Parasonic is an interactive sculpture designed to envelop the listener in the noise of rain. The name is derived from the words "parasol" + "sonic." Essentially, this sculpture is an umbrella fitted with sensors, an amplifier, and a headphone jack. The listener is then able to plug in their own pair of headphones into the jack, and be cocooned in a sonic sheet as they walk around in the rain.
The piece is meant to be an isolating yet personal experience which allows individuals to amplify the common afterthought of rain. It speaks to the idea of a culture in which individuals quite literally disconnect themselves from the world through the use of headphones. It is a conscious and intentional separation from the bustling noisy soundscapes present in our environment. We can witness this on the bus, at our grocery stores, and especially at the local university campus. This piece is essentially a reversal of that idea while utilizing the same technology to do so. It is aimed at allowing humans to focus on external stimuli as opposed to the traditional internal ones.
Here is a brief video of the completed project:
To create this sculpture, I needed to gather the main components:
- piezo disks
- Plasti Dip
- 1/8" female auxiliary jack
- a generous collection of tools
Building and Testing the Amplifier
The next step involved acquiring an amplifier. Because I’m cheap and believe in building character, I decided it was worth building my own amplifier from scratch. Through sheer luck, I was able to find an Integrated Circuit called the LM386. Conveniently, the datasheet also contained a variety of schematics for building amplifiers with different levels of gain. This is the one I chose:
The list of components was relatively minimal, and the build of the amplifier was pretty easy. All I really needed to buy was the IC, and a board on which to mount it on. I already happened to have all the other parts.
I began by prototyping the amplifier on a breadboard to make sure it actually worked. I wanted to get a sense of how much amplification this little circuit could give me.
To simulate an umbrella, I took a piezo disk and taped it onto a sheet of plastic I cut out from a bag. I was pleased to hear the amplified crinkling through the speaker.
Here is a brief video explaining the circuit:
Here is a brief video of me testing the circuit with a piezo disk:
After I made sure that the circuit functioned properly, I decided to start building the final prototype of it. I ordered a set of three Adafruit Perma-Proto Half-sized Breadboard PCBs. I found this to be the best board to recreate the circuit on my breadboard as it was compact and had the familiar feel of a breadboard.
The helping hands and magnifying lens were essential so I could actually see what I was soldering. I wear glasses so every little bit of magnification saves strain on my eyes.
Here are some pictures taken throughout the build:
For the potentiometer (volume control), I decided to create an extension so I could eventually hot glue it to a part of the umbrella and run the wires along the stretcher (rods coming out of center) to the completed board.
Video of me testing the completed circuit:
I was happy to finally have the amplifier finished and working. This was actually the second time I had to build it. The first time is not pictured here. However, it turned out to be a complete nightmare. I tried to built it on some cheap boards with major difficulty, and in the end it wouldn't even work. Ah! The magic of working with electronics.
The next step was to create my sensors for amplifying the rain. For those unfamiliar, speaking into a piezo disk will not produce any sound, but placing it against your voice box will. This is because it picks up vibrations. Because of this property it is often used as something called a contact microphone. I found four of them, and began to solder extension wires to them.
I went through the process four times and ended up with four sensors:
I acquired something called Plasti Dip at my local hardware store. Essentially, it is a coating most often used for protecting and weatherproofing tools. It helps avoid abrasion and is incredibly valuable to my project because it has the unique property of waterproofing items. This was the last step in strengthening my piezo disks.
At this point, I dipped my piezos in this substance, and let them dry by the air vents:
After they became tacky, I added a second coat. As a side note: according to the wonderful Nic Collins, three coats is usually too much. The Plasti Dip does deaden the sound, but luckily for us, that tends to be the shrill upper frequency range, so it’s not too much of a loss.
Much like the amplifier circuit, this was my second attempt at making piezos. The reason? I used the Plasti Dip spray the first time around, and it was simply not sufficient. Do you ever feel like you experienced deja vu? Here is a picture of one of the original unused piezos:
I conducted some experiments with the previously unused piezos. Here is one of the videos:
Note: this was the previous version of the piezo and was NOT used in the final result of this project. However, I wanted to demonstrate how they reacted when amplifying water. The concept is exactly the same for these new sealed up sensors.
Connecting, Mounting, Soldering
Now that the creation and reinforcement of my sensors was complete, the last step was to combine all of my discreet items and mount them onto the parasol itself.
Before mounting and connecting of my parts, it was important to figure out where each one would be situated. I went ahead and planned my course of action, focusing on the skeleton of the umbrella as a significant structure which could be utilized to my advantage.
A compilation of photographs documenting the accumulation of piezo disks:
I put the original cap of the umbrella back on top. This proved to be incredibly helpful as it helped to keep the piezo disks in place.
Next, I routed all of the wires to one side of the umbrella. This was important in connecting the piezos to the amplifier.
Using zip ties, I secured the wires to the stretcher and the rib of the umbrella. The great thing about coming up with new projects is that it actively gives you an excuse to learn new stuff. Tell me, would you ever learn what the "rib" of an umbrella is in your everyday life?
I made sure that the umbrella was still closable. I was happy to see that it was.
A brief explanation of the build so far:
I put some thought into how I was actually going to attach the parts on the silky skin of the umbrella. I thought about sewing the piezos onto it, but ultimately decided against it. Instead, my go-to turned out to be hot glue. I was careful to apply it, but I think it turned out quite well.
I made sure to test this to make sure that I had “stereo” audio in my headphones. What is actually happening here is that I am connecting all of the piezo signals to a mono channel. This assures that all of them get amplified equally.
The connecting and soldering of all the piezo wires:
Finally, all my connections were complete.
A brief video explaining how I was going to mount my materials:
I zip tied the audio jack to the stretcher. I was careful to make sure the umbrella was still able to open and close.
I found a way to use zip ties to connect the 9v battery to one of the ribs. This proved to be a nondestructive way to do it. When the battery dies, I can always replace it with a new one without harming the umbrella.
Here I glued the board to the material of the umbrella. I made sure that there was enough reach between the battery clip and the battery.
Everything except the potentiometer was now attached to the umbrella.
Tragically, my potentiometer broke, so I replaced it with a better one. This one worked flawlessly. Once again, these are the happy little accidents that occur when working with electronics. No biggie.
The potentiometer wouldn’t fit snuggly on the black handle, so I found a bit of wood (which I filed endlessly) to mount the potentiometer on. The wood then fit on the handle.
At last, all was mounted and connected.
Now that everything was completed, the final step was to test whether this device actually worked. When I plugged headphones into the jack, I was pleased to hear the amplified and explosive rattling of the handle as I twisted and turned the parasol.
Takeaways and Future Improvements
Since I consider this project a prototype, its main function proved to be a valuable learning experience. However, in retrospect, I would have done things differently if I had a chance to create this project again.
- First, I would use a higher quality umbrella that is larger and sturdier. Flimsy umbrellas don’t cut it.
- I would also invest in nicer piezo discs. Mine are relatively small, and therefore can pick up a smaller frequency range. If I invested in larger piezo disks, I could potentially capture more frequencies at all levels (potentially more fidelity).
- I liked the nondestructive method of this project, but I wonder whether hot gluing materials to the skin of the parasol is such a good idea. I’ve thought about using conductive thread, but it would have a higher chance of short-circuiting. Definitely something to think about.
- The circuit is exposed, and it may have been appropriate to cover it with some kind of an enclosure or a spray (perhaps this is the appropriate moment to use that Plasti Dip spray?).
- My four piezos are sent to one amplifier and to a jack with essentially a mono signal. It eventually occured to me that I could pan the sounds into their own discrete directions. It would give a sense of spatialization and inform the user where the rain drops are landing at the top of the parasol.
- It would be wonderful to create a kind of nondestructive "package" with the sensor, amplifier, auxiliary jack, and potentiometer included that could be mounted to ANY umbrella in a nondestructive fashion. This would be the ultimate project.
With the above points noted, I am overall pleased with the results of the project and it has met my expectations and even went a little above. This piece took quite some time to create, and at some point it felt like I would never finish it. So, through trials and tribulations, it turned out and I was able to gain a variety of valuable experiences from repeatedly failing. That’s what art is all about isn’t it?
Thanks for reading!
I'd like to thank my friend Cristina for testing out my project in the shower, posing, and being so patient and willing to help. Also, a thank you to Kevin and Becky for encouraging the process of documentation and helping me take wonderful pictures, video, and being patient with me. Lastly, a thank you to Pete who is infinitely kind, helpful, patient, and supportive of the work that I do.