Singing bowl phonograph: A song of cooperation

October 7, 2010
Picture of the Singing Bowl

Michael Flynn's odyssey brings together eclectic group of U-M faculty
September, 2010

By Lynne Raughley
U-M Library

Michael Flynn — scientist, designer, artist, and lecturer in the School of Art and Design — designed a bowl that could sing; now all he had to do was figure out exactly how to make it. Naturally, he came to the University of Michigan Library.

Specifically, he came to Spatial and Numeric Data Services (SAND) on the second floor of the Hatcher Graduate Library. He arrived without a bowl, but toting a computer full of data — quite a lot of it. “He opened his laptop,” says Jennifer Green, spatial and numeric data librarian, and manager of SAND. “There were many, many open programs and windows.”

Among them were Excel spreadsheets, .wav datasets, and other files, all containing various samples and renderings of the one-second piece of music — Flynn’s own voice, singing the line “Love is all you need” — that would be somehow recorded in the bowl.

But Flynn was so deep into his project, so full of questions about what he might or might not be able to do with all of his data, that it wasn’t immediately clear to Green what he was trying to accomplish. It wasn’t the first time that Green, who’s been working at SAND for five years, had to build a bridge between her own skills and expertise and what a researcher was trying accomplish. But she knew pretty quickly that Flynn’s would be one of the more unusual data problems she’d ever encountered.

Eventually, Flynn mentioned those plastic strips that “talk’ when you run your thumbnail over them. “Well, I’ve never actually seen one of those, but I got the idea,” she says. Those strips, it turns out, use the same technology as a phonograph; they generate sound by means of recorded vibrations on a physical object. Flynn’s bowl would use a rolling ball, as opposed to a thumbnail or a phonograph needle, to make those vibrations, but to make it work he had to translate the computer-based data he had onto the physical media (plywood, it turns out) that he planned to use.

So what Green and her colleagues had to work out was how to render multi-dimensional data — sound waves, represented as data points in an Excel spreadsheet — into a “flat” format that retained information about amplitude and frequency, and could be fed to and correctly interpreted by the fabrication equipment.

SAND was not Flynn’s first stop for technical assistance. By the time he met with Green, Flynn had already determined that the 3D printer at the Digital Media Commons (DMC) was not the best way to produce the arced pieces of contoured plywood that he needed. Next, he visited the FABLab at the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, and determined that the most likely candidate was its laser cutting equipment. Flynn envisaged something like a belt with bumps on it, resembling a bar code, which would wrap around the top of the bowl.

That’s when Flynn was directed to Jennifer Green and SAND, which is on the second floor of the Hatcher Graduate Library.

“People told me that she’s game for a challenge,” he says. “I rolled in there and described this problem, and she said, ‘Wow.’” Though the data problem was outside the realm of the typical research challenges that come to SAND (see sidebar), Green concluded that she probably had the tools and expertise to take it on. It was a stretch, she admitted, and “she was fired up about that,” Flynn says.

The story continues with photos and video on the Montage site.

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Last modified: 02/20/2014