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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

See the First “Drum Machine,” the Rhyth­mi­con from 1931, and the Mod­ern Drum Machines That Fol­lowed Decades Lat­er

New Order’s “Blue Mon­day” Played with Obso­lete 1930s Instru­ments

Two Gui­tar Effects That Rev­o­lu­tion­ized Rock: The Inven­tion of the Wah-Wah & Fuzz Ped­als

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