Playing a musical instruments typically requires a good deal of dexterity, coordination, and self control. Moreover, each instrument one learns to play has its own unique interface that one has to adjust to and get comfortable with. If you have physical disabilities, playing music can be a challenge. Piano keyboards are simple enough, but you may not be able to reach for the keys. String instruments require dexterous hands, and brass and woodwinds also involve the lungs. Just about every instrument has its limitations for disabled folks.
Dan Daily, a musician from New Mexico, decided to create a device, dubbed MidiWing, that can overcome the interface/instrument problem so that the players can choose any device they want to use as an input for a variety of digitized musical instruments. Having gotten a bit in over his head, he partnered with microsystems engineer Kent Pfeifer of Sandia National Labs to take the device to a more complete stage so that now it can accept just about any USB controller as input and connect to any MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) device like a computer or a digital instrument for output.
Pfeifer helped Daily build a new prototype that uses an advanced, much more capable chip. “The idea was to build an instrument that has a whole bunch of different types of interfaces with the ability to run off a mouse, joystick or other kind of device that can be configured to the abilities of somebody with a disability,” Pfeifer said. “You can play it with your mouth, your feet or a single hand.”
Daily said Pfeifer took the concept and ran with it. “The implementation is all new,” he said. “MidiWing has a lot more inputs and can be configured in a number of different ways. There are more ways to control the instrument.”
Pfeifer reprogrammed and modernized MidiWing with advanced microcontroller circuitry that made it smaller and more functional. “MidiWing works with the synthesizer software in a computer,” he said. “A USB cable sends a series of hex commands built around the MIDI standard. The software in the computer interprets those and turns them into sounds.”
MidiWing can 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. “We know mathematically the frequency difference between note steps. We can write an equation,” Pfeifer said. “That’s programmed into this.”
Sandia press release: Disabled kids inspire musical instrument anyone can play