The Amative Organ

Posted by Justin

That organ had better have music coming out of it.

I built a functional and beautiful musical instrument out of recycled, reused, and found stuff. It was sold in an art auction to benefit a couple of really bitchin' charities. Some pretty interesting things happened along the way that I'd like to share with you.

At 10:35am on January 13th I received the following email message from my lovely
friend Courtney Z:

I don’t know how much you’d be into something like this, but
just a thought…



A call to artists and art enthusiasts alike. Want bragging rights with
your dumpster diving friends? Tazo welcomes submissions for its juried “Waste
Not” Recycled Art Competition, Exhibition and Auction to benefit SCRAP
and Disjecta. Entries must consist of at least 75% reused, recycled or found
items. A number of works will be selected by a jury to appear at a lively exhibition,
to be held on Saturday, March 4th. Proceeds from the exhibition’s live
and silent auction of artwork will be split between the individual artists and
the evening’s Portland-based beneficiaries: SCRAP and Disjecta. Additionally,
three cash prizes will be awarded to the top entries. For those not inclined
to create, the exhibition will include entertainment by Wade McCollum (“Batboy,”
“One: The Musical”) and Brothers of the Baladi, as well as beverages
and food by Mother’s Bistro and Mama Mia’s Trattoria. For official
rules, guidelines and more information, please visit or
contact Amy Bourne at (503) 736-9005 x2248. Deadline for entry in the art event
is February 13, 2006.

I thought about it for a couple of hours, poked around the net looking for information about the auction, and made a few quick decisions on what I should do. Noticing that the entry deadline was one month away and the announcement for entries had been made a month prior, I realized I was getting half as much time to make my stuff as many of the other people who would be submitting pieces. This suits me just fine as I am a natural procrastinator that works well with looming deadline. Never mind that most musical things I build take several months to complete when made from readily available parts, I felt confident I could
do it. A couple of hours later I sent this reply:

Fucking awesome. Plans are being drawn up, dumpsters will be scavenged, basements will be pilfered, Soldering irons will be cleaned and readied. I'll let you in on the plan I'm hatching; I'm going to build a cheap theremin and synthesizer out of scavenged parts, mount them into some weird bullshit I find somewhere, and make weird controls for them out of scavenged computer pieces.

I got to work figuring out how to do that. While I got busy tearing all the broken electronic stuff at my house apart I was mulling over the possibility of making some sort of loop based noise thingy to provide an atmospheric kind of background sound for the synthesizer and theremin to play over. Since the possibility of building a synthesizer or theremin with flexability of tone or timbre out of scavenged parts in less than a month was pretty close to zero, I knew I needed a background sound.

I pondered some sort of flash memory computer playback, or maybe a hard disc based sample and playback module, or even a complicated mulitple input multiple output sample and playback module based on some busted old MIDI equipment I've been hording in my basement. While possible, none of those possibilities were very exciting. While relaxing one night listening to a record Daisy gave me, I saw the answer. The mellotron organ. I've always been fascinated with them. I've only seen one in person once. It was mostly disassembled at an instrument repair shop in my old home-town. The repair tech showed me how it works and I was hooked. The mellotron organ has lived in my thoughts ever since. I'm always pleased when I unexpectedly hear one on an album.

The mellotron organ was the first sample and playback synthesizer type instrument (well, really the chamberlin was but that's not important right now) but instead of storing the samples in computerised memory, they were stored on three foot long pieces of recording tape that were run across a playback head when the corresponding key was pressed. I knew I could recreate the same effect with a cheap as hell walkman type cassette player and a home made tape loop. I presumed that cutting tape loops would be a major pain in the ass, so I figured I should do that first. Keeping with the recycled, reused, and found theme I made use of a bag of shitty cassettes I found on the sidewalk near my house a couple of months earlier.

I coated the pulleys with rubber cement in order to make them grippy enough to pull the tape over the playback head and left them to dry overnight.

I found an incredibly hilarious tape in the bag of shitty tapes from the sidewalk. I had never heard of bad sonic kitten but how could they not be rich and/or famous with an album titled "Asses, weed, and washing machines". I
almost felt bad for cutting their tape up, it might have been the only one in existance.

The fold out was incredible. be sure to check out the full size photo in the gallery.

While I had all my pulleys bits hanging up to dry I went over to Lindy's house and watched her brush Barney's teeth. I was with my dog almost every day for twelve years and brushed her teeth a total of 0 times. Barney kinda likes it though.

While they were drying I got busy on my control surface. I had recently tried to get my hands on a bunch of switches discarded from a boat company but the guy that promised them to me sold them to someone else and left me hanging. I was pissed. I decided I would use the function keys from two broken keyboards I had taken home from work.

I then did the math and figured I needed about 23cm of tape to make a 4.5 second loop. This would allow the tape to be loose enough to actually fit in the shell but tight enough to keep tension over the pulleys, capstan, and playback head.

My success rate with the tape loops was pretty bad. It took me about 20 minutes to cut each loop and for every ten I cut I was lucky if one would play. Either the celophane tape joining the recording tape would hang on the playback head or it would not roll through the capstan. I eventually upped my success rate to two of ten by taking an X-acto knife to the rubber wheel at the capstan of the cassette players and shaving them down a little to allow the bulky part of the tape at the joint to pass through.

I took time out from the frustrating work of measuring, cutting, taping, assembling, disassembling, throwing away, and crying over tape loops to make use of a few spare project boards I had handy. I scavenged parts from all the broken junk I had laying around and made a functional eight note synthesizer and a theremin. Both were weak and did not sound very good. I knew at this point that the tape loops were going to be critical if this project would be pleasing to the ears. Jessica tearfully donated the boombox style radio that had accompanied her through her rebellious younger days and I cheerfully took to it with the dremel and a pair of wire cutters. Eventhough I was uncertain as to how I would make it work with all the other parts, the sight of the nail-polish pentagram painted on the front of it put my heart and mind at ease. I spent quite a few nights and early mornings digging through dumpsters looking for broken electronic stuff from which to extract crucial tdbits that would make it all work together. I needed lots of wires, plugs, sockets, and connectors to be sure I had enough bits to make all the major components cooperate.

Finding an enclosure to put all the parts in was going to be a hassle. I considered the obvious like a recycling bin or an old radio but later decided to build my own. My friend clayton is a machinist and fabricator for a company that makes seizmic research equipment. I called him and asked if they had a scrap pile I could dig through. He said they did and I was welcome to have any of the stuff in it. I made my way to their facility, which they share with a company that fabricates huge custom architetural pieces. I dug through the scrap pile while I chatted with a few of the employees. I had picked out a few nice pieces of steel and aluminum I planned on bolting together into an odd shaped enclosure. Not owning a nice drill, key saw, or other power tools apart from a dremel I had to choose pieces that already had holes in them or were thin enough to cut with a rotary tool. I explained to a few of the folks there what I intended to build and they were interested. They asked me what my ideal enclosure would be. I told them "Something box like, about as big as a large tool box, with symmetrical holes cut into the top for speakers and a little window, vents on the side, and a top that screws on with some killer looking industrial hex bolts". As I continued to dig through the pile they spoke in hushed tones amongst themselves. After a few minutes Clayton said "Hey man, we'll take these scrap pieces of 1/4 inch stainless steel and fabricate them to your specifications... on one condition: you have to send us a picture of it when it's done". I was beaming.

I sent them a drawing and an isometric diagram and did not hear from them again for 2 weeks. Clayton called and said "come by after work. We've got about 45 minutes of work left on it and it will be done. Oh, and you owe Pauly a 12 pack because he decided it would look better if we laser cut the top instead of drilling and sawing it... and you owe the guy that operates the break machine a pack of smokes. His got smooshed while he was bending your stuff." I grabbed my camera and headed to their shop.

Four hours later the case was finished and I was dangerously late for a dinner date with a beautiful young lady. the next afternoon I pulled the case out of my car and got down to the serious business of figuring our how to make all the parts work for real. I had rounded up thirteen portable cassette players, modified them all to work off my hand made power distribution system, and destroyed three of them in the process.

I wired all the battery terminals from the cassette players to a pair of high amperage 3 volt power supplies and put a normally open switch in between the two. The cassette players are always in the play position but the motor does not turn until the switch on the top panel of the instrument is pressed. A few angry phone calls to the guy that had promised me the boat switches proved fruitful as he coughed up 20 of them and shipped them from Seattle the next day. A dirty potentiometer (just a fancy word for a knob) was prohibiting me from making use of the mixer section on the boom box power amplifier but my friend Jonathon had given me a bundle of knobs and switches for my birthday a few days prior and one of them was a perfect replacement for the damaged unit.

All this time I was getting very worried as the deadline for entries was only days away I still had not produced a single note of music from the instrument. All it had produced so far was a terrible whining noise and a near fatal shock when I accidently discharge a large capacitor on the case while my bare leg was resting up against it. After an entire day wasted trying to make the tape loops work I threw in the towel. I was unable to come up with a workable solution for cutting my own loops. I had only one option left; I put on my favorite melvins album, turned it up a little too loud, and laid upon my bed with my eyes closed. By the time Spread Eagle Beagle came on I had come up with a solution. Answering machine tapes.

old school answering machine tapes record in a loop. I've seen a few that were thirty seconds long and a few that were three minutes long. I can't think of a single person that uses a real live answering machine these days, much less one that uses cassette tapes. I posted a few messages on some DIY and synth builder use-groups and went to bed. The next day I received a phone call from a guy who told me his company had bought a fire damaged warehouse that had belonged to AT&T and he had recovered tons of thirty second loop answering machine tapes. He said he had gotten my phone message and was calling me back. I had not made any calls to anyone about it so a big thanks to the person out in internet land that called the guy and left my contact info on his voicemail. Awesome. I asked him how much they would cost. having seen a few on E-bay for a couple of dollars each I got a little cheeky and said "how about a penny" and he said "O.K., but you'll have to pay shipping." After talking to the guy I'm convinced his company runs some kind of weird insurance scam or something. I was under the impression I was going to get them for a penny each but I ened up getting a case of 100 for a penny plus six dollars and some change for shipping. So with the tape problem solved. I wired the note triggers of the synthesizer to a set of switches on the left side of the control panel and drilled two holes for the antennae of the theremin the come out the front of the case. I tried several different methods to wire all the electrical bits to the same power supplies but no matter how I did it the theremin would always freak out and make horrible squealing noises... in a bad way.

After spending 14 straight hours crouched on my bedroom floor with soldering iron in hand the day before the entry deadline I finally had a functional instrument. The synthesizer sounded pretty good for being so simple, the cassete players worked, but the theremin had lost a fair amount of sensitivity presumably from the antennae being run from the inside of the case to the outside and back in. In order for the theremin to be triggered the person playing the instrument almost has to touch it. If placed upon a table or other raised surface, the player of the instrument would appear to be grinding his or her... uhm... bathing suit area against the case. This gave rise to the instrument being called the amative organ.

I cut the magnifying lense from my broken desk lamp to provide the magnifier for the window in the case. After a bit of polishing it was ready for a few photos.

I submitted these photos along with one showing the instrument's guts spilling out for acceptance into the auction. I took the time to photograph, but not clean up, the mess that had accumulated after weeks of hurried assembly.

After a few days rest I got to work making the loops for the answering machine tapes. The answering machine tapes play a thirty second loop with a 1 second gap. This gap is from the metal foil on the tape that would let the answering machine know the loop was complete. This gap posed a bit of problem as I attempted to make some loops thirty seconds long, some fifteen seconds long, a few ten seconds long, one six seconds, others five seconds, and one two seconds. Most of the shorter samples really sounded like shit when, after thirty seconds of a killer six second loop you encountered a one second gap. I ended up using only samples fifteen seconds and longer. It was a little less abrasive to one's mental rhythm that way.

The day after I finished all the tape loops I received an E-mail saying my piece had been accepted into the auction. I was to drop it off at the Tazo Tea warehouse. I quickly screwed the top onto the instrument and ran a few final tests to ensure it was fully functional before I dropped it off. There were some glitches as a few of the cassette players refused to cooperate but a quick bit of coaxing with a razorblade and soldering iron whipped them into shape.

I was greeted at the door of the Tazo Tea Warehouse by a huge security guard guy who was very suspicious of my big metal box. I informed him that it was not a bomb, it was a musical instrument but, given the fact that it was made out of poorly wired together high-voltage garbage, there existed a slight chance of it exploding and killing him. I took a quick peek at some of the other pieces that had been dropped off that day and felt a surge of confidence in the quality and originality of my piece and a bit of sadness that I would not be able to see the other pieces presented at the auction. As I drove away I realized I had neglected to include any instructions telling how to play it. I consoled myself with the thought that the attendees of the auction would be fairly artsy and creative folks, they could figure it out for themselves. As I was going to be in Arizona for a disc golf tournament the weekend of the auction I would not be there to hold their hands.

Auction weekend came and I flew to Arizona. Before I left I gave my tickets to the event to my friend and coworker Jessica. Given that the tickets were $25 each I made her promise to earn them by taking lots of pictures. She did that and so much more.

Not only did Jessica take a ton of pictures (you can check out the full set in the gallery) she figured out how to play it and spent time showing others how it worked. During the auction some artists were called forward to speak about their pieces and, as I was not in attendance, Jessica spoke for me. She told where the parts came from, how they worked together, the story of the construction, etc. When asked if she had helped in the creation of the piece she said "Nope, I just sit next to him for eight hours a day. It was pretty much all he talked about for the entire month of February". At the end of the night my piece had been bid upon and sold. I later learned it was the founder of Tazo Tea that bought it. Pretty awesome.

In the end I learned some very important things:

1. Portable cassette players will turn very quickly in the wrong direction and eat your tape if you happen to accidentally reverse the polarity of their power supply

2. You will get the living shit shocked out you if you accidentally discharge a large capacitor on the steel case while you have your bare leg rested against it

3. You will be very late to dinner with a beautiful woman if you believe the metal fabricator's lies about the finishing touches on the case taking 45 minutes

4. You will listen to the first six D.R.I. albums repeatedly while you scramble to get it constructed before the deadline, leading to a tendency to quote thrash-metal lyrics to your friends and co-workers

5. You will feel like your legs have died and gone to hell as you spend the first sunny Saturday in four months crouched on your bed room floor for fourteen straight hours with a soldering iron in your hand trying to figure out where that damn squealing noise is coming from

8.. You will have interesting conversations with business owners that start with them asking "What the hell are you doing in my dumpster?"

9. You will get tired of repeatedly explaining what you are doing in the dumpster.

10. You will learn, after several hours of weird shrieking noises piercing your eardrums, that you can not have a theremin and 10 cassette players running from the same power supply as the static build up in the lines will cause the theremin to completely freak out.

11.. Your hands will look like a nazi science experiment from all the soldering iron burns, wire stripper pinches, capacitor discharges, wire stabs, and plier fumbles.

12. You bedroom floor will look like Afghanistan

13. A beautiful woman will set foot in your bedroom and say "uhm... maybe we could stay at my house." You will say "Why" and she will say "I can't remember the last time I had a tetanus shot." You will look at the miles of bombed out electronic garbage, stripped out wire, and random tools and say "Let me get my toothbrush."

14. You will constantly find pieces of recording tape stuck to your clothes, golf bag, dinner, etc from your 20 hours wasted trying to cut your own tape loops using cassette tapes.

15. You will realize you are a complete dumbass for trying to cut your own tape loops when you can only get 8 seconds on each loop while old answering machine tapes play a 30 second loop.

16. You will quickly become the world's leading authority on tape loops

17. You will post messages on internet bulletin boards stating your need for certain obscure electronic parts and be bombarded with e-mails from creepy dudes stating that they do not have the parts you need but if you would like to get together for a few drinks and see what happens then they are totally down for it.

18. You will realize that you are better off raiding the dumpster behind the goodwill every morning on your way to work as you only tend to meet two or three creepy guys who want to "hang out and see what happens"

19. Women will be offended when you tell them "I desperately need to get my organ wrapped up, so how about letting me dig around in your basement?"

20. Johnathon will be your hero when he shows up at your birthday party, not knowing you need parts for your organ, and gives you a bundle of knobs and switches just because he knows you're an electronics geek.

21. You will be lost and heartbroken when you realize all the work is done and you have to go back to being a normal person.

Huge thanks to the following people: Courtney Z for letting me know about it. Clayton, Pauly, The Break Guy, and the rest of the crew at Advanced Seizmic Hardware for the fabrication assistance. Jessica Duvall for being my spokesmodel. Amy Bourne at Tazo for being the best E-mail Pen-pal ever. Tazo, SCRAP, and Disjecta for providing me with an opportunity to help a good cause. And all my friends who said "oh man, I saw a smashed up radio in my neighbor's garbage can this morning. It might still be there."

You can see all the pictures from the construction, the auction, and the action in the gallery.

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Posted by Cory | September 28, 2007 | 16:55:58

Hey nice job man! Do you have any sound samples?


Posted by Justin | September 28, 2007 | 17:54:00

I do. the organ and theremin portions did not get completed until just before the dead entry deadline, but I did save the samples loaded onto the tapes. I used those as the soundtrack for a little movie documenting the construction process. you can watch it here:


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