“Abacuysnth is a synthesizer inspired by an abacus, the ancient counting tool used all around the world. Just like an abacus is used to learn the fundamentals of math, the Abacusynth can be used to explore the building blocks of audio synthesis.
For more on the process, check out my posts on the fabrication, spinners, electronics, and code.
And you can check out a digital implementation of the same idea here.
Abacusynth is a synthesizer inspired by an abacus, the ancient counting tool used all around the world. Just like an abacus is used to learn the fundamentals of math, the Abacusynth can be used to explore the building blocks of audio synthesis. It exists in two forms, one digital and one physical, that are both based on the same primary interaction: placing and manipulating shapes on rods. The visual and tactile control makes it easy and fun to create rich timbres sounds without having to fiddle with lots of knobs and sliders.
Timbre refers to all qualities of a sound that are not its pitch or volume. It is what differentiates different instruments that are playing the same note. Acoustic instruments produce timbre with their physical vibrations and resonances, and you can often adjust it using a modifier – such as the pedals on a piano or a mute for the trumpet.
Synthesizers generate timbre electronically, meaning the control is not limited by any physical barrier. Large panels of controls allow for granular control over timbre, but the complexity can often be prohibitive for beginners (and even tiresome for experienced musicians). The kind of timbral control that synthesizers provide is arguably just as “musical” as melody or rhythm, but it’s not often emphasized for someone learning music.
This is because most synths cater to the “Big C” creator, the professional or virtuoso who requires granular control in order to achieve their goal, and who is either willing or required to learn complex interfaces in order to do so.
My target user is a “little C” creator, someone who is being creative just for the fun of it, and is more interested in feeling good while creating, instead of being focused on the outcome. This type of engagement is just as creative as “Big C”, but is not studied or considered as much when talking about design.
This idea is summed up in a paper by Kate Compton, in which she introduces the term Casual Creator to define the class of systems that supports creativity for creativity’s sake. I used the principles laid out in Compton’s research to guide my design and development.
Many of the casual creator music making tools out there focus on melody or song creation. My goal was to make an interface that explores synthesis and timbre.”