The MEL project is an electronic musical instrument library that will be hosted and operated out of the Audio Foundation in Auckland. The Musical Electronics Library (MEL) will lend equipment from a selection of handmade electronic musical devices and also provide workshops and meet ups for those interested in learning how to make their own electronic music devices. Mitch O’Sullivan sat down with creator of the MEL project, local underground music legend Pat Kraus, to find out more and to see how such an innovative project came about.
The MEL project was launched mid-November, as part of the Audio Foundation’s Nowhere Festival with a performance of the ‘MEL Orchestra’ (members of the MEL volunteer team) improvising raw electronic sounds using items from the collection. MEL is a world first electronic musical instrument library of its kind and provides a great opportunity for the Auckland public to be involved in DIY handmade electronic music and the creation of alternative musics in general.
How did the project come about Pat?
It started with an idea I had in March 2013. I was reading a book called Handmade Electronic Music, The Art of Hardware Hacking, by Nicolas Collins, and I was really inspired by it and was making a lot of the projects he outlines in the book.
I had already made my modular synth and found that a lot of the stuff I wanted to build was stuff I wouldn’t necessarily use myself but I wanted to build them anyway. So I thought I could build this stuff and try to sell it, which I had done before, but was a real hassle and I’m not really a business type of person. It always feels a bit gross for me, a bit unsatisfactory and stressful.
I then found out about these tool libraries they have across the States and Europe, where basically people loan out hand tools and sometimes power tools, and are often run out of church basements or wherever they can store them for free. This inspired me to do the same but with the handmade electronic instruments I was making.
The crucial breakthrough was finding out through Nick Collins’ book that you could use old VHS boxes as housing for the components. I had the idea of building stuff to lend it out but just not the resources or space to house them. Suddenly I could stack them on top of each other so they didn’t take up much space and I had a bunch of old VHS boxes lying around. The VHS boxes also made them look like a collection and I could start theming them around whatever old covers I had.
There also seems a political background around the ideas of sharing and re-using old circuits and equipment?
Yes, certainly. The number one point of the project for me is being able to build cool stuff and share it with others. Secondly it’s about encouraging other people to learn and seeing their excitement and satisfaction they get from the project. As a community project I want to emphasise the idea of sharing and also reducing waste through re-using things and giving seemingly broken or out of date things a new purpose.
I think the sharing idea is super important, particular in the context of electronic music, where so much of the time the artists work in secrecy and hold onto their prized pieces of equipment. Everyone I have talked to or told about the project is so excited to have this in our city! Is MEL the first of its kind?
I’m not aware of there being another one! I do believe this is the first of its kind. I also think that it would work great in other cities too, particular in Wellington, with the sonic arts degree and the whole scene down there. Every single person I have talked to has been so excited by the whole idea, so that makes me think that it will have legs and people will get behind it.
How is the lending and membership going to work?
We have an online catalogue that has a membership component built into it. So there will be a website where you can see the pieces of gear and whether it is available at the time. It will also include a description of what each piece does, and what sort of sonic qualities it has, as well as audio samples.
Thankfully with the whole philosophy of sharing we haven’t had to reinvent the wheel, a lot of the tool libraries I mentioned before have made cataloguing systems and share those for free. In terms of membership, the library will be available to all Auckland residents – you just have to provide basic information like address and contact details. The lending limits are going to be a maximum of three things at one time and the lending period will be one month.
Can people use the loaned equipment for things like live shows and recording?
Yes definitely. We do suggest that if people use the equipment for recording that they acknowledge us with a credit, just to spread the word, and live shows are totally fine. There is inevitably going to be wear and tear, which we accept, but any kind of major damage where something has been totally trashed there will be a replacement fee, which will be in the area of $50. All the people that have helped me with this project have been volunteers so I guess the maintenance of the gear will work in a similar way.
Is there any piece of equipment that’s a personal favourite?
The ‘Mad Max’ box. It’s a distortion that can do no input, really glitchy, feedback, oscillations. I have heard people describe the circuit as Merzbow in a box. It’s just really brutal but has a lot of detail to the sound. A lot of my favourites are distortions or fuzz’s, which is really NZ. When I think of the NZ underground I think really heavy fuzz or distortion. All the VHS boxes I tried to theme with the sound, so the Mad Max box seemed to just work with this one.
The MEL Project accepts donations of any kind, whether it is old equipment, volunteer time or money. A big part of the project is getting people involved, and workshops will be running at Audio Foundation teaching others to build and modify equipment. The workshops will be open to people of all skill levels, and will teach all the way through from using a soldering iron and reading schematic diagrams to building your own pedals and synths.
For more information and the catalogue of the MEL project check out: