I haven't stopped playing since!

[Ed] Now you've created an Electronically Modified didjeridu! Can you tell us a bit about what lead to your project of modifying the didjeridu electronically?

[Kyle] It was about the same time that I started playing the didj that I began learning computer programing and sound synthesis, so the two just fell together naturally. The better I became at playing the didj and the more informed I became in sound synthesis, the more I realized the incredible amount of sonic similarity between the two! For example, filtering, shifting overtones and resonances are common in working with synthesizing sound, and all are used regularly when playing the didj. I became very interested in these similarities, so I began utilizing didjeridu samples I recorded in some of my early computer and analog synthesis sound pieces. Upon hearing them, one of my teachers suggested the idea of performing with a didj and computer all in real time. At the time I was nowhere close to having the technical ability to do such a thing. But fast forward two years, and by then I was ready to give it a shot. My first prototype was a removable addition to my didj that slid down over it. It was very gnarly looking (the structure was made out of a plastic "Big Gulp" mug!) and very restricting with wires, but it worked. I performed with it and got some great reactions which encouraged me to take the project further and eventually to where it is today.

[Ed] Can you describe where your electronically modified didjeridu project is today?

[Kyle] I decided to start again from scratch. In preparation of building the current model I had to make a decision weather to modify an existing didjeridu or to build my own. I chose the later and am very glad I did. I drafted it out on paper first and chose the location and shape of all the external modules. It was very important to me for the modules to be positioned in an ergonomic manner while maintaining an aesthetically interesting layout. I wanted to play the thing like a REAL instrument without the technology behind it interfering with the players ability to perform. It had to be wireless. I chose to transmit all the control data via blue tooth and send all the audio via a wireless microphone system. I built the controls and the software that processes the sounds as efficiently as possible. All the control I need is located on the didj so there is no need to look at my laptop while performing. If I wish I can close it and put it aside without anyone knowing its there. You see so many computer musicians these days stuck behind their laptops and that can be boring for an audience. In a performance people like to hear AND see what's happening, and I greatly considered this in the design of all of my instruments, especially my didj.

[Ed] What kind of performance settings have you used your electronically modified didj in so far? Any technical challenges in a live setting you either have encountered or anticipate with the current set up?

[Kyle] So far I have not done much performing with this instrument outside of an academic setting, but I do plan on changing that soon. As of now, I have been composing for the didj with a concentration on solo performances. Most of my other live electronics work is solo. There is a learning curve that I must first overcome with all the instruments I build. Just like with any musical instrument, I have to fist learn how to use it, and I really want to focus on this stage for a while with my modified didj because I see so much potential in it. I think once I get even more comfortable with it, I would love to start collaborating with other musicians and artists.

Obviously with any electronically technical setups there are going to be problems (murphy's law). Fortunately, I was able to identify many of these problems after making my first model and was then able to correct many of them for my current version. The first and most irritating problem to solve was unwanted feedback. Since the process involves delays and many resonant sounds, the system was very sensitive to creating some loud squealing feedback. But by playing around with microphone type and placement, along with programing to control dynamics (compression, limiting, normalization, expansion) i was able to nearly eliminate the problem. It was also very impotent to me in making the instrument that any electrical problems could be fixed easily and on the fly. The module that houses the main circuitry for the instrument (micro controller and blue tooth transmitter etc.) is detachable which helps in case I need to make a quick fix.

[Ed] I'm sure you've been asked this before, but any thoughts of putting your design into a commercially available instrument?

[Kyle] That has actually been quite a popular question. At the moment the answer is no. I am concentrating all my efforts of instrument construction in the direction of personal development. I figure that while I'm still a student I should use the opportunity to focus on creation and not yet worry about marketing or sales. But at the same time, I would not say that I won't be interested in some type of commercial availability in the future. I feel that even at this stage, the instrument has not yet stopped evolving. I already have many ideas and fixes in mind that I will be applying to the next model. I would like to see the instrument develop further before considering marketing it. I also want to spend this time developing my performance skills and learning how to play the instrument well. So perhaps someday I will be selling, but for the time being I'm just building instruments for my own use.

Read Kyle's blog at http://yaktronix.blogspot.com/

Kyle's music page on myspace http://www.myspace.com/kyleevansmusic

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