Moon Armada's Baby Bot Synths, Photon Blasters & Other Offbeat Gear

For the uninitiated, Moon Armada is much more than simply a gear brand. Its founding artists, Honest Kevin and Appias Albina, in fact describe it as an "audiovisual-art project focused on creating abstract musical instruments that emphasize experimentation, unorthodoxy, and esoteric aesthetics." And that they do.

While most of us would at least passively agree that instruments can be as beautiful and artistically creative as they are functional, it's usually the function that's considered first and foremost. But Moon Armada blurs the lines in undoubtedly fun and inventive ways.

We had a chance to speak with Moon Armada's Honest Kevin recently about some such projects they've been building—from working, rhythmic-noise generators built out of Legos to fully functional synthesizers housed in recycled baby doll bodies. The unconventional materials paired with the out-of-this-world designs are truly as fun to perceive as they are to use.

Visit the Moon Armada Reverb shop to see what wild and wonderful treats await.

Let's start with the Marbles of Misfortune, which is a way of generating random signals (or sequences) that can then trigger any number of external synths/instruments. How did you come up with that idea?

This was originally inspired by the sound artist Zimoun, who has a lot of works that use simple mechanisms to generate delicate sounds, multiplied to a large scale to make beautiful noise clouds and such. I wanted to do something like that in my own way, and I eventually landed on the idea of jumping marbles. It was originally just going to be dozens of solenoids and marbles clacking to make a meditative installation.

After spending a year making several prototypes with various materials, I still wasn’t happy with the aesthetics I was coming up with, nor how much of a departure the whole thing was from my pre-existing style. So I rethought the overall concept and decided it would be more in my own vein to include an audio synthesis aspect. Hence, the trigger/sequencer idea, which had really just come from observing the action of the marbles for so long and imagining ways to exploit those motions.

My wife, who I partner with on a lot of these projects, suggested scaling the idea way down and using Lego, which turned out to be a really great idea. It took a long time to get everything worked out and put together, but I’m happy with the result and am already working on a spiritual successor to it.

Marbles Of Misfortune: A Chaotic-Motion Sequencer

How do the signals and sequences work? Do you have to choose between triggering from individual marble hits or taking the signal from the sequencer? Or do both work simultaneously?

Each marble track/sequencer has its own trigger and sequencer output, so each sequencer/track combo has its own trigger and sequencer output. You can route these outputs wherever you like. For example, you could use one sequencer/track to play a note upon a marble hitting the top, while the sequencer determines the pitch of the note. These outputs can also be combined for even more combinations of values.

The Marbles of Misfortune is partially created with Legos, which you've also used to build the Photon Blaster. Why Legos?

As I mentioned before, the original idea to use Lego came from my wife, Zhenia. There are a number of reasons why it stuck, both creative and practical. Most importantly, Lego fits very well into the esoteric toy-art motif that I have already established. And Lego pieces are available in such an extensive array of parts and colors these days that it's possible to use them to create all sorts of sculptures and contraptions.

On the practical side, Legos are very easy to get ahold of, both here in Europe and in the USA (my home country, where I also spend a lot of time) which eliminates a lot of the usual headaches that go into fabricating things from scratch.

Lego Synthesizer No. 1- The Photon Blaster

How does the Photon Blaster actually make sound?

The Photon Blaster uses a fairly simple, noisy synth circuit that uses logic gates at audio rates to create square wave oscillators that modulate each other.

The "Photon" part of that comes from the light sensors that control the frequencies of two of those oscillators; the "Blaster" part comes from LFO-controlled LEDs used to play those light sensors, which are made to resemble some kind of science-fiction light canons

Will these new Lego Machines be available for sale? And will you continue to create more in the line?

Yes, I am making a handful of things available. I have a delay effect, a new drone synth, a few more of the Photon Blasters, and a couple one-offs. I will probably be doing more elaborate, unique instruments and effects with Lego and less series of stuff.

Many people will know Moon Armada from your Baby Bots. Will you continue to make Baby Bots, even as you create new instruments?

As of now, I intend to keep making them, though I can’t really say for how long. I have a lot of new projects in the works, and at some point, it may be necessary to move on to make time for other things.

Baby Bot 301- Analog Rhythmic Effects Synthesizer

Where do you source your baby dolls? Do you have a dedicated supplier at this point or do you just buy second-hand dolls everywhere you can?

I used to get them wherever and whenever I could, mainly from thrift stores. Now I have a couple of shops here in Vilnius who help me to procure them. They know the qualities I am looking for, and it saves me a lot of time and hassle.

Why is it important to you to create instruments with such unorthodox designs? Why not house the circuitry in more standard enclosures?

I don’t really think of myself as a "musical instrument maker" in any typical sense; I think of what I’m doing more as making functional art objects. I’ve always drawn a lot of inspiration from the indie toy-maker scene—guys like Killer Bootlegs, Pendragon, and Lab Monkey Number 9 (who I’ve collaborated with a few times).

What I’m doing is of course a bit different, but I’ve taken a lot of cues from that world stylistically. Overall, I’m just looking to make things that you won’t encounter from anywhere else.

In the newer instruments, it also seems like there's a focus on using randomness as a source of music. Is that intentional? If so, what is it about randomly generated sound that's attractive to you?

I would say I am more attracted to using external stimuli as a generative source than randomness/chaos specifically—though often those things go hand in hand. I am really trying to focus on things that are visually concrete, either through kinetics or light. That is to say: things that have a strong and elaborate correspondence between whatever you are seeing and hearing.

How do you envision artists using your instruments in their own work?

I have a lot of my own practical applications for them, but I guess more than anything else, I hope that artists and others just enjoy them as offbeat, inspiring objects that challenge conventions and boundaries, and encourage them to do the same— just as the works of countless others have done for me.

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