An Inside Look at How the Fantastic “Wintergatan Marble Machine” Makes Music with 2000 Marbles & 3000 Handmade Parts

Swedish musician Martin Molin’s Marble Machine, above, looks like the kind of top heavy, enchanted contraption one might find in a Miyazaki movie, galloping through the countryside on its skinny legs.

Those slender stems are but one of the design flaws that bother its creator, who notes that he hadn’t really taken into account the destructive power of 2000 flowing marbles (or more accurately, 11mm steel ball bearings).

It’s natural for someone so close to the project to fixate on its imperfections, but I think it’s safe to say that the rest of us will be bedazzled by all the giant musical Rube Goldberg device gets right. Hannes Knutsson’s “making of” videos below detail some of Molin’s labors, from recreating the sound of a snare drum with coasters, a contact mic and a box of basmati rice, to cutting wooden gears from a customizable template that anyone can download off the Internet.

If it looks like a time consuming endeavor, it was. Molin wound up devoting 14 months to what he had conceived of as a short term project, eventually designing and fabricating 3,000 internal parts.

The finished product is a feat of digital, musical, and physical skill. As Molin told Wired,

I grew up making music on Midi, and everyone makes music on a grid nowadays, on computers. Even before digital they made fantastic, programmable music instruments. In bell towers and church towers that play a melody they always have a programming wheel exactly like the one that is on the marble machine.

The “making of” videos highlight the difference between the recorded audio signal and the sound in the room where the machine is being operated. There’s something immensely satisfying about the insect-like click of all those marbles working in concert as they activate the various instruments and notes.

The machine also appears to give its inventor a rather brisk cardio workout.

You can read more about the construction of the Marble Machine on Molin’s Wintergatan website. Its tune is available for download here.

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