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New way to make music

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A childhood memory inspired Dan Daily to try to create an instrument that would make it possible for anyone to play and enjoy music.

And now, with the help from Sandia National Labs engineer Kent Pfeifer, the Taos musician, teacher and inventor has a new prototype in hand – and hopes he can add “successful entrepreneur” to his résumé in the not-too-distant future.

Daily calls the instrument the MidiWing, an electronic device that sends signals to a computer or sound module to produce sound, which can then be easily operated with switches and controls such as a joystick, mouse or pressure pad.

The name derives from the term MIDI – the Musical Instrument Digital Interface protocol that enables synthesizers and computers to communicate and accomplish musical tasks, and integral to the device – and Daily’s desire for “more people to be able to fly on the wings of music.”

The microcontroller circuitry in the MidiWing calculates different frequencies or pitches that produce complex musical sounds from the position of a joystick, mouse or other input. (Courtesy randy montoya/sandia national laboratories)

The microcontroller circuitry in the MidiWing calculates different frequencies or pitches that produce complex musical sounds from the position of a joystick, mouse or other input. (Courtesy randy montoya/sandia national laboratories)

“We’re currently looking for individuals and programs to use the device, which would be supplied to them free of charge in exchange for feedback on how the unit works for them,” he said.

To be sure, Daily had particular would-be musicians in mind when he conceived the idea – children, especially those who might find it physically difficult, even impossible, to play a traditional instrument.

An idea takes hold

“I had an experience when I was young where my mother – who was registered nurse – had a little day-care operation for children with severe disabilities, and they were pretty cool people,” Daily said. “That stuck with me.

“I realized that electronics could make things simpler, still retaining perhaps the model of a traditional instrument but making the associated tasks of playing the instrument easier.”

The MidiWing is about the size of a paperback and accepts many different switches and other controls to send commands to a computer or sound module, usually interpreted as musical instructions, he said. With a simple note selection pattern, it works like a trumpet.

“But because you can choose which controls to use, how to use them and where to put them, it is exceptionally adaptable and accessible,” he said.

Instrument versatility

The user can make the MidiWing virtually sound like anything and doesn’t necessarily have to use his or her fingers. “You could use your feet, you could use arm pressure – you can put a sensor in there and use it to operate the instrument,” he said.

A native Chicagoan, Daily has three music degrees and is proficient in woodwinds and many brass instruments, as well as electric bass. He became acquainted with MIDI in the early 1980s managing a music store in New Orleans. He moved to New Mexico about 17 years ago, settling in Taos where he worked as computer programmer for a company that produced real-estate software. He has taught music at the University of New Mexico Taos campus the past five years.

He developed his first prototype of the MidiWing about 10 years ago.

“Then I got kind of stuck because the microprocessor I used in the device became an obsolete item,” Daily said.

Enter the New Mexico Small Business Assistance program, which pairs small-business entrepreneurs with the state’s national labs – Sandia, in Daily’s case – for free technical assistance. “I pitched my idea to them and my project was green-lighted to receive funding,” Daily said.

Innovation grant

In addition to receiving a $20,000 grant, Daily was teamed with Pfeifer, chief of microdevices at Sandia and an amateur musician himself. The two worked on the MidiWing intermittently over the next couple of years, completely redesigning the device. Pfeifer laid out the circuitry, selected the components and helped with most of the programming to achieve Daily’s goal.

“It involved figuring out a lot of interfacing so you could make it adaptable to people’s capabilities,” Pfeifer said.

Anyone can play

Daily, who hopes to be able to sell the MidiWing for under $300, said the device would be ideal for someone who works with people with disabilities or for music therapists. “It is designed especially for, but by no means exclusively, for folks with disabilities,” he said.

The MidiWing would also be ideal for schools that want a music program but lack a large rehearsal space or resources to buy expensive musical instruments, he said.

“Most schools now have computer labs and the MidiWing can plug right into their computers so they could have a music ensemble in the computer lab,” he said.

For more information about the MidiWing, visit midiwing.com.



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