Phone Cello Experiment

For a while I have dreamed to be able to play the cello. What a beautiful instrument. I searched for classes, but ended up not taking them because I didn’t have the money, time, and energy for it. I wanted to focus fully on performing, singing and composition. But this wish, and my love for the timbre of the cello didn’t go away. What if I could quickly build an intuitive instrument for myself, so that I could be able to express myself with something that comes close to a cello?

First I was thinking in the direction of sensors and Arduino. I wanted to create something that turns data of movement into musical data, because to me, that seemed like an intuitive way to play an instrument. I began searching for other projects that do something similar, and I found an article about a wireless musical instrument: Motus allows players to bow an invisible violin.  And I got really inspired by it.

The Motus wireless instrument during a dance performance

I started off to experiment with the accelerometer. It was quickest to just install an osc app on my phone and send the accelerometer data to Max 7 to see what I can do with it. I figured that using data from only the accelerometer made it quite hard to get a grip on the notes you play. But I also quickly noticed that the phone in itself has a big advantage: it has a screen on which you can stroke you fingers. And a cello is also stroked with a bow.

So I tried to make the usage of the phone instrument as close as possible to the real cello instrument: every time you stroke, you play a note, and the speed of the stroke determines the loudness of the note played. The x-axis of the accelerometer (moving the phone horizontally from left to right) determines the note values in a logical cello range. I let Max send all this data to Ableton so that Ableton can play the midi notes with a nice sounding (external) cello VST. In Ableton I can also easily choose in which musical scale the midi notes should be played. So this instrument is easily ‘portable’ to many musical pieces in different scales.

When I got everything working for the first time, I started playing the instrument. For a very long time. Because it felt great. I was walking through my studio, playing my phone cello, and totally immersed in the music. Suddenly I was able to play a cello! (or something that comes quite close to it) It would be great to use this for a performance…

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