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Micronium makes music on a microscopic scale

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September 29, 2010

Johan Engelen with the full Micronium setup

Johan Engelen with the full Micronium setup

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It's much, much smaller than its Stradivarian cousin, but not even the Borrowers, Lilliputians or Blefuscudians are of sufficiently diminutive proportions to take a bow to the Micronium. The tiny instrument is made up of microscopic springs activated by combs to produce an audible tone. Half a dozen tone systems are placed on a chip and then chips combined to offer an orchestral range of sounds.

Okay, so the whole setup in perhaps a tad larger than a violin case but the Micronium itself is indeed very, very small. It's not the first itty-bitty instrument to produce sounds but previous attempts have all resulted in tones beyond the range of the human ear. This student-built Micro-Electromechanical Systems (MEMS) project is the first musical instrument with dimensions measured in mere micrometers that produces audible tones.

Built in a clean room environment using advanced etching technology, the Micronium is made up of a moving mass suspended by variable length springs that are ten times thinner than a human hair. Miniature combs set the springs in motion and the vibrations of only a few micrometers are detected and converted into a tone. Each tone has its own spring setup, with six tones fitting on one microchip and combining a number of chips results in a wider tonal range being made available.

A Scanning Electron Microscope Image of one single mass-spring system, where the springs, ...

"You can see comparable technology used in the Wii games computer for detecting movement, or in sensors for airbags," said project leader, PhD student Johan Engelen from the MESA+ Institute for Nanotechnology at the University of Twente. The chip is placed inside a vacuum chamber to negate the influence of air whizzing through the tiny device and the vibrations produced are then amplified thousands of times.

The Micronium has just made its public debut at a two-day conference on micromechanics in the Atak music venue in Enschede. For the purpose of the demonstration, each tone was programmed to a key on a keyboard - although this was then connected to a computer via a MIDI interface as no-one from the team wished to show off his playing skills in front of a live audience.

Two mounted chips with all connections

The team recorded its presentation at the conference, which you can see below. After a brief introduction, Engelen starts a special composition by music student Arvid Jense, who is studying Media Music at the conservatorium in Enschede, called "Impromptu No. 1 for Micronium."

About the Author
Paul Ridden While Paul is loath to reveal his age, he will admit to cutting his IT teeth on a TRS-80 (although he won't say which version). An obsessive fascination with computer technology blossomed from hobby into career before the desire for sunnier climes saw him wave a fond farewell to his native Blighty in favor of Bordeaux, France. He's now a dedicated newshound pursuing the latest bleeding edge tech for Gizmag.   All articles by Paul Ridden
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