Atari Punk Synth Workshop: Do it yourself with a little help from Beakerhead, Lowell Smith and EMMEDIA

Friday 11th, September 2015 / 14:34
By Colin Gallant
Want an Atari Punk Synth of your own? Sign-up for the Beakerhead event at EMMEDIA is now open. Photo: Retrieved from Beakerhead website.

Want an Atari Punk Synth of your own? Sign-up for the Beakerhead event at EMMEDIA is now open.
Photo: Retrieved from Beakerhead website.

CALGARY — From September 16-20, Beakerhead blurs the boundaries of arts, science, engineering and technology for the masses. From grand scale public installations to inclusive learning experiences, the festival strives to engage each and every attendee.

One chance to indulge your curiousity and walk away with something to show for it comes alive in the Atari Punk Synth workshop at EMMEDIA, conducted by prolific DIY artist Lowell Smith.

As Smith puts it, “I am an artist, and I work as an electronics technologist as well as assisting other artists with technical challenges in their projects. My individual practice utilizes technology to create immersive and contemplative experiences. I am constantly influenced by new technologies and the strange things that happen in and around the real and virtual worlds. I build and hack different types of digital software and electronic hardware to create projects to express these ideas.”

In laymen’s terms, Smith is here to get his hands dirty and fuck shit up. By physically engaging with the tools that operate our world, he inserts a visceral and contemplative element that renders the high-brow tangible.

What exactly is an “Atari Punk Synth”? As Smith recalls, it “is a simple electronics circuit that originally was created by Forrest M. Mimms III. His design was called a ‘Stepped Tone Generator,’ originally published in his book Engineer’s Notebook: Integrated Circuit Applications in 1980. Rebuilt and modified by Kaustic Machines and named the ‘Atari Punk Console’ because of its lo-fi sounds that resemble that of an Atari 2600 console. Kaustic Machines modified their circuit to use a line out with a ¼ inch jack to run it through an amplifier and could be used as a crude musical instrument or synthesizer hence the added ‘Punk’ to the name.”

So, how does an instrument with such a dense and oblique history find itself among an audience-geared festival that dispels the myth that access to art and science is relegated to academics? Perhaps EMMEDIA explains it best.

“We are definitely accessing a different audience by being a part of Beakerhead, and we love the idea that we can introduce and educate a broader public on what media arts can be. Beakerhead is accessible for everyone, and we wanted to make sure the activities we collaborate with them on are too,” says programming director Vicki Chau.

So don’t be daunted by the wordy conceptualism of the event. Participants in the workshop with walk away from the event from a fully functional piece of musical equipment whether they simply enjoy the satisfaction of building or choose to appreciate the process from a ponderous lens.

While Smith admits that “[he is] hoping to trigger a spark for curiosity in building and hacking electronics or any technology,” he promises to give attendees something immediate and concrete.

“Participants will learn some basic electronics knowledge, some synthesizer theory and hear how the original video games once sounded. Yars’ Revenge anyone?”

Build your own Atari Punk Synth as part of Beakerhead at EMMEDIA on September 20th. Contact [email protected] to register.

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