Music made by machines need not turn its back on traditional musical skill – least of all when you literally strap the machines on the back of a master musician. In a fusion of Brazilian tradition and modern wireless, wearable sensor technology, Kyle McDonald shares with us a project that makes drums into an interactive suit.

Kyle has plenty to say, including all the details on how to do this in case it inspires a project of your own, so I’ll let him take it away:

The project is a wireless drum suit that I built with Lucas Werthein for a popular Brazilian musician named Carlinhos Brown.

Brown wanted to try something experimental — which is relevant because it’s probably one of the first alternative interfaces anyone
in this city has ever seen. Salvador might be one of the biggest open air-festivals ever, but it’s full of traditional music and the local
pop music (“axé”). Nothing but the usual guitars and drums, and some Bahian + Brazilian instruments.

The system is based on a multilayer, laser-cut design we developed:

It uses acrylic, metal, rubber, and piezos to create a really solid module that feels nice to the touch. I’ve always been annoyed with the
force required to hit something like an [M-Audio] Trigger Finger or an Akai pad, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that if you build your own, you can really get that bottom end to be super sensitive. They probably just pull it up in commercial devices to avoid triggering from
shaking, or cross talk.

The pads run to the brain via 1/8″ cables. The brain is about the size of an Arduino Mega + 1 9V battery, and also laser-cut acrylic:

The Arduino Mega is then connected to a MIDI shield from Sparkfun, which goes to a CME WIDI wireless MIDI device that was surprisingly more robust than the more expensive Kenton MIDI device we tried.

I had a ton of fun making this, and we’re planning on open-sourcing the design for the pads so other people can build them.

  • Mark Kunoff


    You all know Laurie Anderson did this back in the eighties in her live shows for 'Home of the brave" right?

  • Onyx Ashanti

    this is the year….that's all I'm sayin'…

  • Peter Kirn

    @Mark: Oh, yeah, I'm not even going to endeavor to chronicle the number of wearable percussion suits. (I expect the idea is even older than Laurie Anderson's production … anyone who's slapped their knees to music and then seen a drum trigger might be tempted.)

    What I'm most excited about, to be honest, is the possibility of a well-designed DIY drum pad design that other people can reproduce. That'd make a whole lot of people very happy.

  • Mark Kunoff

    Agreed. Arduino rocks! But her suit came out only a few years after midi was introduced. So as far as a midi-driven drum suit is concerned – she's the first. That's what visionaries like her do. 😉

  • Ben Alex

    To bad that the actual performance was completely underwhelming. 

  • Jay

    Mcrorie has been doing it for a while 😉 saw him open for beck a few years back&nbsp ;

  • mick

    it has been done and done and done the same way, the $1 sensor, cables, and it is not revolutionary to looks like a dork, why dont you guys use flexible piezoelectric instead of the solid, that needs all those "laser cut" pads

  • Peter Kirn

    The pad designs in this case I believe would be relevant to non-wearable applications. And then there are lots of reasons to do them this way in terms of transport, usability…

    I never said this had never been done before. What Kyle said was that generally electronic music, period, doesn't get into this context. So we have an artist able to diversify his tools because of what he wanted to express.

    I actually think wearable pads have appeal only to some, but the actual trigger design looks useful.

  • zeroreference

    Onyx is right, between this and the google motion/kinect stuff, something is happening. I liked seeing the effort involved here, but to me (though IANAP – I Am Not A Percussionist) pads on the body seem to limit the _musical_ performative ability of the artist, though new _theatrical_ possibilities are added. And imho (love those acroyms!), all live performance involves theater.

    Where are the dancers? And the tai chi masters, feng shui people, and ergonomics experts? The turntable still looms large as a gestural controller because it's impressively tactile, and its circular aesthetic resonates in terms of theatrical appeal, musical representation in the controller, and ergonomics. I mean, turntable imagery is infused with a spiritual potency by electronic and hiphop people, and probably others, and I think the synthesis of elements into a single, circular rubric involved is not unrelated.

    So, with body-based controllers, what forms of dance/motion tap into a similarly transcendent mode of expressions?

  • loopstationzebra

    I'm cringing right now. CRINGE.

  • Anthony Arroyo

    Would love to see the open-source plans for these.

    Carlinhos Brown is awesome, btw. One of the great innovators of modern Brazilian music. Nice to see that he is trying new stuff.

  • Pedro Oliveira

    @Mark and @Peter yes, Laurie Anderson did this a while back, of course, but what is interesting to observe in this particular case is that the suit is being worn by an EXTREMELY Pop musician/artist, at least in Brazil (maybe he owns a "cult" status abroad, dunno). Such DIY approach plus their use in popular/mass culture is what makes it more interesting :)

  • Brian Ffar

    Saw the drummer from Fleetwood Mac wear a vest similar to the one above at a concert a few years back – I was blown away!

  • yur2die4
  • Paul Davis

    it would have been nice to have actually seen/heard a bit more of what brown did with the suit. the idea seems cool enough, and the video gave some nice cultural warmup, but when it came down to it, we didn't really see or hear him do much with it … a shame.

  • danomatika

    What's all the "it's been done before" complaining about? I have to admit I felt that same urge when I first saw this but I agree wi Peter that it's the context that's more important. Do we really want this kind of performance approach to stay within the realm of Anderson, NIME, ICMC, academia/experimetal art, etc or do we truly want the cumulative change that ubiquitous low cost computing and electronics are bringing to music? I for one welcome our drum pad beating Brazillian breatheren.

    On a second note, I too would like too see much more performance video from the event instead of the super long buildup …

  • Mark Kunoff

    No complaints here – love the subject matter. And, in terms of open source technology, it IS "revolutionary". Personally, i would have opted for something resembling a steel drum.

  • zeroreference


    Awesome! If you were involved at all, I'm really curious about how gestural movement controls were decided on. That was really cool. Liked the 80s breakdance styles.

  • cooptrol

    Wow!! It's weird to see such a familiar face in CDM… I've seen him perform and he is incredible, and always surrounded by amazing musicians. He is one of the major driving forces behind Brazilian music, which is a whole musical universe by itself. The fact that he reached this pages by using arduino stuff just takes him one level up. His shows are truly experimental in very different ways, so I'm sure this suit was used for one or maybe two songs, cos he does a big bunch of other wierd stuff with different instruments on the whole set. I agree that it¡s a shame there's so little footage on him using it, cos he is a very talented percussionist.

  • Forrest Oliphant

    Here is David Holt playing his Thunderpants, wired drum machine triggers in coveralls, with hambone (body percussion) skills:

  • edward bender

    Hello my name us Edward Bender and I am a music major at the university of north Carolina at Charlotte. I’m trying to make a tone matrix that is interactive and involves triggers that would interface with midi sounds on a loop to create continuous composition. If you look up tone matrix it will give you an idea of what we want to build on a large scale. My email is I was just wondering if you had any suggestions on the triggering and midi possibilities thank you.

  • Onlysun Rounds

    why do you have such a complicated methods . what about this

  • Avante Garde

    Laurie Anderson did this in the early 70’s with the United Stated I-IV tour; wasn’t wireless (no WiFi at the time).

  • Avante Garde

    Laurie Anderson did this in the early 80’s with the United Stated I-IV tour; wasn’t wireless (no WiFi at the time).