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Meet the Organic Chemist Who Uses a DIY Tupperware Beat Box to Make Music

ingMob uses DIY instruments to make the most scientifically advanced music you've ever heard.
December 12, 2013, 10:52pm

ingMob using his DIY tupperware Monome controller. Image: Weitekamp

Raymond Weitekamp, aka ingMob, had his mind forever warped by the minimal design and limitless possibilities of the Monome, a "blank slate" controller used to trigger samples, loops and other electronic music bits via software. Baffling and alien to many users, it made perfect sense to Weitekamp. It probably helped that he's an organic chemsitry PhD student at Caltech.

It all started after meeting DJ and producer Daedalus at Low End Theory, Los Angeles’ weekly experimental electronic music and hip-hop club night. Daedalus told Weitekamp that Mono controllers could be made DIY-style. So, he did just that, fitting a few Monome kits into a couple of tupperware containers. The controller, and the community that grew out of it, allowed the artistic, creative half of Weitekamp’s brain to fuse with its scientific, analytical other half. All of the music that had been bubbling up inside him eventually found its output in the neon green matrix of his controllers.

Weitekamp just had to find the time. When he’s not producing electronic music, he’s working in a CalTech lab. The 16-hour days don’t exactly leave a ton of time to be artistic. In talking to Weitekamp, it’s apparent that he wants to find some way to forge his careers in science and music. It’s not difficult to see why he couldn’t just ditch science for electronic muisc. Weitekamp works in materials chemistry, where organic chemistry and applied physics meet, and mind-bending science blooms.

Weitekamp’s work with photononic crystals allows him and fellow researchers to make polymers, or plastics, interact with light and change color on the nano scale. It’s the same way that butterfly wings, beetle shells, and opals are colored, and should have commercial applications in the coloring of materials.

Weitekamp also does research in photoresist, a photosensitive material that can undergo chemical change to alter its material properties. He recently discovered that photoresist would allow him to shine a light on a rubbery material, making it cross-link and become stronger. While there are no immediate commercial applications for this photoresist research, as Weitekamp told me, it could eventually be used in 3D-printing processes.

Currently, Weitekamp is prepping the early 2014 release of his debut album Marrow, a 10-track album of assured electronic music. Previously, he recorded as Altitude Sickness, and also employed a monome.

In our chat, Weitekamp talked about science’s effect on his music production, how his early DIY efforts in the Monome controller community influenced the record, and how he used the accelerometer that used to be found in Mac laptops to create the drumkit software Smacktop. He also talked briefly about the music video he is creating for the track “mmm,” which will use ferrofluids and magnets to create interesting shapes that sync to the music.

Motherboard: Does your scientific research influence your approach to writing and producing electronic music?

**Raymond Weitekamp: **I think so, but some of the songs are more than seven years old. In many ways, this record has been my way of decompressing after working 16 hours in a lab, and getting burnt out on analytical thinking. At the same time, the way I approach finishing projects is definitely informed by being a scientist: the need to outline and tweak everything, make sure everything is perfect, and save 500 different copies of every file to make sure I never lose a change, so that I can go back if I need to. Music is also an outlet to use the other side of my brain.

An example of photoresist research, courtesy of Raymond Weitekamp

So, how did you find the time to write and record an album while in the CalTech PhD program?

It’s been a really long process. Some of the songs I worked on in college. Some were actual recordings and others were segments I turned in for a class. I was part of Princeton Laptop Orchestra, which is a performance ensemble and class. That’s where I learned how to program and produce music. An early version of “Echo Mountain” was a final recording assignment for that class.

About a year ago, I decided that I needed to finish all of this stuff I’d been sitting on. A couple of the songs were written last year. I did all of the arranging and mixing, but I recorded my vocals at a studio in Highland Park called Mas Music with a guy named Tim Moore. That was a really awesome experience because I’m used to making music in my bedroom. It was a challenge but really worth it. I did all of the mixing myself, but had a guy from Oakland named Shawn Hatfield do the mastering. He did Amon Tobin, Daedalus, Eskimo, and a bunch of Ninja Tune stuff—all of this stuff I love.

How hard was it to weave these older songs in with the new ones?

I definitely think incorporating the older songs was way harder than writing the most recent tracks. But, there were only a few songs that were over seven years old. I still liked and played these songs, and sang them to the myself, so I knew I’d include them on an album. On a few songs, I pit some old vocal recordings against some new ones so that they almost became two-part harmonies. “Echo Mountain” and “Venture Anon” both feature this effect.

Can you talk about the making of your DIY Monome controllers?

Yeah, I got into the Monome through being a fan of Daedalus. I went to a see him play at Low End Theory in Los Angeles. Two minutes before he went on stage, I pulled him aside and asked about his Mono, because it was different than the one being sold online. He told me that his was a prototype, then told me that they were selling a DIY kit. Since the Monome was sold out, I went home that night and ordered the kit.

I had to get my youngest brother, Danny, who was 11 at the time, teach me how to solder. [laughs] He did a ton of the soldering on the first one I built. It was pretty confusing because there was decent documentation but there really weren’t examples of people succeeding. The community was still trying to figure it out. Everyone was trying to custom order these faceplates to make it look like the real Mono, but I built mine into a tupperware container. It held the record for the cheapest Mono ever made until this guy named Edison built one into a lunchbox, which he got for free. [laughs] He’s amazing.

The Monome is probably the single biggest influence on my music. It has infinite possibilities and yet it doesn’t make sounds on its own. It’s a really beautiful concept, but confusing to people.

You also made and use Smacktop, a drumkit software. How does that work?

For about seven or eight years, every single Mac laptop had an accelerometer in it, which would recognize if it was falling, then pull the write head off the disk so it wouldn’t be writing when the laptop hit the ground. You can get at this accelerometer and tilt the laptop around to control anything you want, and you can map the tilt of the laptop to any sound that you want. We used this every single day in the Princeton Laptop Orchestra.

Smacktop was written because I thought that this was super cool, but I couldn’t share it with any of my friends because all of the stuff for Princeton Laptop Orchestra is made with a custom programming language called Chuck. This doesn’t necessarily translate to kids who use Ableton and MIDI. So, I wrote a way to translate the accelerometer’s motion into MIDI notes.

There were a couple iterations of Smacktop, but for the most recent one I figured out a way where you could distinguish where on the laptop you were hitting: the top right, the bottom left, the base of the laptop, etc. And then I could send those as MIDI notes and make the laptop a 4-piece drum controller. But, now it’s a program for a dying audience since the new Mac laptops don’t feature accelerometers.

You’re also making a music video for the song “mmm” using ferrofluids. Can you go into that a bit?

I’ve been obsessed with the digital aesthetics of ferrofluids for awhile, but I only recently decided to figure out how to make them. I was able to find a paper that has a ferrofluid experiment for undergraduate chemistry labs, and it turned out that my lab already had all of the chemicals to make it. So, I just did a fun side project and made some ferrofluid.

I’m working with a good friend from the Monome community named Charlie Visnic, who has done a ton of really amazing video work for us and also on his own. He’s a professional editor but also a very creative and hardworking guy on the side. We’re still working on it and throwing some ideas around. We’re not really ready to totally announce the idea yet, but we’ll basically be filming the ferrofluid and using dynamic magnetic fields to get it to change shape. Hopefully it will sync to the music and the beat, but it’s very much still a work in progress.