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Robosax! Musician and engineer join forces at WVU

Michael Ibrahim and Brady Williams

Michael Ibrahim and Brady Williams.


A West Virginia University faculty member and student have teamed up to combine music and technology to create some new sounds.

Brady Williams, a student in the Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources planning to major in mechanical engineering from Hurricane, has been working with Michael Ibrahim, associate professor of saxophone in the College of Creative Arts, on an electronic saxophone.

“In contemporary music, composers and performers often search for new sounds and new ways of producing them,” Ibrahim said. “An instrument’s defining qualities can be a point of experimentation.”

The project originated in dialogue with a New York-based composer, Adam Mirza, who suggested the idea of using a saxophone as the trigger for creating electronic sounds.

“Brady is also pursuing a minor in music, and he was eager to be involved,” Ibrahim said. “His experience as a saxophonist made him a perfect fit for the project.”

"Dr. Ibrahim contacted me and told me the details of this saxophone project, the basis being to modify a tenor saxophone in such a way that when the keys are pressed it would complete a circuit that would then send a signal to a computer resulting in a sound output, and asked if I would be interested in working on it,” Williams explained.

Professor and student got together to discuss things in detail and share ideas. After that meeting Ibrahim gave Williams the tenor saxophone that would be modified, along with some supplies and the freedom to modify the sax as needed to make it work for the project.

“We took an old clunker of a saxophone that was no longer in a condition to be playable acoustically, and fitted each key with an electronic switch,” Ibrahim said. “These switches are routed into a small chipset which is then connected to a computer that generates sounds.”

Williams has taken the design through three major iterations. First was a prototype that didn’t hold together, but proved that the project could be done. He then took the design in a different direction to make a better connection between the instrument and the computer. This presented challenges.

“One of the hardest parts for me was working on the keywork of the saxophone, because the parts are small and they’re all compacted into a small area, making it a bit more difficult to handle,” Williams said.

“Another flaw with the second design was a tendency to make the action of the keys feel sluggish and interrupted, because one of the major ideas of the project was to convert a regular saxophone to work electronically while still feeling like you’re playing a normal instrument,” Williams said.

In the end, the final design works as Ibrahim and Williams imagined.

“To play an acoustic instrument that I've played for years but to hear electronic sounds is quite an incredible experience,” Ibrahim said.

In the electronic realm, the possibilities of sounds and combinations seems to be almost infinite. The team of an engineering major, a composer and a saxophonist was ideal for making this modification to the saxophone. 

“Depending on your view of the saxophone, you might say that we've made an improvement,” Ibrahim said, with a laugh. “The project has been refreshing and a great opportunity to collaborate with a science aspect.”

This modified instrument will be used for the first time at the North American Saxophone Alliance Biennial Conference at Texas Tech University, March 10-13, under the project title, "This is not a saxophone."



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