Vibratron: The Vibraphone That Plays Itself

An ensemble of self-played musical instruments may sound like ghost movie fodder, but in reality it’s a project currently being developed at the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Club under the name of RobOrchestra. Its newest star is a robotic vibraphone called Vibratron. (Did I say ghost movie? I meant Transformers.)

Vibratron 1

The team behind RobOrchestra consists of students from various fields including Music Composition, Materials Science and Computer Engineering. They’ve already created instruments such as Xylobot, Flutophone and Snarebot. Vibratron is their latest undertaking. Even though it’s still only a prototype and its outer structure remains very much unfinished, it looks quite impressive. It was made with a vibraphone donated by a former club member and a $1000 grant.

Vibraphones are percussion instruments that resemble xylophones, except instead of wooden bars they have aluminum keys that produce a tremolo sound. In Vibratron, the 30 vibraphone keys are arranged in a circle for a more aesthetically-pleasing effect, and they make music when steel ball bearings are dropped onto them.

Vibratron 2

Solenoids (coils in the shape of a helix) are used as gates which retain and discharge the bearing balls from a queue. An Archimedes Screw collects them once a note has been played. When they’re in the upper hopper of this screw, a paintball-like system spreads them again into 30 individual tubes which lead to each of the 30 solenoid gates. They’re then re-used to play another note and so on and so forth, as many times as needed to play an entire song.

These mechanisms are commanded by an Anduino Mega, a microcontroller board equipped with a MIDI shield that enables it to pick up MIDI signals from a keyboard, a sequencer or any other kind of controller. The board transforms the MIDI signals into notes and sends corresponding digital signals to printed circuit boards present in the solenoid gates.

You can see Vibratron in action in the vid above. It doesn’t sound nearly as amazing as its complex appearance and inner workings would lead to suggest. Still, seeing as it’s a prototype and the team themselves have clarified they have a ways to go until its perfected, I’ll remain entirely hopeful.

For more musically-inclined robots check out 17 Robots with Rhythm: Singing and Dancing Robots and Robot Music: The Trons are a Fully Assembled Robot Band.

Via I Heart Robotics.