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'Silent Drum' makes noise at music competition

Among other creations, Georgia Tech's first Guthman Musical Instrument Competition produces a robotic guitar and an instrument that accompanies a player's movements in the game Sudoko.

Jaime Oliver's Silent Drum is a drum shell with an elastic spandex head that uses shapes and shadows to compute and control sound. Georgia Institute of Technology

Updated at 10:40 a.m. PDT, Wednesday, March 11, with more details on the instrument that took second place.

Imagine Keith Moon relentlessly pounding away with a set of drumsticks. Now imagine him making sounds simply by moving his hands around the head of the drum.

That's more or less what he'd be doing were he using inventor Jaime Oliver's Silent Drum Controller.

First place winner in the first Guthman Musical Instrument Competition sponsored by Georgia Tech's Center for Music Technology, it's a transparent drum shell, illuminated from the inside, with an elastic head. As one presses it, the head deforms and a variety of shapes with peaks are created reflecting the shape of the mallet or hand.

A video camera captures these shapes and sends the images to the computer, which analyzes them and outputs the tracked parameters.

Not a drum you'd find in the music shop at the mall, but that was exactly the idea behind the contest, which solicited new instruments--in physical or virtual manifestations, and played by humans, robots, or computers--that enhance music performance and creation.

Nearly 30 inventors from seven countries performed on Georgia Tech's campus to demonstrate their instrument's musicality, design, and engineering features and compete for prizes--$5,000 for first place, $3,000 for second, $2,000 for third, and free copies of the Rock Band for those nabbing fourth through sixth place.

Taking top spots after Oliver were Eric Singer from the League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots in Brooklyn. He won second place for his GuitarBot, an electric-slide guitar-like instrument, controlled via MIDI, that consists of four identical single-string units. Pitch variation is achieved by a motorized movable bridge that travels along the length of the string, which is plucked by a rotating pick wheel with four picks.

David Wessel of U.C. Berkeley took third place for his SLABS creation. Georgia Institute of Technology

David Wessel of the Center of New Music and Audio Technologies at the University of California, Berkeley, took third place for SLABS. That's an array of pressure-sensitive touch pads that treat gestures as continuous signals, providing a tight coupling between performer and sound.

Other entries included Sorisu, which responds to and accompanies a player's movements in the game Sudoku; and a whimsical star-and-circle-shaped contraption with exposed wires that utters slow, mysterious sounds.

Harmonix, makers of the games Guitar Hero and Rock Band, co-sponsored the competition, which was supported by family of Georgia Tech alum Richard Guthman.

"We were blown away by the diversity and quality of the competitors," said Frank Clark, a professor and director of Georgia Tech's Center for Music Technology. It was great to see ideas from both commercial firms and academicians and just creative young musicians."