'Cyborg' drummer holds down the beat with prosthetic arm

“I’ll bet a lot of metal drummers might be jealous of what I can do now.”
By Brooks Hays  |  March 11, 2014 at 6:18 PM
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Bands and music ensembles that don't have a human drummer often opt for a drum machine. But now there's a third choice, a "cyborg" drummer -- half man, half machine.

Two years ago, Jason Barnes, an aspiring musician, was electrocuted while cleaning a restaurant vent hood. Doctors were forced to amputate his arm below the elbow. Barnes pressed on, continuing to play music. He was even able to rig himself up a rudimentary prosthetic and enroll at the Atlanta Institute of Music and Media in Georgia. Still, it was tough going.

But now, thanking to technical prowess of Professor Gil Weinberg, founding director of Georgia Tech's Center for Music Technology, Barnes is back to his original rhythmical self.

Barnes' new drumming prosthesis features motors that power two drumsticks. The first stick is controlled by Barnes, both physically and electronically using electromyography (EMG) sensors that pick up on nerve signals in Barnes' bicep.

“Now I can flex and send signals to a computer that tightens or loosens the stick and controls the rebound,” said Barnes.

The second stick is programmed to improvise rhythm based on the music it hears being played.

“The second drumstick has a mind of its own,” explained Weinberg. “The drummer essentially becomes a cyborg. It’s interesting to see him playing and improvising with part of his arm that he doesn’t totally control.”

Barnes says his new found abilities on the drum kit go beyond what an all-human musician could hope to do. “I’ll bet a lot of metal drummers might be jealous of what I can do now,” he said. “Speed is good. Faster is always better.”

Barnes originally got hooked up with Weinberg through his drum instructor Eric Sanders. Sanders will join Barnes and his prosthetic device on stage at the Atlanta Science Festival on March 22. The two will be joined be several programmed musical robots, designed by Weinberg to improvise with live musicians.

Weinberg plans to keep expanding on the technology using a National Science Foundation grant. He thinks the improvisational algorithm could even be tweaked to help fully able professionals, like astronauts or surgeons, perform highly complex and precise physical tasks.

[Georgia Tech]

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