Electronics flair in accessible music instrument


US-based engineers, recognising the difficulty disabled people have in playing conventional instruments, have developed the MidiWing, which can be played by anyone regardless of physical ability.

Musician Dan Daily wanted to use electronics to bridge the gap between people with fine motor control and those without. Traditional instruments, which require physical coordination of the lungs, lips, arms and fingers to produce their sound, were often difficult for the disabled to play.

According to Daily, electronic instruments allowed him to separate the way notes are selected from the sound of the instrument.

The MidiWing consists of a microcontroller-based system that sends signals through a USB connection to another electronic device, such as a sound module or computer, which then produces sound.

The system is contained in a small box which houses circuitry with several inputs that connect to switches and sensors, such as a joystick, mouse, slider or fader, that produce sound when moved.

The controls can be changed according to the person’s physical condition, and the range of pitches can be narrowed or expanded, so the device can be made easier or more challenging as the person uses it and gets more familiar.

Daily started work on MidiWing in 2000, but hit a wall shortly after completing his first prototype and pilot projects in 2004, when the microprocessor chip he was using was discontinued.

Daily turned to the New Mexico Small Business Assistance (NMSBA) program, which pairs entrepreneurs with scientists at Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories.

Daily joined forces with Kent Pfeifer, a Sandia microsystems engineer, and together they built a new prototype which uses a more advanced chip. They also enhanced the MidiWing with more inputs and more configuration options.

MidiWing can now calculate the many different frequencies or pitches that produce complex musical sounds from the position of the joystick or other input.

The instrument simulates frequencies that are normally produced by the technique of the musician, for example, by the pressure of a player’s lips on a brass instrument.

The team are now close to having an inexpensive product that can be manufactured for schools, hospitals, therapy and rehab centers and other places where people want to make music.