Wired In: Skot Wiedmann

Wired In: Skot Wiedmann

Each week, Paul Wood chats with a high-tech difference-maker. This week, meet SKOT WIEDMANN, 37, of Danville, the whiz technician in the University of Illinois Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. He has studied electrical engineering as well as art, worked in TV and radio in London, and teaches a class in Art+Design here on electronics for artists. He has invented the Hyve Touch Synthesizer, about the size of an iPad, and has already far exceeded his Kickstarter goal to get them made on a larger scale. It's meant to be played even by beginners. His 4- and 6-year-old children "love mashing on it." The Hyve synth ranges from a $79 model where you do a lot of soldering to $299 deluxe version with a walnut case.

Tell us about the Hyve Touch Synth.

You touch it and it makes music, a hands-on learning experience we often associate with young children. But for people of all ages, that's just a powerful way to learn. It's a fun, expressive musical instrument you can make, hack and play. If you like, you can build it yourself, an analog synthesizer that responds to touch and movement. I wanted to teach people about engineering and art together. The connection between engineering and math and music is a really strong one. People are amazed that they can solder something and it works immediately.

And why Kickstarter?

I've been doing workshops in the area for about four years. I've taught about 300 people in the workshops. For a long time I've been trying to find ways to connect with people who are not local. The motivation for Kickstarter was to expand this out of Champaign-Urbana to the larger world. I need the Kickstarter money to make these in quantity, a few hundred or more.

So what exactly can the Hyve do?

It's a 60-voice polyphonic analog synthesizer that is controlled by pressure, horizontal and vertical movements of each finger on the surface. Even the smallest wiggle of your finger makes the sound come alive, giving expression to the music you make. You create harmonies and tone combinations with small movements of your finger.

Is it a keyboard?

The bottom half is arranged like a piano keyboard. Each key senses pressure, vertical position and horizontal position. Moving vertically allows you to sweep through octaves and harmonically combine them into evolving tones. Horizontal movements push the sound right and left in stereo. Touching the bottom row causes a pressure-controlled pitch bend. The top half uses a hexagon grid to put notes that sound good together right next to each other. Every adjacent note is harmonically related. This means that one finger can play a chord and slide to the next chord in the song. Each hexagon also senses pressure and horizontal position, like the bottom half.

Who else is on your team?

I have teamed up with local woodworker Jeff Nardoni to develop a handcrafted hardwood enclosure. Hyve Synth Premium has a walnut back that looks and feels wonderful. This instrument comes to you ready to play and requires no assembly or tuning. I have partnered with a U.S.-based manufacturer as my primary manufacturer, and I have also lined up two others to assure that the process goes smoothly. The core design has proven reliable and repeatable at workshops where the assembly was done by novices. The new design changes are fully tested, and a handful of prototypes are playing beautifully. The woodworker has done two prototype runs of backs and has years of experience producing the highest quality and consistency of large and small scale wood products.

What's next after this?

The hard work begins when the Kickstarter effort ends. I've made all these promises — actually delivering is the hard part. When I figure out the process, it will help me figure out what the next step is. In general, this is such a niche thing, it's so weird, maybe a venture capitalist would see its promise, but I don't think it will go mainstream.

TECH TIDBITS ... from SKOT WIEDMANN

Do you like to use social media? There is a Facebook page for the synthesizers, that's the main place where company information is actively discussed, I also use Twitter and Instagram.

Do you prefer to read on an actual book or a digital device? I do most of my reading on computer. My phone is always handy, but I don't really love that experience.

What are you reading right now? "Sync: How Order Emerges From Chaos In the Universe, Nature and Daily Life" by Steven Strogatz.

Do you have an entrepreneurial hero? A lot of my heroes are sort of failures at being entrepreneurs. I was lucky to meet Don Buchla, a synthesizer inventor, one of the godfathers of modern synthesizers.

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