Making The Voice Hands-on

Max Addae’s innovative instrument creates new connections between sound and touch.

What if the voice could be manipulated by hand, like so many other musical instruments? That was the question that drove Max Addae, MAS ‘23, to create VocalCords, an innovative music technology that he developed as his thesis project, supervised by Professor Tod Machover, director of the Media Lab’s Opera of the Future group. The project, titled VocalCords: Exploring Tactile Interaction with the Singing Voice, allows users to explore a variety of modifications to their voice with a three-stringed instrument that’s played by hand.


“Everyone is born with a voice, and it’s a very personal and vulnerable instrument,” Addae says. “Singing is often considered a natural talent, but the voice is just as much a learned instrument as any other.” Addae grew up singing in his church choir and developed a deep appreciation for music from a young age. But he recognized that not everyone is comfortable using their voice, and wanted to leverage his interest in computer science to help others become attuned to their natural ability.


“I wanted to develop technology that brings out the innate creativity of vocal exploration, which I think everyone can find empowering,” Addae says.


The project culminated with a final thesis performance in June 2023, supported in part by the Council for the Arts at MIT (CAMIT). After graduating from MIT, Addae went on to participate in the 2024 Guthman Musical Instrument Competition at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where VocalCords was awarded first place. Addae calls the win “unexpected” and one of his most formative experiences, and credits the rich array of collaborators he engaged with at MIT for shaping the project’s evolution and success.

Externalizing The Voice

Addae first came up with the idea for VocalCords in an MAS course taught by Joe Paradiso, the director of the Media Lab’s Responsive Environments group. Coming to MIT from the Oberlin College & Conservatory of Music, where he majored in computer science, technology, and music, Addae’s technical experience had primarily focused on software and programming. But working with different types of hardware in Paradiso’s class, called Sensors for Interactive Environments, compelled Addae to consider the possibility of tactile interventions in the field of music technology.


“A lot of acoustic instruments, like piano and guitar, have an intuitive touch-and-sound relationship,” Addae says. “The voice is internal and can feel very mysterious to people.” But Addae notes that the voice and hands are closely connected both in everyday life (i.e. talking with one’s hands) and in the brain, where the areas that control voice and motor abilities are very near each other.


To create an external instrument that connects voice and touch, Addae used physical rubber cords to act as stretch sensors, pulled across a box that’s open on three sides. “I liked the analogy of these strings as your vocal cords,” Addae says.


The tension in each string correlates to different types of musical tension generated through the voice as the strings are maneuvered by hand. A harmonizer string works to expand and contract the harmony around the voice; a timbral string shapes the tone; and a third rhythmic string corresponds to temporal effects, including delays and echoes. The overall effect in performance, with Addae vocalizing into a microphone while playing the instrument with his hands, creates an otherworldly soundscape derived solely from the sound of his voice.


Tod Machover was an early champion of the project. “From the very first time that Max showed me the initial concept for VocalCords, I could see that he had found a uniquely powerful and personal way to combine his singing, composing, computing, and performing skills,” Machover says. “The mature system is so effective because it unleashes both the expressivity and the fragility of the human voice in ways that are simultaneously simple and profound.”


Addae considers the instrument a creative tool that could be used by people who don’t feel comfortable using their voices without mediation. “I wanted to bring that tactile control to empower people who may not be as confident with their voice,” Addae says. And from his own experience using VocalCords as a singer, Addae adds that it could serve as a means for trained vocalists to expand their artistic practice and develop a more embodied connection to their voices.

Pamela Z with Max Addae. Addae is seated at a laptop and various electronics, while Pamela Z stands, overlooking and engaging with Addae. Credit Heidi Erickson.
Pamela Z with Max Addae, credit HErickson/MIT.

A Choir of Input

The range of expertise among the mentors and students that Addae worked with in the Media Lab contributed to the rapid development and completion of the project. “Everyone in the Opera of the Future group comes from different scientific, artistic, engineering and design backgrounds, but we all have a shared love and appreciation of music,” Addae says. “Getting input on the project from all those different points of view was tremendously helpful.”


Addae calls the project a creative collaboration with his MIT undergraduate assistant, and incoming MAS Masters student, Nina Masuelli, who was integral to its physical fabrication. Addae also sought mentorship from Akito van Troyer, an alumnus of the Opera of the Future program and currently an associate professor at Berklee College of Music. “I really learned the value of seeking out people who will help you achieve your goals, especially in the context of taking on a massive project in a short amount of time,” Addae says. “That sense of community and collaboration was a vital part of my time at MIT.”


The artist Pamela Z, who received the 2022 Eugene McDermott Award in the Arts at MIT, was also an influential source of insight for Addae during her residency on campus. Addae had previously studied Z’s work, which incorporates the voice and live electronic processing, and valued the opportunity to seek her input on VocalCords. “Talking to her about the challenges and getting her insights was crucial to where the project is now,” Addae says, adding that he was incredibly inspired by watching her in concert during her MIT residency.


In his current role as a project manager at the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (DSO), Addae is continuing his collaboration with the MIT Media Lab, working with Machover as creative director and current Opera of the Future students to develop projects for an upcoming long-term installation . The interactive learning exhibit, which will take over the third floor of the I.M.Pei-designed DSO building and open in November 2024, is intended to combine music and technology in a way that inspires young people and fosters music education and creativity.


Winning the Guthman Competition in March has also inspired Addae to continue working on VocalCords, and to consider its potential applications in the world of music technology. “Seeing a project I developed in an academic context out in the wider field, and the resonance it had with people in the industry, has really inspired me to push further and see where I can take it.”

Written by Naveen Kumar
Editorial direction by Leah Talatinian

Posted on May 8, 2024 by Tim Lemp