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    'Mardi Gras in a Can': Consider the Drum Buddy, the Mysterious Light-Powered Synth

    Written by

    McLean Gordon

    This year Mardi Gras falls on February 12th, but the Carnival season already started this past weekend. For anyone living in a nose to the grindstone kind of place like New York, where the most important thing to watch out for this month is another random subway pusher, the need to augment reality with some light and sound is a pressing one.

    Enter the Drum Buddy, a light-activated oscillating drum machine concocted by New Orleans inventor and swamp tech musician Quintron. The Drum Buddy operates something like an optical theremin, giving the stylistically-liberated musician power to make otherworldly, fully analog sounds of all kinds--from hip hop to creepy haunted house music, as rays of light poking through holes in a rotating tin can shoot down colorful plastic tubes and become rhythmic pulses. It's almost impossible to find one now--only a few dozen were ever made--and those that have it (Laurie Anderson and Fred Armison for instance) aren't likely to want to share.

    How it works and how it sounds

    Turning on the hand-made beat machine requires using a key. As Drumbuddy inventor and New Orleans Swamp Tech legend Quintron put it, the key means that "no one can steal your style." Ignition sets spinning a tin can with patterned holes poked into the round side. The lightbulb inside the can beams photo signals, and the custom pattern of holes emits the light in a rhythm of the can-tinker's design.

    Surrounding the whirling tin can is a magical forest of curved plastic tubes containing photoresistors, which receive the rays of light and transform them into sounds. An array of oscillators and switches lets the Drumbuddy player manipulate the sounds. The adjustable brightness of the bulb controls volume, and the RPM's of the can control tempo.

    The Drum Buddy can make some truly far out sounds for more ambient sonic trips, but it can also keep a heavy rhythm on dance tunes. Inputs from external sources like a record player or even an old television let the skilled Drum Buddy master work magic on all kinds of samples. 

    On top of being an incredible high-tech/low-tech invention, the Drum Buddy has proven to be a versatile instrument and a quirky physical centerpiece for all of of Quintron and Miss Pussycat's bizarre theatrical concerts. It's also the star of an infomercial from 2000, done up in pitch-perfect camp, that may have never been broadcast outside of New Orleans but was passed around on VHS.

    The infomercial offers Drum Buddies for the cozy price of $999.99 each, but that offer no longer stands: Since the initial rollout in 2000, a few of the 44 Drum Buddies that exist have become available only sporadically, occasionally showing up on Ebay, or at the only store known to sell them, Fresh Kills for the People in Williamsburg. The store says its long sold-out. Wilco's guitarist Nels Cline claims to have snagged the last one. "I consider it an investment in art, not just sound," Cline told the New Orleans' Gambit. "The Drum Buddy is so beautiful in every way. And of course, it is totally unique."

    Quintron image: Flickr / tgray1