Artist and design Yoshi Akai (no relation, as far as I know) treats analog electronics as an art form, a sculpture, an instrument, and an exercise in interaction design, all wrapped in the velour of vintage hardware design. For everyone who misses the deco elegance of meticulously-engraved surfaces and tastefully-appointed enclosures of early-century electronics, Yoshi’s work will be a special treat.
These aren’t just pretty boxes, though: they work as instruments. A prolific inventor with a background in textiles and design, Nagoya-born Yoshi Akai has spun out countless playful experiments in musical interaction, and all make fascinating sounds. There’s a turntable that scratches Swedish rye crackers as though they’re records, a step sequencer made from a telegraph, thumb-controlled instruments, and various synths, noisemakers, effects, and drum machines, some quite practical. Some emphasis electrical, analog sounds, while others go chip/8-bit in timbre. All look beautifully handmade, with some tending toward luxurious front panels while others flaunt intentionally disorganized arrays of knobs.
(Just don’t say the word “steampunk” — the designs seem to be to be placed pretty firmly in the electrically-powered early 20th Century, and there’s even a reference to Czech proto-science fiction landmark R.U.R..)
There are many models, so it’s worth investigating the full YouTube gallery and his site gallery. I’ll call attention to the two most theatrical. First, LEGO blocks form the playing pieces for a musical sequencer. That’s fitting: Ableton CEO and founder Gerhard Behles once revealed to me that he adored playing with LEGO blocks as a child, a design element that resurfaces in the sequencer he helped design. LEGO blocks are modular, they’re playful, they’re neatly color-coded, and because of their shape and interchangeable design, they easily represent blocks of sequenced time in music.
Here’s a video of the LEGO sequencer in action:
The Wireless Catcher produces rawer sounds than some of Yoshi’s creations, but you can’t beat its whimsical presentation and unusual conception. This isn’t just another Theremin-style device, either: the creation intentionally sucks up the wireless radio activities happening around you. Adjusting the angle of the device causes it to receive different sounds. In an age when wireless interference and overcrowded spectrums threaten to shut down even digital technology, this is one of the few instruments I’ve seen that makes interference the signal, rather than background noise. This could be what we’re all playing wirelessly as the spectrum continues to fill up.
I knew those Knäckebröd Swedish rye crackers would be good for something. See how neatly they fit on a turntable?