If you've read me for a while, you know I like music and robots. So when I discovered via The Scotsman that researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) have built a robot bagpiper, I wanted to listen to it. In "Not a bad piper... for a robot," the writer reports that McBlare -- as it is known -- is controlled by a computer that has many traditional bagpipe tunes in its memory. This robotic player "can also add authentic sounding ornaments to simple melodies entered through a piano-like keyboard and play the result on the bagpipes," as CMU describes it. But read more...
Before going further, you might want to listen to McBlare (MP3 format).
Here is the basic concept as reported by The Scotsman.
McBlare is essentially a traditional set of Highland bagpipes – drones, chanter and bag – fixed to a wooden board and powered by a custom-built air compressor with electro-magnetic "fingers" that open and close the tone holes on the chanter. It is controlled by a computer stored with around 50 MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) files of traditional bagpipe tunes.
"We are close to getting it right but not close enough," says Roger Dannenberg, the university professor who has led the McBlare project. "If the pressure is too low the chanter will stop playing and if it's too high then we get what pipers call gurgling.
Below is a picture of another McBlare's designers, Garth Zeglin, close to the -- dressed in tartan -- robot. "Bagpipes are mounted on a display board that conceals the pump and additional electronics." (Credit:CMU)
And below is a raw picture of this bagpipe player. "It plays an ordinary set of bagpipes using an air compressor to provide air and electro-magnetic devices to power the 'fingers' that open and close tone holes that determine the musical pitch." (Credit:CMU)
For more information about this project, you can read this technical paper, "McBlare: A Robotic Bagpipe Player" (PDF format, 5 pages, 978 KB) which details the accomplishments done and what remains to be done. Here is an example.
Once the basics are under complete control, there are some finer points of piping to consider. One is the fact that humans can cover tone holes partially to achieve pitch bending effects. We chose to ignore this possibility, which would greatly complicate the design and which is not required for most performances. However, a design that allows for pitch bends, either using tone holes—or perhaps a radical change such as a telescoping chanter or slidewhistle -- like piston -- could offer many new interesting musical possibilities.
Finally, here is a link to McBlare home page at CMU.
Sources: Iain Lundy, The Scotsman, June 26, 2006; and various web sites
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