Make:cast – Making New Music With Helen Leigh

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Make:cast – Making New Music With Helen Leigh

“All instruments are inventions and all music is made up — so make your own using microcontrollers,” writes Helen Leigh in Volume 76 of Make Magazine, encouraging people to create and invent musical instruments, as she has.

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Helen Leigh in her Portland OR workshop

In this conversation with Helen Leigh, we learn about her upbringing in Wales, how she first learned about electronics at a makerspace in London, why she objects to call herself “self-taught” and her new lab in Portland Oregon. She came from a family that consumed lots of music and her early musical experiences were singing choral music in church in Wales. Her work today still bears the influences of sounds of the high church of her childhood. We talk about why harpsichords went of out fashion and how electronic music got started with pioneers such as Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire.

We talk about technology from reel-to-reel tape recorders to synthesizers and to making electronic music with Makey-Makey and the Bela board. Helen is an advocate for people learning how to make their own instruments, to experiment with music and be makers of your own kind of music.

Helen with Jello Bongos



Basically I walked into this makerspace (FabLab London) and there was tools going and laser cutters and 3d printers and people just hanging out and making things. And I just felt, I don’t know, I just felt like I had come home. It was very exciting to me. And I’ve never left makerspaces and hacker spaces since. It was a pretty happy he accident that I came to making. It was just through being hired to write on the maker project that I just fell in love with it.


I’m talking to you here from my little office here in Portland, Oregon. I’ve just immigrated here a couple of months ago. So I’ve been resetting up my workbench with my tools and so on. I came here from Berlin, which is where I was for two and a half years. Amazing hacker culture in Berlin, by the way, everybody should go visit that city. But of course, like none of my power tools will work coming over from the electricity is not the same. I’ve had to re resupply my workbench. Having the tools for me has given the sense of possibility — you see these things. I’ve always been somebody who creates things based on the materials that I have around me.


I spent a lot of time singing actually. I was in both the school choir and the choir for the church of Wales as well. And it wasn’t like I was religious, but it was a way to get paid for singing. And I was there in a full floor-length cassock, a burgundy cassock. I had the white rough around my neck, singing angelically.


Like any kind of technology that becomes popular enough to to make it into maybe not mainstream, but at least, they are accessible to people who would be interested in it. You’re going to get people who start to play around with things. And this new audio tape technology found its way into the hands of some people who just wanted to mess around with it. There was a group of people in France who were the musique concrète people. Basically there’s new technology available to people and they started messing around with it and started creating new techniques, new sounds, and new ways of making music.


I use lots and lots of different boards to make music with. And sometimes I don’t use boards at all. Shocking, I know. But the MakeyMakey is probably my go-to introductory board. Particularly for people with families, it’s just such a nice way to make like music and and you can actually create all sorts of fun things using it and it’s pretty simple to do. You don’t have to use any code or anything. And I would say, like the other end, that non entry level and the slightly more advanced, it would be the the Bela (board). So the Bela is what my go-to is for complex embedded and instrument design. It’s over a hundred dollars. So it’s not it’s not like a beginner board. But it’s like a single-board computer based on a BeagleBoard. I’m happy to say a cape for the BeagleBoard right there. It’s got some fancy analog to digital converters and analog and lots of digital IO as well.


The students (in a music class Helen taught) all had a choice of whether to create a digital plug-in for me, or create a physical instrument. Interestingly, most of them chose to do the physical instrument. I think that’s partially because it’s novel. And people like to hold something in their hands. It’s just fun to explore. It is human. It is exciting and fun and new.

Actually, I think, we are in a golden age of being able to experiment with technology and I think it’s just getting more accessible. I really want to see maker techniques and new tools and new materials being used to encourage a world where more people can invent their own instruments.

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DALE DOUGHERTY is the leading advocate of the Maker Movement. He founded Make: Magazine 2005, which first used the term “makers” to describe people who enjoyed “hands-on” work and play. He started Maker Faire in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2006, and this event has spread to nearly 200 locations in 40 countries, with over 1.5M attendees annually. He is President of Make:Community, which produces Make: and Maker Faire.

In 2011 Dougherty was honored at the White House as a “Champion of Change” through an initiative that honors Americans who are “doing extraordinary things in their communities to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.” At the 2014 White House Maker Faire he was introduced by President Obama as an American innovator making significant contributions to the fields of education and business. He believes that the Maker Movement has the potential to transform the educational experience of students and introduce them to the practice of innovation through play and tinkering.

Dougherty is the author of “Free to Make: How the Maker Movement Is Changing our Jobs, Schools and Minds” with Adriane Conrad. He is co-author of "Maker City: A Practical Guide for Reinventing American Cities" with Peter Hirshberg and Marcia Kadanoff.

View more articles by Dale Dougherty
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