COMP_SCI 497 (RTVF 376-0-20): Digital Musical Instrument Design


Typically, Mondays, 4:00pm - 6:50pm in The Garage (1st class is Tuesday March 29 on ZOOM from 4:00pm - 6:50pm)


Instructor: Bryan Pardo

TA: Hugo Flores Garcia

Office hours & Location

Wednesdays: 4:00pm - 6:0pm

Location: Francis Searle Building, room 1-122.

Directions: Go left (north) when you enter the building. Room 1-123 is the LAST door on the left. It is a glass door that says it is the dean’s office. Go through room 1-123 to reach room 1-122. Then look for the last (westmost) door on your right (north). That’s the room.

Course Description

Digital Musical Instrument Design (formerly Digital Luthier) studies Human Computer Interaction through the lens of artistic creation. The course lies at the intersection of design, engineering, and musicianship. This course will introduce students to fundamentals of creating their own musical instruments using modern technology. We will explore the influence and feedback between the tool (e.g. an instrument), the tool user (a musician/producer), and the creative output (the music). Along the way, we will learn about user interaction design, embedded computing (using arduino), sensor technology, signal creation and interpretation (using Max/MSP or PureData), and musicality (using your sensibilities as a musician). Students will create a new musical instrument by the end of the course and the final examination will be a performance using their instrument.

Course Policies

Questions outside of class

Please use CampusWire for class-related questions. I get way too much email. Email me and…well….it may be a while before you hear back.

Submitting assignments

Assignments must be submitted on the due date by the time specified on Canvas. If you are worried you can’t finish on time, upload a safety submission an hour early with what you have. I will grade the most recent item submitted before the deadline. Late submissions will not be graded. If you don’t do an assignment, no worries…you can still earn 10 points of extra credit. See below.


You can earn up to 110 points. You will be graded on a 100 point scale (e.g. 93 to 100 = A, 90-92 = A-, 87-89 = B+, 83-86 = B, 80-82 = B-, 77-79 = C+, 73-76 = C, 70-72 = C-…and so on).

Extra credit for class participation

Classroom participation allows for up to 10 points of extra credit. See below.

Course Assignments

Reading/Listening/Viewing: 24 points

You will submit 10 reviews of readings/videos/music from the course website. Each will be a single-page reaction to something you read/watched/heard from the links provided below. Each review will be worth 2 points.

Class participation: 10 points

Each week, you are expected to show up, have reviewed the materials and be able to discuss ideas. Every week you show up and substantially contribute to the discussion, you get 1 point. If you don’t show up or you don’t say anything that week, you don’t get the point.

Preparation to make your instrument: 38 points

There will be a series of preparatory exercises: reviewing existing instruments, making a max patch, making something react to a hardware controller, etc.

Making a digital instrument: 38

You will make/modify/create a digital music instrument. “Digital instrument” will be construed broadly. If you know deep learning, this may mean modifying a music creation deep net or adding a cool interface to it. If you know hardware hacking that might mean adding digital reactivity to an acoustic instrument. If you want to make an installation piece, that’s a possibility. If you want to make something crazy, I’m listening, but you’ll have to convince me. We will negotiate the specifics of the project as you develop it.

Assignment schedule

Week What’s due Points
1-10 1 point per week class participation 10
2 4 written reviews of reading/viewing 8
3 Compare 3 musical instruments 6
3 Video review of an instrument 5
4 Video of your Makey-makey instrument 5
4 3 written reviews of reading/viewing 6
5 Your max patch + video 6
6 Blue-sky-instrument design 6
7 3 written reviews of reading/viewing 6
7 Video: max patch reacting to arduino 10
8 Final Project Proposal 10
9 In-class Project Progress Report 10
11 Final instrument demo 16
11 Website & video 16

Student Final Projects

The Glissorgan by Carlos Bandera

Whatever The Weather by Bryanna Benicia

Dodger by Aspen Buckingham

The Backyard Theremin by Anna Chaurize

Live Lighting Performance Interface (mostly by) Tyler Felson

The Broomotone by Samuel Garcia-Bryce

Chairs Made Musical by Eli Han


Big Dance Energy by Kate Li

Automathirds by Adriel Limas

fire, contained by Mia Mylvaganam

Bananavo by Rachel Philips

BEWI by Anthony Parker Ryan

PhotoSYNTHesis by Chelewynne Shuart

Waveform Autoencoder Synthesis & Instrument by Jacob C. Stucki III

Headhunter by Gefei Tan

The Lazy Trumpet by Ori Zur

Week 1: Tuesday March 29

In class

Introductions, Overview of course, Music Instruments & Music Culture

Max Tutorial 1: basics


Push Turn Move excerpt

Overholt - Musical Interface Technology Design Space

D. Birnbaum, R. Fiebrink, J. Malloch, M. M. Wanderley - Towards a Dimension Space for Musical Devices

Morreale, De Angeli, O’Modhrain - Musical Interface Design: An Experience-Oriented Framework

Week 2: Monday, April 4

In class

Discussion of last week’s readings

How to evaluate tools for enhancing creativity?

Max tutorial 2: Making a drum sound.


Imogean Heap discusses her mi.miu gloves, which you can buy here

Laurie Anderson discusses her instruments

Walter Kitundu discusses hit turntable instruments

Week 3: Monday, April 11

In class

Discussion/disection of musical instruments you reviewed.

The feedback loop between instrument makers and musicians.

Max tutorial 3: Making a max patch

Makey Makey set up


Sergi Jordà, Günter Geiger, Marcos Alonso, Martin Kaltenbrunner - The reacTable: Exploring the Synergy between Live Music Performance and Tabletop Tangible Interfaces

Gurevich - Skill in Interactive Digital Music Systems

Max Matthews (for whom Max was named) discusses the Radio Baton

Week 4: Monday, April 18

In class

Artist talk: Stephan Moore

Max tutorial 3: Making a Max patch.


An interview with the creators of Abelton Live

Alex McClean (creator of Tidal Cycles) discusses and demos live music coding

Miller Puckett (creator of Max)gives an overview of thedevelopment of Max

Week 5: Monday, April 25

In class

Coding tools for music creation

Getting started with Arduinos. Breadboarding your controller


Reading TBD

Week 6: Monday, May 2

In class

It’s all about hardware: more Arduino stuff, Exploring different kinds of sensors, crimping and soldering


Computers don’t make art. People do

Coconet: the ML model behind today’s Bach Doodle. Be sure to try BOTH the Bach Doodle and the step sequencer interface

Read up on the AI Song Contest

Watch Hexcorcismos performance using AI tools

Week 7: Monday, May 9

In class

Guest talks and panel discussion featuring:

Moises Horta, a Mexican/American audio-visual artist based in Berlin (GMT +1) that uses deep learning models to create performances and installations.

Anna Huang, a research scientist at Google Brain with an appointment at MILA and is based in Montreal (GMT -4). She makes deep learning tools for musical co-creation, like Google’s Bach Doodle.

Aaron Hertzmann is a principal scientist at Adobe and has both developed many computational visual art tools and also written and talked extensively about what it means to create art with intelligent tools.


View finalists of the Guthman Music Competition

Week 8: Monday, May 16

In class

It’s all about your work! Class discussion on your new, more realistic, instrument designs


Week 9: Monday, May 23

In class

It’s all about your work! Reporting progress on your proejct.


Week 10: Monday, May 30

No class. Memorial day

Final exam: Monday, June 6: 4pm - 6:50pm (regular class time)

Final performance & demo.

Final submission: Thursday, June 9: 5pm

Final website and video due by 5pm