Jeff Snyder - Composer / Improviser / Instrument Designer

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This page presents documentation of some of my artistic and engineering research projects.

Chapter in the book "Musical Instruments in the 21st Century":
The Birl: Adventures in the Development of an Electronic Wind Instrument

This is the story of how the instrument I call the Birl morphed from a large, strange electromechanical contraption into a miniature wind controller. The current version of the instrument is arguably completely unrelated to the original design. Only the name has carried over, and the explanation of the name no longer makes sense with what the instrument has become. The convoluted story of the instrument’s development gives some insight behind the scenes at the various design problems, creative inspirations, and unplanned discoveries that guide the creation of new instruments.
I approach instrument design with a few things in mind I want to achieve, but many of those ideas do not end up in the final product. I don’t consider this a failure of the design goals, but a gift of the process. One of my favorite parts of instrument design is when ideas emerge from accidents and surprises along the way. The Birl is an example of how sometimes the resulting object evolves from the process, as much as—or even more than—vice versa.


Doctoral dissertation:
Exploration of an Adaptable Just Intonation System

This is the full text of my doctoral dissertation for Columbia University, defended in 2010. It outlines the current state of my tuning theory, and uses my 2009 piece Concerning the Nature of Things as an example of how it can be used. It also describes the features of the instruments I had designed as of 2010, and even touches on analysis of American country music vocal harmony.


Instrument Design:
I have been designing musical instruments since 2002. One of them has become a commercial product, the Manta. The others are one-offs that I make for myself as a research project or on commission for other musicians. Here are images of some of these instruments:

Snyderphonics JD-1 keyboard/sequencer - videos
The JD-1 is a controller for analog synthesizers, and can also outputs MIDI and OSC over ethernet. It is designed to be 4-voice polyphonic, with "psuedo-pressure" information for each key.
Each key has two individually adjustable knobs associated with it, which can be used as values selected by the keys, or as sequencer stages for the built in sequencer functionality.


Snyderphonics Manta - NIME 2011 paper - some videos
The Snyderphonics Manta is a capacitive touch controller that sends data over USB to a computer. The sensors also have decoupled LED feedback in red and amber, which can be controlled from the computer. Each sensor gives an independent "psuedo-pressure" reading from the surface area of the finger touching the sensor.


Birl Controller - videos
The Birl Controller is a wind instrument controller with an acoustic resonator. Buttons are sensed by a microcontroller, and a pressure sensor detects the player's breath. The resonator is actuated with a vibration transducer.


Birl Tone Generator - videos
The Birl Tone Generator is an electromechanical oscillator. One stepper motor drives two passive stepper motors via a belt drive. The passive stepper motors act as generators, creating an AC sine-like waveform on their input leads, which is used as an electrical oscillator. The waveform then passes through a waveshaper, a filter, and a voltage-controlled amplifier before being output as an audio signal. This tone generator was designed to be the voice for the Birl Controller.


Resophonic Manta
The Resophonic Manta is an acoustic resonator for the Manta Controller. It is designed to position two mantas in a comfortable placement for a standing player. It includes a single-channel amplifier and a vibration transducer, which is connected to an aluminum resophonic cone by a maple "bridge". The resophonic cone is coupled to the resonator top plate, which is made from spruce.


Bass Manta
The Bass Manta is another acoustic resonator for the Manta Controller. It holds two mantas in a comfortable position for a standing player. The top cabinet handles the midrange frequencies, while the bottom cabinet is designed for bass response. The internal design is inspired by double bass construction techniques. A driver transducer is connected to the spruce top plate through a maple "bridge", and the top plate is connected to the maple back via a "soundpost".


Treble Contravielle
The Treble Contravielle is designed to be played by a string instrument performer. It has four "trigger" strings, which act as capacitive sensors, and four rows of 14 buttons, which are intended for pitch selection by the left hand. The top plate is spruce, and the design is similar to a flat-top guitar. The additional buttons are for tuning and octave changes.



Tenor Contravielle
The Tenor Contravielle is identical to the Treble Contravielle, but with a much larger body, and therefore different body resonances.



The Anolé is a 12-stringed acoustic instrument that was developed to explore tuning systems and experiment with modular construction techniques. It was a collaboration with visual artist Don Miller in 2002.



Pen Plotter Visual Art:
I have been working on several projects that involve obselete pen plotters over the past few years. These projects range from a live band that uses architectural pen plotters as instruments (The Draftmasters) to recent experiments using an analog chart recorder and an analog modular synthesizer to make drawings. The analog pen plotter drawings were exhibited at Devotion Gallery in NYC throughout November of 2011.

photo credit: Phillip Stearns

Work Statement: The Pen Plot series is a group of drawings that I created using a 1970s analog XY pen plotter, receiving information from an analog modular synthesizer. While the modular synthesizer is normally used for sound production, the signals used for these drawings were at sub-audio frequencies, inaudible to humans. Inaccuracies in the analog synthesizer are joined by inaccuracies in the aging electronics and limited mechanics of the analog plotter, and even further exaggerated by the unstable grip the machine has on the pens I use. The noise in the system produces fragile distortions of the line, an imprecise representation of an imprecise system. This instability gives the drawings an unusual hand-drawn quality. Using this process, I can never know the outcome of the piece beforehand, and I can never recreate a particular piece again.

You can download zip files of high resolution images of the Pen Plot series here - penplots1 penplots2.
You can read an interview with Jeff Snyder about his pen plotter work here.

Circuitboard Visual Art:

This image is part of a series of circuitboard-technology visual art Jeff Snyder has been working on since 2006. The image is etched into a double-sided copper-clad PCB. This project combines high-tech production techniques with the ultra-traditional visual trope of the bucolic landscape.