Designing an innovative musical instrument with a community of young musicians and professional artists.
In November 2020, CLIP reached a memorable milestone in our journey. The launch of the Photon Smasher represents not only our first product, but an incredible opportunity to extend our mission to a wider audience and create exciting opportunities for the musicians and artists we work with.
CLIP Co-Founder Frazer Merrick takes us on the Photon Smasher journey, highlighting how CLIP used a variety of sources to fund the R&D, and the incredible creative community that helped shaped it along the way.
In Summer 2019, I was commissioned by BBC Arts to produce a soundscape of Walton Pier. Hidden Sounds of Coastal Arcades is an experimental documentary exploring the sounds of a place centred around play. As well as recording the people, I took about recording the machines themselves. I had great fun using my Elektrosluch mic, which allows me to hear the magnetic fields of the machines. It was here that I began to experiment with the notion of ‘hidden sounds’ – those outside our range of hearing, but accessible with technology.
In September 2019, CLIP invited artist Loula Yorke to run a girls only synth building workshop as part of our Youth Music funded music club at Firstsite, Colchester. The group set about building Atari Punk Consoles (small DIY synthesisers) and creating brilliant improvised performances using them. On a whim, we combined the circuits with some LDRs (light dependant resistors) and looked at how light could control the circuit. This was a wildly successful test with the sounds being triggered and modulated by light. After fellow CLIP co-founder Simon Keep did some initial tests at home, another workshop followed in February 2020 where we hooked up solar panels directly to amplifiers and began listening to light itself.
This workshop cemented the idea. The synchronisation of light and sound was spectacular, and a huge hit with the young musicians at our music club. They were jamming along to the rhythms of bicycle lights and putting the sounds through guitar pedals, creating other-worldly soundscapes.
The workshop was crammed with learning outcomes all as a result of play. There were conversations between the musicians about how microphones work, and what the electromagnetic spectrum is (answered by our students at GCSE age). But alongside these traditional STEM (science technology engineering maths) topics, the creative outputs were beautiful too. The workshop created incredible opportunities for dramatic soundscapes and room-filling light installations.
Developing the prototype was an iterative process with funding coming from a variety of sources mainly centring around artist development opportunities. In late February 2020, I successfully applied for the Francis Chagrin Award from Sound and Music, a small grants program of quick financial top-ups to help get composers to the next stage in creating a new work. I used this money to buy a variety of parts to test and experiment with different ideas. Not only was I starting to understand the physics of the instrument, but also what was possible artistically, as illustrated by my track Pulsar. In the performance, I’m not only processing the sound of light through effects, but also using a second solar panel as a “clock source”, meaning the speed of the flashing light is controlling the tempo of the drums.
It was around this time that three pivotal things happened. First, Joe Carr from Britten Pears commissioned me to make him a ‘light mic’ device for his physics of sound educational work at Aldeburgh Red House. Second, CLIP successfully applied for the Mercury Creatives Program, a creative business support scheme. Third, the coronavirus pandemic showed that we can’t rely on face-to-face delivery as our sole income stream.
Joe’s commission demonstrated that there was a clear interest in the concept as both an educational and musical product. The invaluable support from Owen McNeir via the Mercury Creatives scheme was the perfect opportunity to develop the product in a structured way. And the pandemic showed how important it was for CLIP to explore earning our own income.
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CLIP’s mission is to encourage more people to be curious with sound, and this instrument felt like a perfect embodiment of that. It was important the instrument had a low floor and a high ceiling, meaning that it would be something that creatives of all abilities could use and enjoy. Come March 2020, and with lockdown now fully underway, Simon and I used the time to explore how the product might expand the reach of CLIP’s mission, and how our mission would affect the features of the product, and even future products.
Upon beginning the iterative product design process, CLIP’s creative network became invaluable. Educator, artist and instrument builder extraordinaire Tom Fox put a prototype through its paces, whilst the young members of CLIP took delivery of prototype devices and started making music with them. Their feedback shaped the features of the instrument’s circuit board.
Of course the instrument is more than the circuit board alone, and bringing it to market provided ample opportunities for CLIP to build relationships with other creatives and support the local creative industries. Here I want to highlight some of the incredible artists involved.
Testing – Tom Fox
Instrument builder, composer and educator Tom Fox took delivery of an early Photon Smasher prototype and provided invaluable support when I was hitting my head against a wall learning KiCad (PCB designing software).
Artwork – George Yarnton
With the Photon Smasher born from a project in an arcade, George took inspiration from another place of play when designing the artwork – the fairground! We love how dynamic the artwork looks, standing out from the cardboard box without clashing with whatever light you shine at it.
Screen Printing – Lynne Blackburn
Having met Lynne and Ian from Hippo Screen Printers at a network event for creatives in Chelmsford, they were the perfect pair to print the Photon Smasher artwork – and we couldn’t be happier with the result! The quality of the print is astounding and really makes the product stand out from our competition.
Animation – Chris Sayer
We turned to visual effects specialist Chris Sayer to extend the joyous energy of the instrument to its branding, and he didn’t disappoint! We love the way the text pops and the sparks of energy that come whizzing by. With future products in the works, having a strong brand was key to the instrument lineup.
Videography – Jack King
It’s been quite hard to describe what a ‘microphone for light’ is so we knew a product trailer video would be key to communicating the product and all its features. Jack King did an excellent job making the product seem cool to our teenage audience, useful to our educator audience and fun to our younger audiences.
Music – Haydar, Jude and Walton
For the teaser trailer, we invited three of CLIPs talented young musicians to compose the score. The brief was to make something fun and cool using only the sounds from the instrument, and we were blown away by what they created! The mysterious synthesiser swells, glitchy melodies and tight rhythms are perfect.
The launch of our own product is an exciting milestone in the CLIP story. From beginning in 2016 as a monthly meetup at Firstsite gallery to registering as a CIC in December 2019, it’s been an incredible journey focused around play centred learning, creating opportunities for young musicians and making incredible music. The Photon Smasher extends the reach of our mission to a far wider audience. I can’t wait to hear what people create with it.
The Photon Smasher is available to buy now (UK only) here, limited numbers available.
Make Music with Light!