We have the transcripts from last week's soldersesh with Kelly Heaton along with the highlight videos ready!! Read along as Carrie and Kelly dive into Kelly's path into STEM and learn about how she got started at MIT! Kelly also goes into detail about her oscillating songbird circuit and what inspired her to build it, but you'll have to watch Highlight Video #3 to hear the "birds" sing! Her printed bird circuits are used in her larger art piece, Circuit Garden, where the entire soundscape is created with the electric vibrations of analog circuits!
Check out Kelly's website with all the latest information! You can also find her on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Vimeo!
(2:13 – 12:50) An Artist’s Path to STEM
Kelly: Okay, so how did I get into STEM? I have been an artist for as long as I remember, and I always ever identified as a visual artist and growing up, I had a real love of nature. Nature was a continuous source of fascination and I have pretty early memories of wanting to build, at the time, what seemed like magical things, like a bat or a squirrel that would fly along tracks on the roof of my bedroom. My whole family was big into nature. My mom used to take me on these trips with The Museum of Natural History called Amphibian Alert. We would go in the spring and the sound of the spring Peepers chirping; that sonic, immersive, visceral, experience had a huge impact on me. It was something that I just imagined, “How cool would it be if you could capture that, if you could recreate it?” But I didn't grow up in a family of engineers, so I had no language for anything STEM related. I did have a Commodore 64 computer, and my brother and I would play around with that, but I wasn't, frankly, that drawn to computers. They were just not visually or sculpturally appealing to me as objects. I just saw them as like a beige case.
Carrie: I was just going to say, “A beige box was not appealing to you, with brown keys, why ever not?” I think Commodore 64 had a tiny rainbow on them, didn’t they?
Kelly: I mean it was like a novelty that you could play with them a little bit, but the video games back then were not that interesting. We had an Atari game console, but it never occurred to me that I could hack into it. Long story short, I was privileged to have technology in my life, but computers, to me, were synonymous with things that boys played with or something that I had to write my high school papers on. So that was pretty much it for me. I was not a STEM kid. With the exception that, given my love of nature, I did get interested in biological science and this was something running in tandem with art. Adults in my life were like, “Arts not… you don't make money as an artist you know that; you need some way to make money.” I railed against that, and I still do. But in college and then after college, I bounced around a lot because I hadn't– I couldn't find my voice. I wasn't a traditional artist. I mean, yes, I drew, I painted, I sculpted, but I wanted something more.
Kelly: There's this part of me that was always drawn back to science. I actually went to veterinary school for a while and then dropped out of that to go get my Master of Fine Arts, and then dropped out of that. Prior to dropping out, I had a fateful meeting with a neighbor in my studio complex, who was an MIT graduate. A man named Kevin Brown, who is the founder and owner of Brown Innovations. They're an audio engineering company in Boston. They were at the time [at least and] I assume they’re still there. Kevin saw that I was using a lot of scientific metaphor in my art. He said, “You should go to MIT.” I was like, “You are insane.”
Kelly: I had taken up to calculus in mathematics and I did have a lot of biological science in my background. I took it all to get into veterinary school, so that was okay. But you know, engineering and math and all the things you think of when you think of MIT, it's like, “Yeah, I had none of those qualifications.” One thing led to another, and it also happened to be at the end of the 90’s, the dot-com boom was happening, and a lot of money going was into creative, innovative, out-of-the-box, radical thinking. I met Michael Holly, who’s unfortunately now deceased, but Michael Holly was just an incredible creative; there are no limits, there isn't a problem I can't solve. He was really a wonderful thinker. He invited me to join his research group at the MIT media laboratory and three months later, I matriculated without ever having applied to MIT. I did later, I think I remember filling out the actual application forms, but I mean, how crazy is that? Right. So started at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, stranger than fiction, but that's what happened.
Carrie: I love it, I love the atypical way of matriculating, too.
Kelly: I mean, there was so many things that had to go right. It was a miracle really. It was a miracle of being in the right place at the right time and meeting the right people. Also, there was obviously something about me and my hybrid creativity that they were attracted to. I was definitely using a lot of chemistry and biochemistry metaphors in my artwork. I had that kind of thinking. Again, with the dot-com thing exploding and so much optimism happening in the late 90’s, I think Michael Holly and the media lab felt like, “Well, you know, why not give it a try?”
Kelly: Let's take an artist who obviously has a penchant for science and scientific thinking and put her in the media lab environment with computer scientists and electrical engineers and see what happens. And that's exactly what they did. Now what they didn't tell me was that I actually did have to take classes. I took John Maeda’s “Design by Numbers” courses. I will never forget, this is no joke, my first computer science class ever with John Maeda, it's like going to the moon for STEM. My first ever computer science assignment was John Maeda saying that I needed to write a Java app that would load in a photograph and a simple tool where I could draw on the photograph and then convert the photograph using a fast Fourier transform to whatever weird image that became and be able to draw on it again and do a reverse fast Fourier transform. Oh my God. What is an app? What is Java?
Carrie: How do you spell Fourier?
Kelly: So, what happened was this defined my entire career at the MIT media lab. I had no choice but to tell my story of, “Okay, I'm the token artist that Michael Holly invited to join his research group. I'm screwed because I don’t know anything so, please work with me. I'll buy you a pizza. I'll make you a drawing. I'll help you design your product casing or whatever, please help me do my homework.” I had just wonderful colleagues when I was there, who would give me snippets of code; they wouldn't do my homework for me, but they would give me snippets of code. For example, like the shell of an applet, so I was then able to go in and make some adjustments. There's a lot of collaboration, and it was supported; I mean, I don't think that we were plagiarizing or anything like that. It was understood that it was hard and that we had to help each other. I mean, I learned how to write code basically on the kindness of my colleagues – my friends at the media lab.
Carrie: Well, you know, they don't tell you this, but that's how life goes after school. You learn from other people and from collaborating on projects and from other people teaching you things. It's funny how in a lot of school settings, that is not only not the norm, but specifically forbidden. It's kind of weird.
Kelly: Especially in technology. There is so much to know. Even if all you did was focus on fundamentals by the time you got your head out of your books. The world would have moved 20 or 30 years beyond and technology would be so different that your knowledge wouldn’t apply any longer, or at least not in the traditional way.
(21:00 – 28:53) Analog vs. Digital
Carrie: [reading the comments] David wants to know where he can get a cool cap cap.
Kelly: Oh, thanks for asking! yeah, my power cap. Right now, the answer is nowhere, but I am working on it. Not only do I want to make power caps, but I also want to… I don't have it, I should have brought it down, but I have this resistor backpack that I made; I want to make backpacks with many different stripes, like resistors of all values. I love fashion and I’d really like to make electronics inspired clothing. To empower everybody to take part in electronic culture. Engineering is so inaccessible to the vast majority of the population and yet technology is controlling everyone to a great degree. I find that disparity hurtful, alarming, and dangerous. I mean, there's so many things about it that are wrong. So anyway, one of the ways I plan to address that in the coming years is to make a line of really cool electronics inspired fashion to empower the people.
Carrie: Yes. I love it. I mean I feel pretty passionately about that, too. And part of the reason of doing livestreams and hanging out, is to just build circuits and learn stuff about circuits and get more information out there for people. The more people [that are] talking about electronics and explaining stuff in different ways, I feel like the better we are, even if it's the same circuit explained a hundred different times, a hundred different ways. Some of those ways are going to connect with some people in ways that those other 98 did not.
Kelly: I mean, I get it. Speaking of the astable multivibrator, I have a pretty solid, intuitive understanding of how that circuit works now; after working with it and building hundreds, if not thousands of them over more than a decade of my practice. Do I still completely understand how the electricity is moving in it? No. Am I continuously developing new insight about exactly how the circuit works? Yes. That's one of the things about analog electronics that is so cool and that's also why I want to get more people passionate about electronic hardware. There's tremendous potential in analog electronics that is underutilized because in the 60’s and 70’s, when electronic devices were miniaturized and the manufacturing processing was improved, they became more readily available.
Kelly: There was this brief period in human history when hobbyists could have pretty easy access to electronic supplies and build some amazing analog electronic circuits with them. But by the middle end of the 70’s that was already ending because you had digital integrated circuits coming out and everybody just left analog. “Oh, it's too hard.” “It's easier.” You know, you work with these chips and people move towards digital really fast. Now I get frustrated when I apply for art competitions or art grants and the categories are like, “You're either painting or sculpture or digital art.” I'm like, “That’s not fair, digital art is not synonymous with electronic art.”
Carrie: Yeah, that's a really interesting point. I hadn't thought of that before.
Kelly: It’s almost that bad. We need to get people back to thinking about hardware, working with hardware, and also looking at what analog circuits can do. That's why I developed my birdsong circuits – to show people, using a very small amount of hardware that I can get really interesting, complicated behavior. If you were to do this in a digital way, it would require thousand-fold, hundreds, maybe mill– I don't even know because for starters, you have to have the computing processor as your platform. With chip shortages in the world and everything already, just already getting that chip, that very basic computer, even an Arduino or whatever, you're already talking about tremendous manufacturing and sourcing complexity, right?
Kelly: Yeah. Right. So, what if you could build the same circuit with three discrete components? You know what I mean, people buy Arduinos to blink lights.
Carrie: They do indeed.
Kelly: But now you’re going to show them that they don't need to.
Carrie: It is true. I mean, I don't think I can necessarily pick a favorite because I do really enjoy embedded programming. It makes you think in much smaller, simpler terms. I mean, you really do have to think in 1s and 0s a lot and think about how many 1s and 0s are represented by this number that I am putting in my code and things like that. And like, “What happens if I “or” these two 1s and 0s together? What happens if I “and” them together?” I don't know, there’s something about that I really enjoy, but I also really love analog circuits, too. I don't know if it’s the retro-ness or the retro appeal, but it is really cool to have something that does a thing that you don't program, that just does that thing because of the nature of the components involved.
Kelly: I mean, you do program it in the sense that you are still building an intelligent architecture, you can't just throw a bunch of transistors at your breadboard and light magically.
Carrie: Yeah. I wish you could, that’d be great!
Kelly: Another circuit that would be really cool to build, especially for you, is our transistor logic circuits. You can use transistors to “and” and “or” and “xor”.
Carrie: Oh, speaking of something that's kind of a cool crossover, I recently saw the latest Tindie newsletter. Somebody is putting together a core RAM board. I believe you have to wire the ferrites yourself and make the lattice yourself on the board. And I was just like, “Oooh, core memory.”
Kelly: Core memory is beautiful.
Carrie: Yeah, I'm excited. I think I'm going to pick up that kit and maybe that will be a future solder sesh.
(36:06 – 46:33) Kelly’s Birdsong Circuit
Carrie: Okay Kelly, tell us about this awesome looking circuit that’s on your bench and the birdsong circuit. I think it's super cool. I have a few questions about different parts of it, too. But I would love for you to do the overview first.
Kelly: Yeah. I have a couple of them sitting here. This one's easier to plug in cause this one's got a wonky connector. Well, I'll let you hear it first. Cause I think that's the easiest way to introduce it.
[Electronic bird chirping noises start!]
Carrie: That is super cool.
Kelly: I just turned the sound off for a minute. So, the sound that you were just hearing is being dynamically generated by the analog electronic circuit. Right now, the bird thinks it’s singing, I've just disabled the switch to the audio of the speaker. What I'll do next [is I’ll] start to twist some of the knobs, which are the base resistors of the astable multivibrators. You can hear all the oscillating circuit and therefore the birdsong changes with that, but I just wanted to play it for a minute without touching anything so you could see that the circuit makes remarkably complex sounds with only five astable multivibrators and a modified Hartley oscillator.
Carrie: Yeah, it was remarkably natural sounding in complexity.
Kelly: Right, and then the pauses in between and everything.
[More electronic bird chirping noises]
Kelly: So, you see it changes the song pattern, so you get different syntax.
[More electronic bird chirping noises]
Carrie: That is really interesting.
Kelly: Thank you!
Carrie: That is very, very cool. So that's actually a perfect lead in for some of my questions. Which is, I think that the most interesting part of this entire schematic… So, I'll show you this, I'm going to zoom in so that people can see it in a little bit more detail. This schematic is mostly these little sections, those are the astable multivibrators, and they basically work by alternating off and on, on these transistors and that is controlled by a little charge pump capacitor circuit.
Carrie: So, once one of the capacitors is relatively charged, then it opens up the base on this transistor, which opens the path from emitter to collector. Then you have this side of the circuit that's on, but then as soon as that happened, because they have this cross coupled feedback, then what happens is this side of the circuit starts charging. As soon as it gets above the base voltage, it turns on and the other one turns off, so you keep getting this, this back and forth.
Kelly: Exactly, they're pulling each other.
Carrie: Yeah, and then all of the characteristics, like the frequency and things like that can be adjusted by the different components in the circuit. You have five of these and they're all set up a little bit different. They have different capacitor values. And of course, you can change the resistors here. These guys are the potentiometers, the knobs.
Kelly: I have since made some changes to the circuit to try and get as much diversity of sound out of it as I possibly can. But the blue Jay that you just heard is exactly that circuit that you have. Point being this particular model has a lot of options for modification and expansion. The addition of more oscillators that are coupled to make even complex sound patterns. Essentially, the circuit can be thought of as five astable multivibrators whose purpose is to create syntax, meaning, a grammar. It's an architecture, a pattern architecture so to speak, for one modified Hartley oscillator, which comes from the classic electronic Canary Birdsong circuit you can find widely on the internet. By competitively coupling the five sort of syntax oscillators, if you will, to the one voice oscillator. That's where the connections are coming in.
Kelly: You can see that I've got the capacitors there, which then if you go up on the schematic, that's the point at which those five oscillators are connecting to the base of the transistor that's controlling the chirp of the audio transformer. So that's the voice mechanism of the bird so to speak, where the quality of the bird sound is from. In that part of the circuit, if you make modifications to those capacitor values, you can make the voice either higher or lower pitched. The values that I chose, are just, I think the most kind of generically bird sound like. But yeah, I mean, that's it, it's really simple. It's just five oscillators controlling one oscillator where the five are for pattern and the one is for the voice generation.
Carrie: I was curious about this mixing section.
Kelly: Oh yeah. That's another area where there were literally so many different ways, I could have designed the coupling that I just sort of picked one that I was like, okay, well, this one is cool, but there were so many other cool ones too.
Carrie: Why did you pick this particular one?
Kelly: Because I liked it.
Carrie: What'd you like about it?
Kelly: I mean, it's really, that's it. I'll show you my breadboard here for a sec. I don't really spend a lot of time planning my circuits. It doesn't mean I don't do research. I do, I'll have a concept and then I'll go scour around on the internet to see what existing schematics I can find that I can modify. Electronic Canary being one of them. But if you build that electronic canary circuit, as it is on the web, it just goes chirp, chirp, chirp, it's cool but annoying.
Carrie: Which is sometimes what you're going for, but sometimes not.
Kelly: Yeah, I wanted to give it, like I said, more syntax to make it more like a real birdsong. Once I got the basic architecture of the circuit in place, like the concept that there are five oscillators that make the syntax and one that makes the voice then how I coupled them and so forth, those component values, the capacitor values, or a diode or not a diode or put the diode somewhere else or swap out the wires. There's a lot of potential for expansion in the circuit. I'm working on those right now. I'm working on a product that I could sell so people can have one of these and play with it. I'm also in conversation with researchers who study bird neurology and birdsong, to look at ways that this circuit may support research and to understand. I really think it's the same model for essentially how a bird’s brain works to generate birdsong.
(1:13:52 – 1:19:59) Imitating Nature through Electronics
Carrie: So, question, have real birds responded to your deep fake birds?
Kelly: I love that question. The answer is sadly, I don't know. The reason is that in order for me to know, I need to set my birds up outside for a longer period of time and go away, meaning enough distance that I'm not interfering. And what's my excuse? Basically, my excuse is, well, number one, it would have to be a sunny day. That's not even an excuse because I can get that. I guess I've just been really busy.
Carrie: I would say, I think somebody should fund that study.
Kelly: Well, I think somebody should fund anything I do, anything. Because yes, that would, that would be nice. So yes, I will do that, and I will make eventually, with lots of money coming in my direction. Ha ha ha. But I'd like to make birds that talk to each other.
Carrie: Yeah. That’d be pretty cool.
Kelly: So, my birds in circuit garden all have wires that run back to the main controller panel, which is my tree of life circuit. For those of you who [don’t] know what I'm talking about, it's just basically relay switches that sequence the entire installation, so the birds aren't singing all of the time. But anyway, that particular switch doesn't necessarily need to be controlled by a relay it could be controlled by an infrared communication. It could be controlled by a radio. So, I'd like to develop a whole flock of birds that have some simple perceptual abilities, so that they can affect each other and even better if using the same analog principles when they communicate with each other; it actually affects the vibration syntax, so to speak, so it modulates their song.
Kelly: I have to say, though, for any of these outdoor bird experiments, if I find that real birds are getting upset, the fake birds are coming inside.
Carrie: That seems reasonable. I mean, I wouldn't see why real birds, as long as it was relatively close, I mean, real birds respond to the fake bird call things. So why wouldn't they respond to a computer making bird noises? Right.
Kelly: For sure Mockingbirds would definitely. I'm just saying that there is, in the back of my mind, this slight concern that when my fake birds are deployed on the world, I just hope that it benefits real birds not hurts real birds, that's all.
Carrie: Yeah. You don't want them to be the evil deep fake birds. We want benevolent deep fake birds.
Kelly: Definitely. I mean, in fact, one of my career goals is to generate enough profit from my electronics practice to donate a percentage to wildlife conservation because the circuits that I developed are inspired by nature because nature is so tremendously magnificent. While a bird circuit is cool, it's nothing compared to real birds. It's so critical that while we become increasingly engaged with technological media, we don't forget that the earth really needs our stewardship. We need to go outside and hug trees and love real birds and all of that. Important.
Carrie: Yeah, definitely. Have you ever done any other kind of analog sounds? I'm thinking something that would be super cool is to do something like this but try to make sounds of water running through pebbles on the beach, things like that
Kelly: I have done that. I use that technique in some of my soundscapes that were part of a show I did in 2012 called The Parallel Series. I did that using basically white noise generators where I slowed down the pace enough that you got kind of a wobble effect. I've also made the sound of crackling fire in a similar way. Again, white noise generators – very, very useful way to approach it. You can also just use a transistor for noise generation. In fact, if you look up my pretty bird schematic, I used a transistor for noise generation there. You could apply a similar principle for other types of sounds. I've made frogs, crickets, bees. What else? Moths… they don't make sound, but I have a big electrolier full of blinking moths.