Beat Frequency

I thought that I should write something on the development of my new piece, “Beat Frequency”, what its roots are, how it came into being.
I grew up in a musical family. We sang, played musical instruments, I played violin. In order to tune a violin to pitch with a pitch fork or some other stable frequency source you play the violin at the same time as the source. If you are off by 1hertz, so if your pitch fork is for A440 and your violin is at A441 then when the peak of the wave forms happens to hit your ear at the same time it is louder, and when one source is high and the other low, it is softer. This gives the sound a wah wah happening every second. As you tune closer in frequency the wahs happen less frequently.
My father, may his memory be a blessing, built harpsichords. He taught me to tune them. For a short while I could do a reasonable job with just a pitch fork. This is more difficult than it seems because a tempered scale where all the intervals seem reasonably in tune, requires that you actually tune intervals a little imperfectly. Its kind of like walking around a circle with a diameter of 4 feet one foot at a time. When you get to the end, you are going to be a little off, so if you stretch a bit a walk a hair over a foot at a time, no one is going to notice, and you will end in the right place.
I sang. My favorite music to sing was madrigals. They are sung by small groups of people. In my opinion they are best as entertainment for the singers. Singing facing each other in a circle is optimal. In order to do this well there needs to be give and take between the singers each allow each other openings when their singing line should be dominant. You hear this give and take in Jazz or other folk music too.
In my first Art History Class, an overview of Asian Art History, at The University of Michigan, taught by Walter Spink, we were taught about Taoism and its symbolism in Asian Art. The story associated with this was that a man, in tune with the Tao dropped his towel on the side of a river and walked upstream to a bridge where he stripped off his cloths and through himself into the raging torrent. He washed up by his towel where he dried himself off and then walked back to the bridge to get his cloths.  Rivers, and images of water, are often statements about the order, the nature of the universe, of ebb flow, give and take.

Most of us learned prime factoring as children. You take some number and find all the prime numbers that it can be divided by. For example, 165 can be divided by 3,5, and 11. If you have waves a 3,5, and 11 hertz, cycles per second, they will only all come together every 165 seconds. In tuning this would mean that the strong beats happen only every 165 seconds, but that there could be weak beats at multiples of 3×5 (15 hertz), 5X11 (55 hertz) and 3X11 (33 hertz). I use this phenomenon to program the lights so that their effects repeat very infrequently. My math teachers would be happy.
I took electronics in High School. Mostly I learned what was taught. When we got to AC I was very mystified. I really lacked the ability to concentrate enough to gather all that was necessary for understanding at once. I still struggle with this, but I do know what I should have learned back then. It gave me enough understanding to make moving forward with the electronics I need for these lights, and also for ham radio, not too much of a challenge.
I also took computer programming in High School. We did not learn that much, and similar to electronics when we got to assembly language I was mostly lost. But I produced some programs, learned some basics and it has been nice to have this skill. Back then, programs were put onto cards and encoded with little holes that were read by shining a light through them and detecting where on the cards the light past through them. The machines that made the holes were call “keypunch machines”. You hit a key and it punched hole[s for a letter or number]. In general, you put one command, or one program line, on a card.
Our teacher would on Fridays take our cards down to a local university and get them run on their computer. On Monday she would pick up the printouts, the only output from our work, and bring them too us. For all intents and purposes, there were no terminals with video screens for us to use. I did not see one until two years later when I attended a big university.
After leaving engineering school I started doing Ceramics. I was interested in pottery. I was not driven enough by pottery to stick with it, although I did pick up some skill. More than this specific media and product I became interested in designing within constraint. People think of constraints as limitations, but they create a liberation. Without constraint there is no way to start to do anything. This was covered in Robert Pirsig’s book, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” under the heading of “Stuckness”. Unable to start an essay describing downtown Bozeman, a student thought that they had nothing to say. Pirsig told them to start at the top corner of a particular building. This allowed them to get started. Not only was this a constraint, but a particularly specific one.
I like wood fired ceramic surfaces and also its relative, vapor glazed surfaces. They are most often brown. A colleague who worked in cast iron thought that we should have an exhibition entitled “Brown”. There is an infinite amount of variety in color and room for expression and other content between two shades of brown. The limitation, is not a limitation. It starts a conversation.
My work, my art work, for the better part of 40 years, seemed to revolve around expressing the area of thought between words, pointing out the constraints that language imposes on how we think. What is Function? What is not? What is Functional Ceramics, what is not? What is Art? Where are the edges of these words and meanings? Do they exist? I am not sure that my study of Far Eastern Art, and the need to learn some about Taoism and Buddhism started this inquiry, but it informs it. The world defined by words is illusion. Words are an abstraction of reality as are photos, video and sound recordings.
Starting in the late 1990’s I started making videos about these ideas. The first was about Art History. The definition of Art used in the academy and particularly in Art History is narrow, limited, and ethnocentric. While what is show in Art History course has expanded, it is most still seen through a lens that remains unchanged. Movies continued. There were ones about what Ceramics is, what Art is, and why woodfiring is important. They were really about philosophy, but also about beauty and fun along with other things.
One aspect about many of them is that they had two audio and video tracks (or more). These tracks became dominnent and then stepped back in the same manner as the madrigal music I like, or like waves at different frequencies. They beat. There is and was crescendo, and decrescendo, give and take. I loved playing with the stereo. Two related discussions seemed to capture the thoughts of viewers.
Sometime in 2011 I bought an Arduino. This is a microcontroller development platform, a small programmable computer used for developing microcontrollers for embedding in simple devices like thermostats, drones, three d printers and my lights. I really had no idea what I was going to do with it, but a student asked me how to make a switch turn on a device with some specific timing and this device seemed the easiest way to do it. I got up to some basic speed with the device quickly. I had the right set of skills and experience. The platform, Arduino, was designed to allow, to create a space to learn, allowing non-technically trained microcontroller experts to develop applications.
Lady Ada and Adafruit
Adafruit, run by a fantastic innovator who goes by the name Lady Ada, sells parts and supplies, boards, and really education in part for people using Arduinos. She got started in college. Frustrated by having to wait for electronics to arrive, she stocked parts and sold them to other students out of her dorm room. Its a fantastic company. I do not think that I ever would have succeeded in making work with the Arduino without her and without companies like hers. She manages to have a manufacturing plant in New York City.
The digital revolution has brought an amazing plethora of opportunity. My early lights required that I build circuit boards by hand. My small hand skills are not great. I am not neat and clean in small detail. In the modern world I would be diagnosed with Dysgraphia, and likely some small motor skill deficit. I have managed to survive and flourish despite it. But, one day I just became ill over the idea of building another board to control my lights and said to myself, “whatever the cost, I am going to have these boards made for me”. So like any modern person, I went to Youtube to find out how to do this.
On a Monday Morning I watched 39 minutes of video instruction on using an open-source program for designing circuit boards for production by a factory in China. On Tuesday, I designed my board and was finished before noon. Wednesday morning I checked the design and uploaded it to the manufacturer and made my payment. A week later Wednesday at around 5 pm my 5 custom printed boards were delivered to my door. The total cost was about $13.50 including shipping. I should have done this sooner.
Those were just the boards, and I had to solder everything onto them. Now I am getting most of my parts place by robots. Doing this allows me to not pay several layers of markup on individual parts and is actually cheaper than assembling myself. Also many of the parts are too small for me to reliably solder to my boards with my current skill level and equipment.
The boards are essential screen printed. A block is printed onto both sides of a fiberglass board sandwiched between two thin layers of copper. The board is etched until the exposed copper is gone, leaving copper only where there is a block. Holes are drilled through the board. The board is then screened again with another block and then it is plated with solder including the inside of the holes. Both sides are printed with whatever text or marking you design into the board, the board is tested, cut out, and packed for shipping. When getting robotic assembly, this comes just before shipping.
Etching a circuit board uses the same process as etching a plate for an intaglio print. My boards I am having assembled are small. In this piece they are about 1/2 inch by 8 inches. I am using a 9″x 12″ one sided board that I designed (Maclovio Cantu taught me how to etch the board) that was etched in a bath of ferric chloride. This board is the base that everything else is mounted on. The traces of copper on this big board are decorative, but also constrained by needing to provide power to my small boards. There are six small boards used in this piece, three on the front, and three on back.
I am having some technical issue that I have to solve before I sell work like this. Likely this will involve some design constraints. It is easy for this to seem depressing, a hassle, etc. It is more productive to think of it as more opportunity. Dealing with the constraints causes growth.
Beat Frequency uses six of the twenty five boards I had printed and assembled early in December. I also let the smoke out of one. “Letting the smoke out” really means burning out the parts, overheating chips until they smoke. I hooked it up backwards. The 25 board cost about $130 dollars. They took a full day to get ready for production and are based on the work done on three other boards. The board before them was quite similar.
This board uses a microcontroller called an ATTiny85. They cost about $1.59 and are again available. I would prefer using the ATMega 328P-PU. I have some on order and expect to get them in May. I bought a stack of the ATTiny85’s at the beginning of the pandemic so I would have some. The 328’s are more powerful. One could run the hole project. Instead I am using 4. On the back the top and bottom board uses only one board and the right and left lights on the front are similarly linked.
This short essay [was posted] unedited. Nor did I go through and correct spelling, grammer [(left on purpose)] or other mistakes. I am going to post it before editing, and if needed will correct and encase the corrections inside [brackets]. I did write an outline.