mercredi 26 octobre 2011

Crystals are dope

Up until a few days ago, if you'd asked me what was the last most exciting thing I happened upon I would have answered Can. Well that was until I discovered potassium sodium tartrate. It's not an experimental band but it can make sound. It's not a drug either but it got me pretty high.

We are all familiar with the clic-clic-clic of a stove top sparkler or an electronic lighter. We might even have heard the name of the principle they use: piezoelectricity. But few of us are nerdy enough to get knee high into this shit and discover a universe of exciting possibilities. I am.

Rochelle Salt is actually the first piezoelectric material to have been discovered (at least to conventional western science). It's amazing because when it receives vibrations, gets hit or squeezed (which atomically is all the same thing just at different rates and forces), it generates a small amount of electricity. In a nutshell this is due to the fact that crystals have a very well ordered atomic structure. The particles that make them have charges that all balance out perfectly. If you apply some sort of pressure to the crystal it puts a slight mess into this perfect world and electrons escape due to the electronic imbalance. A bit like when you lose notes because your desktop has become a battlefield.

It also works the other way around, as in "injecting" electricity through them will distort their structure hence their shape. This is how smoke alarm and stop watches buzzers work. The little plate that you'll find inside and that generates the sound is a speaker without the coil. Instead, a little ceramic coating (that shares the same properties as the crystal) will vibrate, causing the metal plate to vibrate, generating a horrible high pitched sound. Your phone is ringing.
Now this is all really cool but is sounds a bit abstract so after taking apart the smoke alarm of the house I decided to make my own crystals. I intend to use them to make pickups for my electric cello and something else that I shall reveal when it ends up working. Internet almighty offers plenty of recipes to cook or grow - as it is the term - your own crystals. It is interesting how the content quality of a website is almost always inversely proportional to its visual appeal.

So here I am gathering all I need to grow these magical minerals. It's not much, three ingredients: cream of tartar (baking section in your local supermarket), washing soda (at the cleaning section) and tap water (at your tap). If you're going to try it yourself please use the recipe linked above as I'm just giving an overview here. Don't hesitate to read other guides as deux avis valent mieux qu'un. The process is still very simple and a 7 years old kid could do it in half an hour. It's the time it took my girlfriend and I to cook them at 2 o'clock in the morning. We left it to settle overnight and the next afternoon several big chunks of crystal (next picture) greeted me with all their geometricness. They are still very imperfect but will do the job for experimentaiton. I intend to take a couple extra steps and make pristine versions for the final instrument.

Now here is the real hectic part. I clamped one of the crystals with a wire on two opposite sides. These wires end in a classic jack plug like the one of a guitar lead that's plug in my computer. Eureka! Hitting the crystal makes the levels go up in Ableton Live. Now you're talkin'. And talkin' about talkin' I shouted at the crystal and recorded it. Believe it or not listen to it.
I then clamped the same setup to a guitar to hear how it would perform as a pickup. The result was amazing and can be heard here as well. The next picture is a photography of the setup that I used on the guitar. The battery of my camera was out for the microphone part but believe me it's nothing more than a crystal squeezed in between two electric wires.

Nature is incredible. I can't help but think about alchemy and other alternative empirical sciences. Crystals have been on earth forever and so have their magic properties. Some ancient cultures might have harnessed powers that we have lost and that are yet to be rediscovered. I'm working on it.

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