Engineer and musician Tristan Shone conceives and machines instruments that look more at home in a factory than a rock venue and extrude deep, dark sounds rich with texture and emotion. We chatted with him about engineering versus art, the trials of fabrication, and industrial fetishes.
Goli Mohammadi: You started out as a one-man heavy metal band. Tell us how you transitioned to making your own instruments.
Tristan Shone: I had gotten rid of my previous band and went on my own, so I wrote sequence pieces that were basically for me playing guitar with all the bass and synth sequenced behind me. I would go and play live with that setup with a giant sound system, [but] it seemed like I needed to be more involved with the whole setup, like I needed to be basically in charge. It just felt kind of Milli Vanilli to me.
GM: How did you go from being a mechanical engineer to deciding to go to art school?
TS: I had been working for artists building installations while I was at RPI [Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute]. I met this guy Chris Csikszentmihályi, who is now at the MIT Media Lab. He was the art professor but he was very technically oriented — he knew how to program. He introduced me to microcontrollers, and he knew how to use CNC machines. He was also very interested in music, so I helped him with a couple of installations and traveled with him to a big festival. That kind of opened up this other world that was creative and technical yet kind of wacky, and the people were a little more fun to be around.
GM: When you’re creating an instrument, does the sound dictate the design or vice versa?
TS: The whole time I’ve made music I’ve been interested in this certain type of rhythm and a certain drone-y sound, and I’m always chasing it.
There’s also certain elements of industry that I’ve come across that I really like, like when things snap-fit, or how there’s a certain resistance you have on a wheel in a manual mill. It has a certain resistance that you can’t really fake, so you have to actually make [the instrument] out of those materials. Sometimes I’ll just feel one of these things and think, “That would be a great way to feel the sound and really have that natural force feedback.”
Or something snaps and [I think], “That would be a really good drum sound if you had a lever that you move linearly and it just went chnk chnk.” It’s really simple — it’s not dynamic like a violin, it’s just like I’m moving this thing from there to there — but it’s totally satisfying. I think it’s the combination of the sound coupled with that industrial fetish.
GM: Your instruments require significant force from the performer. Does your experience playing them translate to the audience?
TS: With the older instruments [Drone Machines], you’re really used to sweating. My favorite combination is [moving] the wheel [Rotary Encoder] with the right hand and the Linear Actuator with the left hand. And sometimes you have to stand on the table to really rotate [the wheel] and get it up to the pitch that you need. If it’s spinning at full speed and then I have to stop it, it kind of torques my body to actually stop it. I think people see that and they appreciate it.
GM: What tools do you use to design?
TS: I’ll sit and sketch and eventually come up with a general design in SolidWorks, which is like a look and a feel, and then start getting really detailed, figuring out if it’s affordable, and how much of it can I make myself. And then from SolidWorks on to Mastercam for each part, if I’m gonna do it on a CNC. Some of the parts are on CNC and some are on a water jet.
GM: How do you choose your materials?
TS: There’s a sculptor named Matt Hope, and he and I built some speakers together. He was
a big proponent of stainless steel because it was a material that you don’t have to paint, don’t have to coat, it never rusts, and it’s super strong, and so I bought into that because aluminum bends. But after building some stuff out of steel on the last machines, it’s just not feasible to tour with. You cannot carry stainless steel stuff around.
GM: How heavy are your instruments?
TS: The wheel is like 300 or 400 pounds. The first tour I went on, I went up to Portland, and my friend and I carried that up some stairs, along with all the speakers. When you first start playing, you’re like, “No, I want to show everything.” And as you go on, you’re like, “Actually, I’m gonna start making things out of aluminum.”
The newer devices are basically a reaction to traveling. I wanted to make smaller dynamic things that are within these limits. It’s really nice to have limits like that. It’s like, OK, I have a size restriction, I have a weight restriction. If you don’t have any limits, it takes you forever — you can never make any decisions.
GM: What’s going on in your laptop?
TS: Well, it’s kind of sad, but everything. In my final [thesis] project, in front of all the professors, I kicked out the USB cable and it crashed my computer and I couldn’t perform. I couldn’t restart my computer and it was the most embarrassing thing. It was the first performance I ever did for the faculty. You have all this stuff and people expect it to do something and actually it’s all communicating over the laptop.
They’re essentially MIDI controllers — these things control software synthesizer sounds or samples. So like the Headgear, although I am using my voice through it, I can trigger whatever sample I want. And the wheel, I can record a whistle and control it with the wheel and that totally would work. It’s just a serial command off the Arduino through the MIDI and then to Ableton or Reason or whatever, so without that there’s no sound. I just decided at some point that I like electronic music. I’m not an acoustic person. I like drum and bass, and dub, and this is my world and those are the sounds I want to create.
Read the full interview and hear Author and Punisher: makezine.com/22/tristanshone