New bird in town by kelly heaton

I've temporarily relocated the physical form of Hacking Nature's Musicians to the other-worldly environment of Tortuga Escondida (near Akumal, Mexico) for a one-month fellowship on los musicos de la selva. Thankfully, my supplies made it through airport security and there's air conditioning to protect my electronic equipment against jungle humidity. Here's a photo of my bench showing a view of the jungle canopy and stairs to a roof deck with an amazing panorama over the electrically-charged ecosystem. (Giant scorpions occasionally grace my window screens but I have spared you that visual discomfort.)

My electronics bench at Tortuga Escondida near Akumal, Mexico. October, 2018

A few observations before I jump into the main content of this log: (1) Tortuga Escondida seriously resembles a research facility from the TV series Lost, so if I disappear you know what happened to me; and (2) the insects here are at least twice the size of their Virginian counterparts. Check out this insane Katydid!

Amazing giant Katydid in the jungle around Tortuga Escondida (greater Akumal, Mexico). October, 2018

Amazing as the insects are, I'm not studying musical bugs because what's most remarkable to me --coming here from Virginia-- are the myriad species of birds. I've decided to see what I can do with the analog electrical engineering of bird song. 

As a starting point, I built a version of the classic, "chirping canary" used in kitschy artificial nature scenes. Check out my files on for an annotated version of this schematic, which is based on audio transformer oscillation. Basically, the surge in DC power that happens when you first turn the circuit on is capacitively coupled across the transformer and continues to fluctuate thanks to a transistor switch. If you change (or remove) certain capacitor values, the circuit stops oscillating and makes an unpleasant tone that can be very loud due to the current gain across the transformer.

I've made a first informal video showing how the sound changes when different parts of the circuit are modified (apologies in advanced for some unpleasant beeps - don't wear headphones).

Next, I built a few astable multivibrators and connected them to various aspects of the sound-generating circuit in order to make the chirp sound more like a bird song. Some of my tests are documented in a second video that you can watch on Vimeo.

Watch the green LEDs (and follow the white wires) to get a sense for what the astable multivibrators are doing. 

Birds are very clever singer-songwriters, so it's going to take a lot more work on tempo and pitch variation to get interesting songs. I plan to try numerous strategies to generate voice quality because I want to build a jungle of different bird circuits ranging from sparrows to whippoorwills to parrots to owls to a Resplendent Quetzal, relative of the legendary Mayan Plumed Serpent. If you have suggestions for circuits to try, I would be grateful.

So... not only do my bird electronics need work, I could use a new "avian speaker" design. It seems that piezo buzzers are better suited to insects, while 8 ohm speakers have higher bird fidelity. Initially, this observation puzzled me (and I'm still not clear) but I got some useful clues from the ingenious musician, Nicolas Bras. It's material physics: the thin, metal vibrations of a piezo disk have more in common with the chitin instrumentation of an invertebrate than the fleshy air bladder and vocal chords of a squawking bird. Some insects do force air through a membrane, like living kazoos, but crickets rely heavily on the idiophonic effects of leg or wing rubbing. The sound made by an idiophone is quite different than that of an aerophone or membranophone, like hitting a cymbal versus blowing through a reed, the latter of which happens when a bird forces air through its vocal cords. I searched the web for homemade instruments that behave like an aerophone with a membrane and found this cool "membranophone" video by tachionics. 

As I did with my "insect-like" piezo, I'd like to build an electronically actuated speaker that has material properties more in common with a bird. I've got various 8 ohm speakers that are working for now, but I suspect that there's a better design to be made -- or at least some cool insights to discover in the process of trying. Again, your suggestions are greatly appreciated!

Stay tuned.

This tarantula was found dead, but I couldn’t resist photographing its exquisite corpse. Impressive creature!

Mother Nature in perfboard by kelly heaton

I've been busy migrating my "Mother Nature" controller circuit out of my breadboard and into perfboard... and yes, it's insane but no, I don't have time to produce a printed circuit board because I'm leaving in six days for a fellowship in Mexico. For the record, I do not recommend soldering so many components and connections in perfboard because the risk of error is high, either from bad solder joints, signal interference, or just plain confusion. I plan to design a printed circuit board for future embodiments of Mother Nature. Stay tuned.

As you can see in my previous log, I'm surrounding my perfboard circuits with spray painted cardboard to make them look cool -- and by the way, you could use this quick-and-dirty strategy to make a "starving artist's badge" for the Hackday Superconference.

Kelly Heaton process electronic

As for the design of my "Mother Nature Board," aka random pulse generator to trigger various events, I have some additional technical tips to share:

  • Don't have logic ICs on hand? Build discrete transistor gates. This approach has the advantage of common components (NPN transistors, resistors, diodes) and you can add multiple inputs to the same gate -- which is useful if you discover that an event is triggering too often... just add another input to the gate and the outcome will become less frequent. Not triggering often enough? Remove or change an input to the gate. You can even tie an input to ground (or power) and let the other fluctuate. I use 2N3904 transistors for as many things as possible, but you could also build these cool light gates described by @Dr. Cockroach 


There's a limit to how many things you can drive directly with a signal such as the output of a logic gate. Good engineers read data sheets and calculate voltages and current at various locations in their circuit. Impatient engineers add a generic common emitter amplifier between the signal OUT from a logic device and the signal IN to whatever you're driving. This hand-waving approach to buffering will not work in all cases! But it will probably work for most slow logic applications where you want to transform a signal multiple times and drive some light loads. I'm an artist who prefers prototyping to math, so I work a lot with "try it and see" circuit design. Plus, I am not building a nuclear reactor. Note that a common emitter amplifier will invert your signal. Pay attention to whether you need your signal to be active high or active low. Note that a 555 timer in monostable aka one-shot configuration is looking for an active low input. If necessary, invert the signal again to get what you need.


Mosfets make great electrical "on/off" switches because they don't draw current on their gate (==the mosfet equivalent of a transistor's base). They just need a voltage. I use mosfets for the last step in my Mother Nature circuit, or the point at which I want to turn power on or off to a particular sound circuit (the load). Make sure you have a gate resistor to ground or voltage will "sit" on the gate even when the signal is low (and the mosfet won't turn off).


I hope these tips are helpful. To end this log, I give you a video showing my Mother Nature circuit in perfboard with two sound circuits hooked up. If you watch the LEDs carefully, you will see how certain combinations of logic are triggering the sound circuits. The cricket is wired up to chirp most of the time, whereas the Katydid is triggered less frequently. For this demo, I hooked up only two sound circuits because it's already hard to understand what is happening, and more circuits becomes a sort of natural chaos... which is my goal, as you will see in forthcoming logs.

lesser angle-winged katydid by kelly heaton


Watercolor and analog electronic study of a Lesser Angle-winged Katydid, 2018. I plugged in a couple of crickets to give this fellow some natural context. To read more about how I made this, visit my project “Hacking Nature’s Musicians” :

August insects by kelly heaton

Landscape painting and analog electronic soundscape (detail of work in-progress). August 2018

Landscape painting and analog electronic soundscape (detail of work in-progress). August 2018

I create the sound of a buzzy August insect using a 555 timer to drive a transistor astable multivibrator (to give timbre). Another slow astable multivibrator provides pulse input to a 555 timer in monostable configuration, that gives a pulse out to the base resistor of an astable multivibrator that sets the tempo. That's why the insect rattles for awhile and then stops (monostable 555 goes high - the rattle tempo is active low).

Prototyping Night Insects by kelly heaton

Here I am at my bench prototyping various analog electronic insects for my latest "electrolier" sculpture. The sounds are made using a combination of astable multivibrators (oscillators), some of which create the audio timber and others establish a chirp-like tempo. The speakers are custom piezo electric devices that I have physically modified to achieve different sound qualities, such as brighter versus muffled and close versus distant. Individuality is achieved by subtle variations in the electrical signal and the output device.

Cedar Sphinx Moth by kelly heaton

I continue to make moth wings for my latest Electrolier sculpture. Here is a Cedar Sphinx Moth with a circuit board body and embroidered velvet wings. Later, I will reveal the function of the circuitry and how the wires relate to the overall sculpture... but for now, pretty wings are what I have to offer.

Tree cricket prototype by kelly heaton

I'm working on a prototype for a series of tree crickets (for my latest "electrolier" sculpture). This board is a little analog synthesizer with options to adjust resistor and capacitor values, thereby achieving different insect sounds. The video shows only one of the sounds --I'll demonstrate others later. 

The wings were laser cut out of Dura-Lar at the Nova Labs Makerspace in Reston, VA. In the video, I'm holding a wire spool to amplify the raw piezo element, for which I need to make a resonant chamber. The piezo is driven with my little "RadioShack copy" amplifier circuit that I blogged about recently (March 12). The board was manufactured in China by PCBWay.

Moth Circuit by kelly heaton

I continue to design circuits for the night-dwelling inhabitants of my latest electrolier. Here's a little white moth. It's two wings are separate boards comprising a single functional circuit that I'll join in the middle with wires. Its circuit is an adaptation of the well-known "Knight Rider" design: a 555 timer in astable mode that clocks a 4017 counter. I have selected resistor and capacitor values to blink the LEDs with a flutter effect, and there are several optional inputs to the moth whereby external circuits can add "noise," i.e., random behaviors that give a natural appearance. I will update you when the boards arrive and are wired up... fingers crossed that my design contains no errors, as drawing with copper traces is not the most straightforward way to visualize electrical connectivity. Below are two moth images pulled from the Internet for inspiration, followed by my circuit board design in KiCad software.

Two views of my moth in KiCad. The top image shows a 3d rendering of the actual boards, and the bottom shows my printed circuit board (PCB) layout. Kelly Heaton, 2018

Two views of my moth in KiCad. The top image shows a 3d rendering of the actual boards, and the bottom shows my printed circuit board (PCB) layout. Kelly Heaton, 2018