A Look Inside the World’s Weirdest Musical Instrument Competition

From edible keyboards to robotic guitars, Georgia Tech's yearly tournament attracts artists and inventors worldwide.

Mar 14 2016, 6:26pm

Georgia Tech

The most innovative and strange new instruments in the world are all guaranteed to show up one place every year: Georgia Tech's annual Guthman Musical Instrument Competition. The event brings together musicians, engineers, and programmers from all over the world to the Atlanta university to push the boundaries of sound and instrument design.

Beginning as a piano performance competition in 1996 established by Georgia Tech alumnus Richard Guthman, the annual event drew pianists from across the nation to participate. However, it eventually transitioned in 2009 to the radical program that it is today.

Gil Weinberg, the director of the center for music technology, and the event's primary organizer, tells THUMP, "After a couple of years, we looked in the mirror and said do we look like a piano competition—and it looked much more like a competition about design, engineering and musicality of new instruments."

This year's edition wrapped up recently, with submissions from 18 different countries on four continents, and a first-place prize of $5,000 (USD).

The Claudeatron — A MIDI Controller worn around the neck like a saxophone invented by Claude Woodward. All photos courtesy of Georgia Tech

THUMP: What was this year's competition like?

Gil Weinberg: The winner [this year] was really an amazing performer. His instrument was all kinds of found objects that he appropriated for music. I think he had a toothbrush, an umbrella, a golf club, and a tennis racket, with strings and some sensors, putting a contact mic and playing just beautifully.

I read something about an edible keyboard during one of the competitions...
Yes, there was an edible keyboard [in 2014]. It was made of food, pieces of pineapple and melon. When you put your finger on it, you change the capacitor. You touch the fruit and you make music.

The Nomis — An octagonal controller that manipulates sound using gestures and light invented by Jonathan Sparks.

How do you judge something like that?
What we tell the judges is to look at three criteria. One of them is musicality—how rich is the musical sound palette [the instrument] produces? Then there is engineering: the ingenuity of the instrument, whether it's electrical, mechanical, or acoustic, and how well built it is. The second element is the design. We have an industrial designer [judging] almost every competition that really focuses on the looks.

The last parameter is a little tricky and we don't know exactly how to treat it—the performance. Sometimes you can have an amazing performer who can do something really unique with an OK instrument, and you also have engineers or designers and they can perform on a beautiful instrument, but they perform poorly.

It's very difficult to compare between, say, a MIDI controller that has sensors and is well constructed, versus an acoustic instrument. Some years we had a bunch of iPhone apps. How do you compare this with a robotic instrument that actually responds to you. It's a lot of looking at apples and oranges.

The Solidnoise-collage — A hybrid of digital and acoustic instrumentation connected with a series of networked Computers. Invented by Jiffer Harriman, Abhishek Narula, and Michael Theodore.

Yeah, that seems challenging.
One year I was a judge and I can tell you it was very difficult. At one point we tried to do categories, and have just the best robotic instruments, the best controllers, the best acoustic instruments, and it didn't work out. It lost some of its oomph. There were many MIDI controllers, there were very few acoustic instruments, so it really didn't work out.

Are there any instruments that have gone on to commercial production after the competition?
The Roli Seaboard and OP-1 are a couple of examples.

Other than this year's winner, what have been the most memorable instruments you recall?
The Guitarbot, second prize winner from 2009, was an interesting instrument, which later was featured in [American jazz artist and composer] Pat Metheny's Orchestrion.

See more instruments from the Guthman competition in the gallery below.

The Spiral of Fifths — A MIDI keyboard with built-in chord progressions invented by Ruben Dax Sonz-Barnes.

The VCG — A breath-controlled synth guitar invented by Greg Hendler, Mark Crowley, and Raja Raman.

AAS2 — The Acoustic Additive Synth consists of eight organ pipes that are fully controlled by a computer. Invented by Krzysztof Cybbulski.

Gigen Mammoser is on Twitter.