Magnetotron Featured on MAKE and Hackaday

So the folks at MAKE did an awesome profile of me and my Magnetotron, plus I just found out that Hackaday featured it as well. Very excited here in NYC.

BTW, if anyone's interested in the Magnetotron, I'm accepting offers for its sale. Email me - colombo.michael [at]

Magnetotron World Debut

I performed with the Magnetotron, my cassette tape-based instrument, at the ITP NIME show at Cameo Gallery in Brooklyn on 12/11. Accompanying me on bass is Kevin Bleich, and Justin Storer on drums.

It was a great time - special thanks to my fellow musicians and the videographers Alex Kozovski, Roopa Vasudevan, and Rose Schlossberg.

Spines of Theses' Past

Spines of Theses' Past

Over the summer I worked at ITP, and one of the jobs I had was to help in scanning every single thesis in ITP's archive from the past thirty years.

Papers had to be taken out of folders, binders, and bindings.

Unfortunately some of the theses were professionally bound, which would have meant scanning each page individually rather than running them through the automatic tray.

I found a solution to this by cutting off the spines of every thesis on the bandsaw. I amassed quite the collection of spines so turned them into an art piece.

My Blue Sculpture

To those paying attention, I took a mixed media sculpture course in the fine arts department at NYU. It was a lovely time that got me out of my comfort zone. As a musician-turned-builder I never thought of design as a crucial component in my work. Since taking that class I've learned all about presentation and context that now informs my work.

Anyway, here a couple of pics from that course. The assignment was "something blue" so I raided my junk box for all that seemed to fit, then pieced it all together. I hope you enjoy.

blue sculpture

blue sculpture

Presenting the Magnetotron

As many of you know, I'm a big fan of old media, especially audio cassette tapes. This will be the realization of an idea I've had for a while, which is to make a musical instrument using tape. A rotating cylinder containing strips of tape with different tones on them will be played by tape heads attached to my fingers. Check out my NIME proposal on Prezi and this nifty hand-drawn pic of the concept.
magnetotron sketch

Eight Games of Tetris at the Same Time

OctoTetrimino by PushTheOtherButton
A generative piece consisting of eight 2:00 games of Battle Tetris that are perfectly synched. The general strategy of the player dictates the rising and falling action of the piece.

Variable DC Power Supply

I completed this project for Eric Rosenthal's Basic Analog Circuits class. It was an exercise in point-to-point soldering, but after completion I decided to build an enclosure for it with a voltmeter I bought from Adafruit Industries.

You can also see a complete post and tutorial on my blog post at MAKE: Magazine

Retro-Reflective Flashlight Tag Variant

Flashlight Tag Timelapse
This is a variant of flashlight tag that I originally developed with Eszter Ozsvald for the Big Games class at ITP. It stemmed from the frustration of trying to play flashlight tag as a kid. There was no way to reliably verify that someone had been tagged. This changes that.
Flashlight Tag Armbands
We used iron-on retroreflective material to create velcro letters that stick to the players' arm bands. Each player picks out letters to spell a word and put it on his/her arm and then run off into the darkness before the game starts. Once the game starts, the object is to shine your flashlight on your opponent's word. If you can spot it and yell out their word, then they're out!
Explaining Flashlight Tag to Campers
I play-tested the game this past August with around 20 campers at Frost Valley YMCA in the Catskills. Not only did they enjoy playing it, but we even collectively came up with some interesting and successful game variants. I'm planning on presenting the game to the Northeast YMCA Directors' Conference in January (also being held at Frost Valley).

Broke the Water Cooler, Fixed the Water Cooler

In my zeal to hydrate, I pulled a bit too hard on the school's water cooler spigot, and broke the durn thing off. But within minutes, I had it working again, though with quite the kludged together solution. They should have it fixed by wednesday. Until then, I left instructions on how to use this new contraption.


Modular Scrap Metal Percussion Instrument

The first assignment for my class "New Interfaces in Musical Expression" was to build an instrument in one week and perform a one-minute performance using it in class.

I based the instrument on a solid steel piece of aircraft surplus I picked up at the Pratt and Whitney Surplus Store. This piece made an appearance in another work of mine, the Fruit Powered Sound Generator. What can I say, its become a favorite.
Modular Scrap Metal Percussion Instrument
The piece has two rows of machined screw holes. I taped a contact mic to it and just started screwing in parts from my scrap metal bin. After some experimentation, I found that I was able to get a few tonal sounds, and some interesting percussive sounds from the instrument. I hooked the whole thing through a distortion to give it a bit more industrial grit, then a delay pedal set to a long delay time. It was fun to do, and could be interesting in the future because I could swap out parts depending on the type of sound I want.

Flexible Venn Diagram Crowdsources Comparative Relationships

Flexible Venn Diagram
Flexible Venn Diagram
Flexible Venn Diagram

This was a quick project, borne out of a piece of scrap MDF left over from someone's laser cutter project. The circles were joined just so to make a venn diagram, and sized perfectly for post-it notes. The idea came as soon as I picked the piece up. As you can see, over the three weeks it remained up on the ITP floor it was used quite a bit, often with quite hilarious results.

Lamp Painted Honda Glacier Blue

Lamp Painted to Match my Honda
Since my wife and I moved back to New York City after a two year stint in upstate New York, we quickly found it difficult and impractical to hang on to our 2008 Honda CRV with the Glacier Blue finish.

The car, which brought us on an epic cross-country trip in 2009 (during which I proposed to her in Albuquerque) was recently sold. But I plum forgot to give the buyer my touch-up paint kit.

During an aimless drive through Putnam County once, I salvaged an interesting looking lamp with a dated color scheme - natural wood and brass. I just got around to revamping it with the chrome and glacier blue theme of the Honda. It's fitting that it should bear the colors of the vehicle with which it was discovered. I'm quite pleased.

How To Build a Loft Bed

When my wife and I moved back to NYC last year, our new apartment was still packed to the gills despite some significant downsizing. Since we moved into a turn-of-the-century brownstone in Brooklyn with high ceilings, a loft bed with plenty of storage space seemed ideal. After our wedding, we promised to treat ourselves to a brand new queen-sized tempurpedic mattress.

The hunt was on, but after some local inquiries, we discovered that major furniture stores simply don't carry queen-sized loft beds. They can be special-ordered, but only at great expense. The more I looked at pictures online of loft beds, the more confident I was that I could design and build one myself. Soon I found myself designing what would become the largest and heaviest object I had ever built (and one that had to be sturdy enough to hold two adults and three cats for several hours at a time).

I erred on the safe side, and overbuilt the heck out of it. I planned on using 2x6's and 2x4s for the framing, and plywood for the mattress platform, and put together with bolts, nuts, and washers.

My father and grandfather both spent time as draftsmen at some point in their careers, so I suddenly found myself with a board set up with graph paper, meticulously laying the bed out to scale in three dimensions.

The construction itself took a lot more time and effort than I anticipated (this is always the case), especially hoisting the heavy bedframe up onto its 5.5 foot tall legs.
2011-07-02 21.51.25

In the end it worked out wonderfully - sturdy, clean, with about 160 cubic feet of storage space!
2011-07-02 21.51.02

This past month we moved yet again, so I broke the bed down into pieces the movers could handle. Since our new place has lower ceilings, and we've downsized even more in the past year, I chopped the legs down to a more reasonable height. It still has plenty of space underneath, but climbing into bed isn't as much of an ordeal.

Enjoy this stop motion video I took of the bed's reconstruction. It was hot as the dickens while I was doing it, and I was a bit reticent about putting a video up of me in shorts and an undershirt. But then I read this article about ITP students vs. MIT Media Lab students and figured f*ck it. Enjoy!

The song accompanying the video above is called "Green Thumb" written by the lovely Ann Courtney (now frontwoman of the band Mother Feather). I helped arrange and engineer this tune in 2005.

I Circuit Bent the Hangout Feature In Google+

I'm definitely a big fan of Google+ so far, and yesterday a group of friends and I decided to use it's "Hangout" video chat feature. We thought it would be fun to keep adding more users to find the breaking point.

I think it was after getting 9 people simultaneously video-chatting that the app froze on my Macbook. I refreshed it, and this is what I saw and heard - a tableau of blank faces with soundtrack that sounded like R2D2 with a head cold. I did not know software could be circuit bent, or unintentionally datamoshed. I recorded the sound with my cell phone and did a screen shot of the page, so this fairly accurately recreates what was going on. Enjoy!

Vintage Macintosh Mouse Case Mod

Vintage Macintosh Mouse Case Mod
When I was a kid I had one of the first Macintosh computers (you remember, the ones that looked like big cinder blocks.) To this day I love the classic styling of the original mac mouse. I happened to still have one, and recently modded it to accept USB compatible optical components while being virtually indistinguishable from its original design. I'm happy to say it works perfectly, and now I'm the envy of all my local geeks and hipsters.
Vintage Macintosh Mouse Case Mod
Vintage Macintosh Mouse Case Mod
The first attempt at the mod was with this microsoft optical mouse. I had it on hand, and it looked like I could hack it to make it fit. Though in order to do this, I had to saw off the front part of the MS PC Board that contained the buttons and scroll wheel.
Vintage Macintosh Mouse Case Mod
Vintage Macintosh Mouse Case Mod
This didn't seem to be a problem at first, because there were no other essential components in the part I was planning on cutting off. Also, I would only be needing one button since I wasn't interested in modifying the external functionality of the mouse (some people have tried this with IMHO hideous results).
I tested the IC with some wire probes, and found which pins controlled the left-click. My plan was to break these out and fabricate a new mount for the button. This would've been fairly labor-intensive, not to mention that because of space constraints, it would put the button smack on top of the IC.
Vintage Macintosh Mouse Case Mod
I fiddled around with the configuration and tried drawing up a jig to make it work, but decided to scrap the idea and shelved the project for a while.
Vintage Macintosh Mouse Case Mod
When I decided to come back to it, I tossed the Microsoft mouse and went for a Macintosh ProMouse instead. When I opened it up I could tell right away it was going to be easier. The PCB fit into the vintage mouse with just some minimal trimming, and the click button was mounted smack in the middle. It was even the same make and similar type switch as the old mouse. You could tell these two mice were part of the same lineage. It was actually a bit eerie.
Vintage Macintosh Mouse Case Mod
Vintage Macintosh Mouse Case Mod
Vintage Macintosh Mouse Case Mod
I traced out the footprint of the ProMouse and cut the silhouette out of the vintage mouse with a dremel. I popped it into the spot with epoxy, waited for it to dry, then sanded the whole bottom flush.
Vintage Macintosh Mouse Case Mod
Through trial and error, I mocked up a button assembly that would mate well with the switch on the ProMouse's PCB. Once I found a hot-glue prototype I was happy with, I took it apart and reglued with JB Weld.
Vintage Macintosh Mouse Case Mod
The last step was splicing open the rubber piece the cord fits into. Once done, I hot glued the new USB cord in place.

Building a Telepresence Rig at ITP

For the next two months I'll be working at NYU's ITP as shop and equipment room staff. It's a great gig because I can be within my grad school community, and even get some of my own work done when there's not much going on.

But sometimes I'm asked to do an odd project, and the other day I was given a fun task - rig up a telepresence station in an afternoon. We had the camera already to go, so this was a pure construction job.

Full-time staff member Marlon and I slapped together a bunch of speed rail onto a chair, and secured it from beneath by sandwiching some flat plates together.

All in all it was a quick but satisfying build. The 360 degree, remote controlled camera floated at head height in the chair, and the addition of a Domo head made it seem like it was just another day at the office for Bob.

Afternoon Project: Telepresence System

Afternoon Project: Telepresence System

Scrapwood Box, String, and Text: "Provenance"

A couple of months I covered the construction of a scrapwood box I've been using to keep materials in. The hacked together look made it an oddity amongst my other functional furniture pieces I've made before.

It occurred to me to turn it into a piece of artwork because I've been investigating this connection between the inherent intrigue in an apparatus that's idiosyncratically constructed for something purely functional or whimsical. Exposing the parts, accentuating ugliness, has been something I've been pushing more and more in my work.

To go even a step further with this, I catalogued the story of every single piece of wood I used in the box. It turns out they fell into groupings because they were scrap pieces from several different projects I've worked on. I mapped all of the pieces into short descriptions on paper by tacking strings from each piece to it's corresponding story. Thus when looking at the piece, one can learn the provenance of each component that went into it.

The Best Way to Store Rolls of Tape

Whether it's Duct, Gaff, Packing, Electrical, Masking, Painter's, or any other tape roll under the sun, the easiest way to keep them is on a loop of rope with a clasp or carabiner on one end.

The best way to store rolls of tape

Just like using the right tool for the job, using the right tape is also essential. There are folks who are in the cult of duct tape, but frankly, it's comparatively expensive and in many cases there's a tape that can do a better job. Keep them all together in the way I've shown, and get familiar with which one is right for the job.

I learned this little trick when I worked briefly in film production. I didn't see it being used anywhere outside that field, until I met my classmate Luis Violante. I asked him where he learned to do that and he said "oh...when I worked in production." Go figure.

"Fruit Powered" Sound Sculpture

This was constructed from an obscure piece of aeronautical hardware I procured at the Pratt and Whitney Surplus Store in Hartford CT. I snaked stainless steel wire from it to act as resonators. Then at key points I installed piezo transducers. At the center the stainless steel wires stab into a banana and a pear. The whole works sits atop a speaker that the transducers constantly feed back.

Standing waves appear on the floor surrounding the piece and viewers' position and footsteps alter the resulting drone.

Welding for the First Time

This semester I've had the privilege of studying sculpture in a studio setting with Beverly Semmes and her students at NYU's Barney Building. A perk of being in the class has been gaining access to the school's wood and metal shop.

Today I met Gustavo Velasquez, a sculptor and professor at the Steinhardt School. He taught me the ins and outs of the shop, as well as how to use all the equipment safely. He seemed relieved when I told him I had experience in building and fabrication - he just needed to fill in some gaps.

Luckily, the bulk of my time with him was spent in learning how to MIG weld - something I've never done before. From what I learned, timing is everything in this craft. Make a zig zag bead at just the right pace, and you've got yourself a good weld. Varying the rate at which the welding rod comes out makes a big difference.

One of the strangest things to get used to was that moment between flipping the welding hood down and actually beginning to weld. Until that bright tip glowed, I was essentially blind. Like Luke Skywalker, I had to "use the force" and trust I was hitting the right spot, making sure to line it up properly beforehand.

He set me up to get some practice in, and I must say that while my welds were still sloppy, they held up well. It's only a matter of time and practice before I really get the hang of it. Here's the first piece I did:
My first Welding Project

Making Candles from Scrap Wax

Some of you may remember how my wife Melody and I had to scrape through 4 days without electricity last winter when we lived in our cottage.

Of course we busted out every last candle in the house and used up nearly all of them too! As you know, sometimes candles come in a nice little all-encompassing jar that catches and burns nearly all the wax. Then there are others that don't have receptacles, and can end up making an unholy mess, terminating their lives as frozen, gelatinous blobs that get tossed in the trash.

I've hung on to all that leftover wax and recently melted it all down to make a new candle with it!

Here's the scrap wax I started with.
Making a Candle from Scrap Wax

Then I put it all in a standard aluminum can and set it on the stove to melt.
Making a Candle from Scrap Wax

I hung a piece of cotton string in the liquid wax.
Making a Candle from Scrap Wax

When it had solidified (this takes several hours) I cut the can open with a hacksaw.
Making a Candle from Scrap Wax

Now I have a beautiful, fragrant, candle!
Making a Candle from Scrap Wax

The Bounce Announce Automated Musical Instrument

This project completed as my final project for both Physical Computing and Introduction to Computational Media at ITP.

Briefly, ping pong balls roll down 4 individual tracks, and are launched at the bottom by solenoids. The solenoids are triggered rhythmically by an Arduino.

The ping pong balls bounce sequentially onto carefully placed musical instruments. On the instruments are several piezo-electric transducers that send serial data to Processing, which responds with a visualization scheme projected from above.

Here's a video documentation of the project. Enjoy!

Organizing Resistors

If you ever want to test your brain's limits on color discrimination, try sorting a few hundred resistors. Was that a blue stripe or a black stripe? Was that a brown stripe or an orange stripe?

While this process was completely maddening at times, it's great to have all my resistors organized. I separated them into these cups, and then put them into tiny baggies, labelled with Sharpies.

Now my components cabinet has two resistor drawers: 1 Ohm through 1k Ohm, and 1.1k Ohm through 1 Mega Ohm.


Organizing My Resistors
Organizing My Resistors

Hacking Together a Scrapwood Box

I just can't stand to throw my scrapwood in the trash. Unfortunately, it tends to pile up after a while, and I'm forced to think of new ways to use it. As you may know, in the past I made scrapwood shelves that seemed to be a success, so this time I tried my hand at making a scrapwood box for holding some of my materials.

I had been using a cardboard box that was slowly disintegrating, so this was definitely a step up. Like scrapwood projects I've done before, I set myself some ground rules. I used all pieces of wood as I found them in my scrap bucket, no additional cuts were allowed, and the only fasteners I used were screws and nails.

It's great to not only have created something new, sturdy, and unique, but due to the scrapwood's involvement in prior projects, the box itself becomes a chronology of my own work. I can point to the black bottom and remember that it used to be part of my workbench, then became a TV stand, and finally was dismantled, with the tabletop becoming my drafting board.

Other pieces have stories too, and I'm reminded of them whenever I dig around in this box now.

Enjoy this time-lapse video of the build. The backing track is "A Scene Unseen" by Kinetic.

Apparatus As Art

While at NYU's ITP program, I'm given the opportunity to take classes outside my own program.

Given my recent penchant for construction and assemblage, I decided to enroll in a sculpture studio course at NYU's Steinhardt School.

Being in the mix with fine arts students has resulted in some interesting results and revelations.

For a recent assignment, I made a sculpture with a kinetic element, and asked the class to ignore the apparatus controlling the "artwork", as this was intended to be concealed in a final iteration.

During the crit the apparatus was all they could think about.

I'll reserve that day's piece for another blog post, but will show you the apparatus from it alongside two similar constructions from other projects. These were never intended to be artworks, but it seems that my most successful "art" comes when it is unintended as such.
Apparatus as Art

Hardware Hacking for Zevs' "Hip to be Square"

Recently I completed a hardware hacking gig for the French street artist Zevs. He wanted to take an old school Sony Dream Machine clock radio and enable it to play "Hip to be Square" by Huey Lewis and the News at a greatly reduced speed. The piece premiered along with several other works last night at Gallery De Buck in New York City, as part of Zevs' "Liquidated Version" exhibition (running through April 7th).

I was excited to work on this project because it combined my skills as a musician, hardware hacking, fabrication, and electronics.

The piece needed to look exactly like a standard Sony Clock Radio, except for two small buttons in the back to control an mp3 player and FM transmitter. The big challenge was to neatly fit all the hardware into the enclosure and make the design robust enough that the piece could withstand travel and continuous use both in the gallery and by a potential buyer.

I considered saving space by using discrete electronics and circuit boards, but decided to forego this in favor of off-the-shelf components. I did this because I was working on a deadline, and was more confident in the fabrication skills it would take to make space in the enclosure than my electronics expertise.

It turns out the space was much tighter than I thought, so I had to remove a considerable amount of material with the Dremel. There was a lot of plastic in the trash by the end of this, and part of this process left a circuit board floating with no support, so I had to fabricate a new one and glue it to a sidewall.
Hardware Hacking for Zevs' "Hip to Be Square"

With this done I set about fitting in the components. I took the buttons from a similar clock and mounted them to the on/off switches of the mp3 player and FM transmitter, then drilled out holes for the buttons and LED indicators on the back plate of the clock.
Hardware Hacking for Zevs' "Hip to Be Square"
Hardware Hacking for Zevs' "Hip to Be Square"
Hardware Hacking for Zevs' "Hip to Be Square"

After mocking up and testing the electronics, with separate transformers for the clock, mp3 player, and FM transmitter, I carefully epoxied all the pieces in with JB Weld.
Hardware Hacking for Zevs' "Hip to be Square"
Hardware Hacking for Zevs' "Hip to Be Square"

To make everything fit, I had to do a lot of chores like making a custom USB cable to power the mp3 player, and hardwiring the power cord to the circuit board on the FM transmitter.
Hardware Hacking for Zevs' "Hip to Be Square"

I'm proud to say the artist was pleased with the results, and he called the piece the "cornerstone" of the exhibition.

More shots from the exhibition:
Zevs' Exhibition Opening at Gallery De Buck
Zevs' Exhibition Opening at Gallery De Buck
Zevs' Exhibition Opening at Gallery De Buck