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September 27 2011

High voltage music: Behind the scenes with ArcAttack

Anyone who's been to a Maker Faire is familiar with ArcAttack, a maniacal combination of music and mad science that uses half-million-volt Tesla coils to play songs. I caught up with Steve Ward, a recent addition to the ArcAttack crew, at Maker Faire NY and asked him about the technology behind the show.

How did you come to join ArcAttack?

Steve Ward: I actually started my own Tesla coil show in Chicago and worked remotely through the Internet with Joe Diprima, who is the main founder of ArcAttack. We were sort of conspirators on the technology for many years, and then just this past August, I quit my engineering job at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and moved to Austin, Texas. Now I'm working with ArcAttack.

How does the music actually get produced?

Steve Ward: We have a regular PC computer that is playing back MIDI sequences that we have preprogrammed. This MIDI is sent over a fiber optic cable to our stage area, where we have custom-built controllers that then initiate the sparking of the Tesla coil. We love using fiber optics for isolation. When we want to play a certain pitch — like a concert pitch A is 440 Hz — we then fire out 440 little lightning bolts per second, and each lightning bolt creates its own small sound. That vibrates the air at the right pitch, and then our ears hear it as that pitch.

What are the engineering challenges?

Steve Ward: This is a solid-state Tesla coil. I began working on these things back in, I think, 2004. Within the last few years, the reliability has been outstanding with them, but we do have a lot of issues. If the sparks hit some sensitive electronics, it'll take the system down. So making everything rugged in the sense of protection is the biggest challenge for us.

How could someone get started with their own project?

Steve Ward: There are some electrical safety issues, obviously. But if you treat it with respect, then it will respect you back. Don't go touching the thing while it's running or energized, that sort of thing. For anyone who dives into this hobby, you can't get into it too fast. You build up the knowledge of working with these things as you go. When I was back in high school, I built my first solid-state Tesla coil, and it probably took me a good six months to figure out what was going on and to get it working. You can build a small one for probably around $100 to $150.

Here's a clip of ArcAttack at a 2010 Maker Faire:

This interview was edited and condensed.

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