Interactive Art +

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Marble Machine

Martin Molin (SE), Wintergatan (SE)


Shortly after visiting the fantastic Spielklook Museum in Utrecht with its programmable mechanical instruments, I discovered the Youtube Channel of Matthias Wandel, who has written a computer program to produce wooden gear templates. I’ve always loved the Marble Machine subculture and, having seen how to cut wooden gears, I decided to build a programmable Marble Machine myself. Other sources of inspiration were Automata Art and the Pipe Dream music video by Animusic.

While watching a marble machine video on Youtube I contemplated programming the falling pattern of the marbles and letting them fall on different musical notes. My love of gears grew from my fascination with LEGO technic gears. I thought the project would take two months when I started in November 2014, but it actually took 14 months and was finally finished in January 2016. The video was released in March 2016.

The machine consists of around 3,000 parts and 3,000 screws, 500 LEGO parts, 5 full-size sheets of Baltic birch plywood, and 2,000 marbles. Originally I ordered 500 marbles, then another 500, then another 500 and then another 500 again. I never expected to need so many.

I built the Marble Machine because I am an addict to the psychological state of flow, when everything ceases to exist and there is no time and no space. Problem solving immediately puts me into a flow, and I think this is the deeper reason behind this project, which is a veritable problem solving feast.

I started by buying all the woodworking machines: a bandsaw, a table saw, and a drill press. After putting the machinery together, I worked on the programming wheel and then built the whole machine around that. The designing was a case of the trial, error and failure method. I used 3D software to draw a simple sketch, mainly to get the basic dimensions. When I knew the base would be 80x80 cm, I improvised - testing a piece, having another try, and another - until it worked.

The project was extremely challenging at times. The marble gates were the hardest part due to the little mechanism that causes the marbles to fall one by one, instead of all falling at the same time. After months of working on this, I realized that the design idea itself was no good, and was forced to go back to the point I’d started at seven months earlier. This was a hard decision. However, there were also magic moments, especially when the gear train was ready and I saw that the mathematical equation was correctthe 64/1 gear ratio was vital for getting the machine working!

The Marble Machine features the following instruments: Kickdrum, snare drum, hihat, sizzle cymbal, electric bass, and vibraphone. The most difficult part of operating it is turning the crank in a continuously smooth tempo with the right hand while maneuvering the rest of the machine with the left hand.

Regarding the track composition, I wanted something that showed the machine’s different functions and a melody that you could hum to yourself and remember. I also wanted a mix of happiness and something more solemn. I like its drive forward.

The next step of the project is to build a smaller motorized music box that we will take with us on tour - it will be like a fifth member of the band. Then we will start touring and after that I will redesign some elements of the big marble machine to make it more trustworthy and able to play live. It works well enough now for filming a music video, but it doesn't work well enough for live use on stage. The amount of interest in the machine has given me the motivation and energy to perfect it. I know there are many people besides myself who want to see it on a live stage!


Martin Molin

Martin Molin (SE), a founding member of Wintergatan (SE), decided in November 2014 to switch gears and embark on a visionary project: to build a programmable Marble Machine. Three days after releasing the Marble Machine video, it had been viewed over 10 million times around the world. Wintergatan is a close­knit operation that takes pride in the ability to adapt and invent. The four members of the band all play several instruments, and if a new instrument is needed, one of them figures out how to use it.