Research & U: Musical Electronics


By Calder Phillips-Grafflin

This winter and spring, the Sci/Tech section will be running a series of articles on senior projects in Division 3 (Math and the Sciences) and Division 4 (Engineering and Computer Science). Note that the featured projects are chosen by their departments.

Jacob Larocca’s senior project allows him to create music in real time by tap-dancing in modified tap shoes. Last spring, in advance of a demonstration at the Steinmetz Symposium, we ran an article discussing the development of Jacob’s project, which we’ve reproduced below.

The following was originally published in the May 12th, 2011 issue of the Concordy. See website for the original article.

If you weren’t planning on going to the Steinmetz performances this Friday, think again. Jacob LaRocca ’12, an Electrical Engineering major, will be demonstrating his MIDI Tap Shoes. Simply put, they allow Larocca to create music in real time by tap-dancing in the shoes.

How do the shoes work? In theory, the design is actually quite simple; sensors in the tap shoes detect the taps, and an Arduino microcontroller processes the signals into MIDI commands and sends them to a computer. This communication is done over a simple radio link. On the computer, the MIDI is converted into standard audio signals, which are played back over a sound system.

For those of you who aren’t musicians, MIDI is a standard method of representing musical notes. MIDI is used to communicate between almost all electronic instruments like keyboards, drums and synthesizers. For the tap shoes, it allows the creation of precise, repeatable notes.

According to LaRocca, the hardest part of the project was “deciding which sensors to use. There are hundreds of different sensors.” He initially went with triple-axis accelerometers, but it turned out to be too complicated. Instead, the shoes now use piezoelectric sensors. These sensors produce an output when subjected to an impact, which is perfect for sensing taps.

After the Steinmetz performance, Larocca intends to continue working with the shoes: “Once this round is done, functionality will only increase.” He intends to add more sensors and controls to the shoes, which would allow them to produce more different notes. In addition, he intends to add sensors and inputs to his hands and arms, which will allow more control while he’s using the shoes.

Look forward to seeing the shoes in action on Friday (4 p.m. in the Nott) and at a poster session (12:20 p.m. in the Wold atrium), and expect to hear more about them next year as the shoes continue to improve.


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