Meet A Maker: Brendan Gaffney

nicephoto-150x150This week’s interview was with Brendan Gaffney, a maker who specializes in tools for creative expression and attributes his eccentricities to growing up in a Waldorf School and his fathers workshop.

Belle: Explain what you do, in 100 words or less

Brendan: I work with artists and musicians to build tools for their and my own creative practice. This includes fabricating/machining with wood, metal, plastics, fabrics, software and electronics, using hand tools and computer aided machining (CAM) like laser cutters, CNC mills and vinyl plotting. I am also a computer music researcher, where I write software for creating and controlling digital musical instruments.

Belle: How long have you been making?


Brendan: I grew up working in my father’s workshop, doing both practical fabrication/electronics and fine carpentry, basically whatever furniture/fixing/repairs the house needed, and hobbyist plane and boat building. In middle school I began playing music, and the natural application of what I learned in my father’s workshop was to create my own musical tools.

Belle: How did you learn the skills you use today? 

Brendan: I have had a number of advisors/mentors help me along the way, and my father’s influence and advice has been the central pillar of my practice. Another advisor, Dr. Flip Phillips, a professor of Neuroscience at Skidmore College, was an inspiring force in my more technical and theoretical practice. Other than these guides, I’ve largely been self-taught in terms of electronics, fabrics, plastic and metal fabrication.

Belle: What is the best piece of advice you have ever gotten?

Brendan: Learning from your mistakes. As cliché as it is, being self-taught means doing it wrong half of the time. Matching an inexperience in doing something with the excitement to do it often means novice mistakes at the outset, but these are the real learning opportunities. This advice is well coupled with the idea of starting small, if only for medical and monetary self-preservation.

Belle: What is an absolute necessity for you when you make something?

Brendan: Background noise of some kind. While music is preferable (I’m recently partial to Boney M, Jaga Jazzist and Aidonia) I also have youtube videos of people playing videogames, QI (a BBC quiz show hosted by Stephen Fry), and any number of loud tools, CRTs, cars and fans that help me fight the quiet.

2013-06-17-22.36.45-1024x768Belle: What was your favorite project?

Brendan: The cusPi is a portable computer music synthesizer, with an amplifier and single board computer (the Raspberry Pi) running off of rechargeable batteries, making it a fully portable digital musical instrument. The goal was to create a mobile Pure Data (the computer music software/language I use) platform, with a fully two-in, tow-out audio interface, joystick/potentiometer/pushbutton interface, and a nice sculptural/practical housing and structure. I’d say I’ve reached it, meaning I’m done working on it for now, but it has certainly acquired some extra parts as it has progressed.

Belle: What was the biggest challenge in making this?

Brendan: Getting the Raspberry Pi to talk SPI to an external ADC through the GPIO. Basically, I wanted to read analog voltages into the Raspberry Pi, and grab those readings for use in my synthesizer. It was a journey, but it works now, and I’m sure I picked up a lot about Linux hardware structures and the Raspberry Pi along the way.

Belle: What is something people wouldn’t guess by looking at it?

Brendan: That the wood base looks like the dynamical systems model I was working on at the time. I called it “cusPi” because the base looks like the “cusped” catastrophe model I was using at the time in my work with computer musical instrument control. It was just the junky end of a board I cut and planed for a different project, but it turned out to be one of the nicest pieces of wood I’ve ever come across.

“I do what I do because it was the path of least resistance in continuing to do what I enjoy and work with those I see as inspiring…Whims are my driving force.”

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