Building An Artificial Soundscape With Robotic Insects

Cicadas is a sound art project, created by Berlin-based musician/sound artist Bob Meanza, that explores the idea of creating artificial ambient soundscapes with robotic insects.

The project is based on small, battery-powered ‘insects’, which are built using programmed AVR microcontrollers and sound emitting components (relays, piezos, buzzers…). 

Project details:

  • Sculpture – Each insect is sculpted and tuned to the specific sound production qualities its body (relays can produce only “clicks”, piezos will do only high frequencies, and so on), and the final “brain” code yields a behavior that mimics the daily life of a singing insect, with noisy “wake” times alternated to silent pauses.
  • Code – Different “sound synthesis” techniques were used, including very basic granular scores, bare-bones MIDI players and non-audio mathematical functions, which are brutally converted to sound as they come out from the chip, yelding surprising lively results.
  • Installation – As soon the Cicadas are turned on, they start interacting with the ambient they’re in, giving very different results depending on the sonic dialogue with the context. In a quiet and empty room, the sound installation will turn the focus on the insects themselves. But in a natural, more lively soundscape, the insects will just join in, lost in the millions of sonic events being created by man and nature.

Here’s what Meanza has to say about the project:

I built “Cicadas” in Berlin, where real cicadas can’t live, as they need constant warm temperatures. Feeling a deep fascination for this kind of mediterranean soundscape, I started analyzing the way in which these insects sing, in order to imitate it. Their sound production is very simple and mechanic: they emit little “clicks” at a very high speed, so that a swarm of cicadas will generate millions of them.

In the digital realm there’s a similar sound synthesis technique, called “granular synthesis”. Million of digital grains can be coordinated to produce “clouds” of sound, in the same way cicads do. I started viewing the behaviour of the real insects as a great granular algorhythm, a wonderful natural synthesizer that can be imitated not only virtually (with a software, for example), but also concretely, building singing robot insects.

You can find out more about Meanza and his projects at his site.

4 thoughts on “Building An Artificial Soundscape With Robotic Insects

  1. Interesting. I’d love to see something like this where you could load up ‘insects’ with your own sounds and control the parameters of how often they make sounds.

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