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No one learns by memorizing- they learn by doing. – Chuck Stephens

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nepchune3 Nepchunes Noise Circus: Learning with Noise at Maker Faire OrlandoChuck Stephens is an artist, musician, hardware hacker and small boat builder who specializes in the use of recycled, repurposed and salvaged materials. He’ll be exhibiting at Maker Faire Orlando September 13 & 14 as Nepchune’s Noise Circus . Chuck’s a regular on the maker circuit, and always happy to share what he learns, as he did back in May when Nick Normal took a look at the Optical Tremolo FX Box .

I asked him to tell us a bit more about what he does and why he does it, and Chuck gave us some sound bites.

What’s a “Noise Circus”?

The Noise Circus is the result of my experimentation with electronic noise circuits and generative music. My goal is to build machines that use sensors or internal logic to create evolving rhythmic and melodic patterns. I use simple circuits like building blocks to build more complex devices capable of a wide variety of musical possibilities.

This year I’ll have my Lunetta open patch CMOS based sound machine. This device uses very simple logic circuits to create complex rhythmic and melodic patterns by manually rewiring circuits with alligator clip lead wires. Once it’s wired up it can create amazingly complex and evolving sounds- from repeating musical patterns and beats to atmospheric sounds and horror/scifi sound effects. I’ll also have my Medusatron optical sequencer, circuit bent toys, an Arduino based synth and some other fun projects. I’ll have things hooked up so folks can play around and I’ll turn it up and do a few jams throughout the day.

 

Why do you do it?

Noise circuits provided my Eureka! moment in electronics. I had tried repeatedly over the years to ‘learn electronics’. I would periodically pick up a book and decide to get serious, studying for days until I would inevitably arrive at the conclusion that I’d never ‘get it’. I decided that electronics wasn’t for me and went on with my life.

One day I was reading the Make magazine blog and I saw a post by Collin Cunningham about the Atari Punk Console, or stepped tone generator. I watched the demo video and looked at the schematic and parts list. It didn’t seem that hard. After a quick trip to Radio Shack and an hour of carefully connecting everything on a circuit board, I had a circuit with two knobs that made cool sounds when I turned them. I saw all kinds of simple mods for this circuit online so I bought a breadboard and a small variety of components and started playing around and experimenting with that one simple circuit. I found other circuits that used similar components and was soon combining these simple circuits into more complex prototypes. After a few months of this ‘play’ I started to have a basic understanding of what was going on. My knowledge and confidence has grown quite a bit since then and I’m finally able to produce the kinds of circuits and devices that I dreamed of.

I realized that my entire approach to electronics (and learning in general) had been flawed all those years. No one learns by memorizing- they learn by doing. I also realized that we need to find our passion first and our vocation second. No matter how badly I wanted to learn electronics, it wasn’t until I had a goal to apply the knowledge to that I finally began to make progress. Having a goal in mind for my electronics studies also gave me a structure and order to my learning. By focusing on sound and timing circuits, I learned a lot of basic principles without being distracted by information that I had no immediate use for. This allowed me to make quick progress and achieve tangible results right away, reinforcing the desire to learn more. Rinse and repeat, over and over.

Why do we need it?

I think that what I do is pretty representative of the maker experience. I saw something on a blog post, used the internet to expand my understanding, used online communities to address specific questions and shared what I discovered through online forums, videos and instructional content. I think this two way access to the information economy is what defines the maker movement- we learn from and teach each other simultaneously.

By bringing my projects to maker events I not only get to directly network with like minded folks but I also get to show young people what I do and explain how I learned it. Kids tend to assume I went to college to

Chuck showing students the joys of noise at the University of South Florida Engineering Expo

Chuck showing students the joys of noise at the University of South Florida Engineering Expo

learn electronics. It’s important to let them know that knowledge is there for the taking. Education doesn’t need to be a financial concern.

What do you like about Maker Festivals?

Aside from the aforementioned networking and outreach, I also love the social aspect. I tend to spend days at a time sitting at my bench working on my projects. While I share things and interact with other makers through Hack-a-Day, Vimeo and Instructables, It’s a blast to get out and see what folks are doing in real life. From my first event I started meeting amazing people who were doing the kinds of things I wanted to do- in the workshop and the community. Whether it’s Maker Faire, Roboticon, Gulf Coast MakerCon, the St. Pete Science Fest or Bar Camp Tampa Bay, I walk out of these events refreshed and inspired. It’s like a tent revival for geeks!

Anything else you’d like to share?

I’ve been doing some recordings lately. Here are some videos for your viewing enjoyment. All of what you hear is recorded directly from my Lunetta live in one take. The machine makes the music. There was no editing or multi-tracking except for a small part on Confidence is High.

You can get an earful of Nepchune’s Noise Circus at Maker Faire Orlando all weekend long September 13 & 14!

Theresa Willingham

A professional writer by trade, I’m currently co-authoring the book, Makerspaces in Libraries , for the series “Library Technology Essentials” (Rowman and Littlefield, 2015). I am the Regional Director for FIRST STEM education programs in Central Florida, and a creative partner at EurekaFactory.NET , which specializes in the development of creative spaces and programming in public libraries and other institutions.


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