noise carnival composer's guide

Noise CarnivalNoise Carnival is my sound sculpture/music machine with Nick Yulman, permanently installed at Coney Island USA – Coney Island’s combination history & art museum, sideshow, and bar.

The machine has three parts, though we may add more in the future: a bass guitar, a xylophone, and a percussion section. I recently wired it up to play a short tune whenever someone drops a coin into nearby donation funnel. As you add more coins, it adds more layers to the tunes.

We want to invite composers to create new original mini-tunes for the machine. Here’s information about how to write music for Noise Carnival! We’re also interested in proposals for live performances incorporating the machine – all the parts can be played live through midi.

If you’re interested in creating music for Noise Carnival and you’d like to arrange a site visit, please contact me. I highly recommend checking it out in person to get an idea of the quirks of the electromechanical instruments. That said, you’re welcome to submit a score without visiting first.

FORMAT: please submit each score as a set simple midi files (.mid) with one track, playing on midi channel 1. Please specify the meter and tempo (in BPM) separately – don’t put any tempo changes inside the file. Each score should be between about 20 and 50 seconds long.

In addition, each tune should have three or four variations. Each time another coin is dropped, the machine will skip to the next variation (at the same time point – it does not start over at the beginning). We want to reward visitors for donating more money, so each succeeding variation should be denser, more ornamented, or otherwise more exciting than the previous ones. Some of the ways we’ve done this in the past include adding more percussion, adding arpeggiation, adding a bassline. Please submit a separate midi file for each variation. All the variations must be the exact same duration, tempo, etc. so that the software can freely flip between them.

For a single variation, you can put all the instruments in a single midi file, or separate them into up to three files for xylophone/guitar/percussion, or for melody/harmony/beat, or whatever works for you. Just make sure to label everything clearly!


The toy xylophone is the most straightforward of the instruments. It has a single high-pitched octave. It is controlled by MIDI notes C2 through C3 (white notes only). That is, if you program a C2, the xylophone will play its low C, etc. The xylophone has a fairly fast repeat rate.


The percussion section has five items, and we’ll probably add more (suggestions welcome). It’s played by MIDI notes D5 through G5, as follows:

  • D5 – monkey clapping
  • E5 – ping pong ball thump
  • F5 – metal duck target (left)
  • F#5 – metal duck target (right)
  • G5 – metal bear target (center)

The percussion items all have a fairly slow repeat rate. Don’t expect to be able to play the same one over and over rapidly.


The bass guitar is much more complicated than the other parts, because there isn’t a simple relationship between midi notes and what the guitar plays. The guitar has a single string, a pick, four fretting fingers, and a “whammy” which raises the pitch by one semitone by increasing the tension. The open string plays a low F#; the frets are at A, B, C#, and E. These elements are played by MIDI notes G#3 through C#4 as follows:

  • G#3 – whammy – raises the pitch 1 semitone
  • A3 – fret 1 – plays A or A# with whammy
  • A#3 – fret 2 – plays B or C
  • B3 – fret 3 – plays C# or D
  • C4 – fret 4 – plays E or F
  • C#4 – pick – plays low F# on open string – strums the string on both note on and note off


  • Each of these elements is controlled by midi notes, by activating on Note On and releasing on Note Off.
  • You can create a vibrato effect by toggling the whammy on and off on alternating 8th or 16th notes.
  • When you activate a fret finger, there’s a strong “hammer-on” tone, so you don’t also need to use the pick, except to play the open string. However, using the pick makes the note louder.
  • There’s also a hammer-off tone when you release a fret finger; it plays the unfretted note (or the note from a lower fret, if a lower fret finger is active). There’s no way to avoid this, so you have to write for it.
  • The pick will strum the string both on note on and note off, so you must plan for this as well.
  • The open string + whammy combination doesn’t play reliably, so F# (open string) is achievable but don’t rely on G (open string + whammy)

Looking at it the other way, if you want to hear a certain note, this is the midi combination to get it (subject to the complications above!):

  • F# – open string + pick (C#4)
  • G – open string + whammy + pick (G#3 + C#4) (not reliable)
  • A – fret 1 (A3)
  • A# – fret 1 + whammy (A3 + G#3)
  • B – fret 2 (A#3)
  • C – fret 2 + whammy (A#3 + G#3)
  • C# – fret 3 (B3)
  • D – fret 3 + whammy (B3 + G#3)
  • E – fret 4 (C4)
  • F – fret 4 + whammy (C4 + G#3)

Really, the best way to program the guitar is to play it live with a keyboard until you get the hang of it.

If you have any questions, get in touch with me!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *