By Kristi Robinson
Not too often does a new invention come along that’s unlike anything you’ve seen before; one that leaves you scratching your head and wondering how it is even possible. Seemingly part-magic, but mostly made up of incredible feats of engineering and physics – with a enormous amount of patience for trial and error – is the “Wintergatan Marble Machine” by Swedish musician Martin Molin.
While the concept of a marble music machine isn’t a novel one (there’s actually an entire marble machine sub-culture), Molin’s approach to create a programmable machine that controls how the marbles are falling is. He was first inspired to build his brand new machine after seeing Canadian Matthias Wandels, a woodworking expert, and his videos of how to make wooden gears on You-Tube. A visit to the Speelklok Museum in Utrecht, The Netherlands to see mechanical musical instruments sealed the deal for Molin. He gave himself two months to complete the project from start to finish, but with many unforeseen hiccups, it took fourteen. Working from a windowless industrial building in Gothenburg, he often came close to giving up. Molin joked, ‘the closer the machine gets to be finished the harder it gets to finish it. It’s strange how that happens, when the finish line is in sight, everything slows down automatically except the avalanche of new unforeseen problems’.
So two thousand marbles and three thousand parts later Molin’s perseverance paid off. With a crank of the lever the music machine is set in motion. The central wheel, a 32 bar loop starts to spin and the marbles begin to move around the 22 tracks, directed through funnels, hitting various instruments with incredibly well-timed precision like the snare drum, a kick drum (or bass drum), a high hat cymbal, sizzle cymbal, and a vibraphone. Rather than a haphazard and irregular dropping of the marbles he is able to control the exact moment each marble is released by putting Lego technic nails in the 32 bar loop grid (each nail drops one marble). The only part of the machine that isn’t played by the marbles is the strings of the bass guitar, that are played by hand, with the occasional freestyle on the vibraphone.
The key of the song can also be adjusted while playing. In Molin’s video (link at the end of this article), the key starts in E minor and switches to C major, and can continue changing its tune in endless combinations.
With the success of the marble machine added to his musical accomplishments, Molin’s next big goal is to design a machine that can be easily taken on tour with his folktronica band ‘Wintergatan’ (Swedish for ‘The Milky Way’). Molin sees this new marble-centric instrument as being tour friendly and much smaller in size.
Martin Molin and his Wintergatan Marble Machine © Samuel Westergren
To see the amazing Wintergatan Marble Machine in action please watch the video of Molin’s ‘Marble Machine’ song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IvUU8joBb1Q