Instruments and Devices

The instruments and devices described here are self-contained interactive instruments that attach to small or large portable solar panels. Some of the designs have solar panels built in to them, while others are designed to attach to wearable devices. Many of these are based on simple logic circuits, while others use small AVR microprocessors to make sound. Some have solar cells incorporated into their design directly. Note that this site is being updated constantly. Some of these devices include video clips, soundfiles, and schematics. More are coming…




Aalborg is a four-oscillator noise synth based on a 74C14 hex inverter chip, and is built into a Cuban cigar box.  It is named after the Danish city from which I acquired the kroner coins that are used as touch sensors.  It contains two touch sensors that turn on/off the sounds, a yellow button that changes the capacitor of one of the oscillators, two knobs, and three photocells, all of which change various aspects of the oscillators pitch.




Crabby is a four-oscillator noise synth with two knobs for controlling frequency, two photocells for modulation, and six touch sensors for mixing/muxing the oscillators.  It is built into a wooden, recycled Crabtree & Evelyn soap box.  Like many of these instruments, this one is based on a 4093 quad NAND gate logic chip, and is amplified by two separate 1 watt amp/speaker pairs, one for two pairs of oscillators.

The Engine Room



The Engine Room is a wooden box that sits on a post, with an eyepiece, a pair of headphones, and a bush button. The box features a solar panal that powers 5 AA rechargeable batteries, and it designed to supply sustainable power for 24 hours a day. Pressing the button creates a randomized kaleidoscopic light and sound experience for 10 seconds.

Engine Room from Scott Smallwood on Vimeo.


Jake & Lillytom



Jake and Lillytom are a pair of solar instruments with solar panels integrated into the wooden casing. They are powered by a 1W amp/speaker and are mirror versions of each other, designed to be held one in each hand. The crackly nature of these instruments harkens back to the cracklebox, an inspiration for certain.

Radio Flyer



Radio Flyer is the first of what will hopefully be a series of handheld, solar-powered instruments that can communicate with each other over a wireless radio network, and can also broadcast their sounds over radio frequencies.  It produces two-voice melodic patterns that can be adjusted in a variety of ways.  The instrument is built into a recycled “Body Butter” container, and includes touch-keys for triggering sounds, two rotary controllers for changing pitch and tempo, photocells for modifying the patterns, and a volume pot.  Since the device can be communicated with over a proprietary (XBee-based) radio network, this device can be “recoded”, and thus might become a kind of blank canvas for trying out different kinds of soundmaking ideas.

Radio Flyer, prototype A from Scott Smallwood on Vimeo.




Patrick (2011) consists of an interactive noise circuit featuring four photocells and six small solar petals, built into a recycled package that used to be a candle-holder on a small gooseneck stand. The sound circuitry is based on a 4049 NAND logic gate with photocells that change the character of the noise patterns. The solar petals are 150mW flexible solar strips, and together supply 9 volts at 100 mA.  This device can be treated like an instrument, or can simply be exhibited as part of an installation.

Jazzy Joe



Jazzy Joe (2010) is prototype instrument consisting of two types of noise circuits in one device. One type is a modulated square-wave circuit based on the 4049 NAND gate, similar to some of the instruments below. The second type is based on the ATMEL microprocessor, and features a sine tone playing melodic patterns.  Combining these two sound sources in various ways results in some interesting sounds and textures. The sine tone’s base frequency can be played using the pot in the center, and the metal “keys” are body contacts which turn the tones on and off. The two yellow buttons trigger type parts of the 4049-based sounds, and two photocells allow for manipulation of timbre.

Arcade Bells



Arcadebells (2010) are a set four devices that make video game-like 8-bit  textures and patterns. The sound is generated by an ATMEL ATMega 368 chip, and recycled copper cups act as a speaker, driven by a transformer-powered piezoelectric driver. These devices change their speed depending on the amount of light that falls on the floating photocells, and their volume is based upon the amount of power they receive from the sun. Note that the sound-making software on the ATMEL chip has been changed several times since the inception of these instruments.  Sadly, they were destroyed at the 2012 Burning Man Festival, being run over by an art car.




Verde is a four-oscillator noise synth made from a 4093 quad NAND gate logic chip.  It contains touch keys for triggering and mixing the oscillators, as well as photocells and one frequency knob, as well as a volume switch.  It is amplifed by a 1W amp/speaker and also has a line output for amplifying through a larger PA system.

Fins of the Elements



These pieces, collectively called Fins of the Elements (2010) consists of four recycled aluminum flower pots, each with a pair of piezoelectric drivers which deliver soft clicking patterns. Each of the four pots generate two different patterns (and may occassionally squeak). They are completely self-contained, and are powered by a small PV strip mounted to the top of the device. There are also photocells which cause the devices to click faster if more light is present. Thus, the clicking becomes louder and more rapid as light levels increase. Together they create a kind of polyrhthmic micro-clicking texture, similar to (and inspired by) the sound of baseboard heating systems in winter as they heat up and cool down. This piece requires a very quiet space, and will work with standard gallery lighting, or can be hung hear a window. This piece was originally installed alongside photographs by artist Maria Whiteman at the FAB Gallery at the University of Alberta.




Bird (2009) is a hanging, mobile-like instrument that is able to turn freely, and responds to light wind and air movement due to the hanging streamers that surround it. Hanging inside of the streamers (made from recycled 1/4″ leader tape) are four beeping sound devices, each with their own individual character. These four small devices contain their own individual array of small solar cells, which provide all power. As they turn, their angle to the sun also changes, allowing them to change their song constantly.

Red Fly



Green Fly



The Colorflies (2008-9) are a series of “noise disc” instruments: small, handheld devices consisting of twittery, squealy insect-like sounds created by simple logic chips. These instruments use coins as electrodes and photocells to modify the sounds, the innards of which are stuffed into recycled film cannisters. The player holds the instrument between the hands, using them to muffle the sound and change the nature of the sound through skin capacitance and light blockage. These are powered by small, index card sized solar panels which hang off of the instrument below. They can also be plugged into larger solar panels for louder operation.




Goldie (2009) is similar to the colorfly instruments, as it also uses simple logic chips, photocells, and metal coins (on the bottom) as electrodes, as well as six colored buttons hacked off of an old bowling toy. Like the above instruments, this instrument responds directly to varying voltages from solar panels, and can be powered by small solar cards that hang from the bottom, as well as larger solar panels.

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