The Coolest Inventions That Debuted at Moogfest 2016

Article by: Laura Mason|@masonlazarus

Tue May 24, 2016 | 00:00 AM

Moogfest celebrates electronic music with performances, talks, art, experimentation, technology, and film—anything that evokes the spirit of its inventor, Robert Moog, is fair game. That vibe of innovation is why many of music and technology's brightest minds gather at the North Carolina festival to showcase and demo new creations intended to push the boundaries of how music is composed and performed.

Historically, the festival has operated under a "learning by day, dancing by night" kind of ethos. When the sun is out, Moogfest operates like a left-of-center academic conference geared toward creative and/or technology professionals. You’ll encounter days of programming that include talks, presentations, panels, workshops, and film screenings with futurist thinkers, inventors, engineers, designers, artists, entrepreneurs, and musicians. Past presenters have included Keith Emerson, founder of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, who happens to be the first musician to tour with a Moog analog synthesizer; producer, composer and songwriter Giorgio Moroder, who has worked with everyone from Donna Summer to Blondie and Daft Punk; futurist Ethan Dvorsky, chair of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies; MIT Media Lab’s Joseph Paradiso; Make magazine’s Mark Frauefelder, and more. Heady themes like "Art and Artificial Intelligence," "Afrofuturism,""Instrument Innovators," and "Transhumanism" were on tap this year to stimulate festival-goers' minds.

Once night falls, present and future of electronic music take various stages throughout Durham. In 2016, ODESZA, Grimes, Miike Snow, Gary Numan, GZA, Laurie Anderson, Explosions in the Sky, Blood Orange, sunn O))), Oneohtrix Point Never, The Orb, and many more eclectic performers gathered to wow Moogfest's 50,000+ attendees.

We rounded up several fascinating videos of some of the coolest presentations at Moogfest this year, from a Google AI generating its own music, to a robot playing the marimba alongside a human, to musical Rube Goldberg machine. Enjoy!

1.  Jason Barnes's Robotic Drumming Arm

Jason Barnes is a drummer who lost his right arm when he was electrocuted in a workplace accident in 2012. However, in 2013 he was accepted into the Atlanta Institute of Music, and in 2014, a team from the Georgia Institute of Technology led by Professor Gil Weinberg fitted Jason with a robotic arm. In the video above, he's seen with a specially made robotic drumming arm fitted with motors and two drumsticks to produce beats at lightning speed. According to NPR, "one stick is controlled by the musician's bicep muscles and electromyography (EMG) muscle sensors; the other stick "listens" and improvises."

2. Google AI Generating Music on a Digital Synth

Can computers truly be creative? Google is attempting to answer that question with an AI systems, called Magenta. Introduced by Douglas Eck, of Google Brain, Magenta TensorFlow, the machine-learning engine that Google created and released to the public at the end of 2015, to determine whether AI systems can be trained to create original works of art. Presently, the most advanced AI systems have enough trouble copying existing artistic and musical styles, let alone coming up with entirely new ideas themselves. But with a dedicated team of some of the most boundary-pushing minds working on AI and its relation to art, that may change sooner rather than later.

3. Shimon the Robot Jamming with a Human Marimba Player

Shimon is a four-armed robot programmed to play jazz. He was created by Gil Weinberg and his team at the Georgia Tech Center for Music Technology seven years ago to not only play music, but to listen and improvise alongside a human — just as a human jazz musician would. In the video above, you can see Shimon responding as a human would to his human jam partner's pacing and phrasing; he changes tempos appropriately and seems to riff on his colleague's material. He even bobs his head to the beat, making the whole performance look and feel organic. According to NPR, "...when Shimon made his debut in 2009, Weinberg said in an interview...'The whole idea is to use computer algorithms to create music in ways that humans will never create...Our motto is, Listen like a human, but improvise like a machine.'"

4. The Forge Initiative's Musical Rube Goldberg

Remember playing the game of Mouse Trap when you were younger? Well, this contraption is of a similar vibe. It's is the end result of a series of free chain reaction workshops put on by The Forge Initiative. At those workshops, Moogfest attendees and participants collaborated over the course of the festival's four days to create the musical Rube Goldberg machine you see in the video above. When you look at the rickety thing, it appears as if it'd fall apart within moments of pulling the trigger. However, each component unfolds seamlessly, making music along the way. Ah, physics.

5. The Moog MiniMoog Model D Reissue

The reissue of this iconic synth was one of the most buzzed-about moments of Moogfest 2016, which was certainly helped by the festival's pop-up factory to show all the fest's gearheads the process of creating this beloved instrument. Designed specifically for rock and pop musicians from 1970-1981, the MiniMoog was made tiny and portable so they were easier to bring on tour. It later surpassed this original purpose, however, and became a distinctive and popular instrument in its own right; you've undoubtedly heard it used in the music of Kraftwerk, Sun Ra, Gary Numan, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. It remains in demand today, over four decades after its introduction, for its intuitive design and powerful bass and lead sounds.