Art Meets Electronics: Dance Floor 64

What’s better than lights, electronic beats, and high power? Michael Grabschied’s Dance Floor 64 takes all of that and combines it with a high level of electrical prowess to create what will be the world’s largest dance pad featuring high-powered LEDs. In short, the project is quintessentially M5.

Grabscheid is an electronics and music hobbyist as pure as they come. He currently serves as the Director of Marketing at UMass Amherst. Although he studied Math and Engineering in college, his training was largely unused for most of his life. While filling various marketing positions, it was clear that Grabschied was not your average nine-to-fiver. His unique CV includes projects like organizing four U.S. Solar-Electric championship car rallies and growing a sustainable building and park demonstration project from the ground up. More close to home, he organized “Unbroken Chain: The Grateful Dead in Music, Culture and Memory” at UMass Amherst, an academic symposium and artistic celebration of The Grateful Dead, the first of its kind to be hosted at a major research university.

Even with his eclectic accomplishments, Grabscheid admits he left his college degree largely unused until the last 6 or 7 years. In part, he credits his position with the University for allowing him to explore his interests. For him, UMass is not just a day job, but a community in which he can explore and bolster his interests. Now considering himself a hobbyist/inventor/artist, he is enthusiastic about creating and innovating digital sound and light devices.

Grabscheid’s interest in the combination of light and sound started in high school. His school had received a grant to purchase a DEC PDP. His experience with the computer coincided with his discovery of two albums: Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, and The Grateful Dead’s live album Europe ’72. Pink Floyd’s use of synthesizers and the Dead’s experimental sound made him dream of using a computer to create music. “Not in my lifetime,” he thought.

Fast forward to the new millennium, where computers are ubiquitous and anyone with one can create the next musical masterpiece. His first project was a laser harp. He was inspired by one he had seen at a music festival around 2002, and only needed his son’s seventh grade science fair to be convinced to build one. The design featured a laser shining on a photoresistor, similar to what is seen in garage door systems. The first version featured a single green laser split by biology slide glass, a breadboard (housed in an attaché case), and a Midi PCB. On the software side, he relied on Pure Data and Maize Studio.

He completed the current iteration of the laser harp in 2011. It features 16 red lasers set in a wooden dowel. He moved to use an Arduino Duemilanove and a custom PCB Header. The concept is simple: by breaking a beam, something is triggered. In this case it can be a loop, note, or even an entire scale. The device is best used with multiple people, with each beam creating a unique sound. The collective group effort creates a unique experience each time.

The next step on the journey to Dance Floor 64 involves the open-source Monome project. He began building examples of the multipurpose minimalist controllers for use with his projects. He uses them for audio effects and looped samples.

Enter Dance Floor 64. The concept is simple: take a Monome controller, add lights, and use feet instead of fingers. The design consists of an 8×8 grid of 64 one square foot tiles. Lighting comes from stick-on LED strips; 18 UV and 60 RGB LEDs per tile. Pressure sensing technology came from the unlikeliest of places: a 12 year-old’s DIY project posted on YouTube. The design consists conductive foam sandwiched between strips of copper tape, a super-resilient silicon foam as a “spring,” and Plexiglas “plungers” on either side of the tile. For signal processing, he utilizes an Arduino Mega LED Control, and laptop based Java “router” maps developed by his son.

The presentation concluded with an intimate question and answer session and Professor Soules demonstrating use of the tile. Grabschied is enthused at the existence of M5, and called on the community for help. He urged any students interested in completing Dance Floor 64, resurrecting the digital marimba, building a laser auto harp, and designing an effects controller to contact him.

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