Musical Tesla coils

Here are a pair of Tesla coils playing Girl Talk's "This is the Remix." It is beautiful, and awesome. How does it work? I asked Ian Charnas, one of the brains behind the Open Spark Project, a group that paired musicians—and their original compositions—with the musical Tesla coils. Truly a match made in heaven.

It turns out, you can make music out of anything that makes noise, just by turning it on and off very rapidly.

If you record a noise of you tapping your fingers on your laptop keyboard, and then speed it up so you hear 440 taps per second, you'll hear A4, the A above middle C on the standard keyboard. Likewise with the tesla coils, we make a giant spark and then turn it on and off at the right audio frequency for the note we want to play.

This is accomplished by a series of circuits and microchips we designed, which convert a standard MIDI signal (coming from a MIDI keyboard or from the MIDI output on our laptop) to the fiber-optic signal that the tesla coil requires. Why fiber optic? Because we don't want a copper wire connecting our keyboardist to the thing that makes a million volts ;-)

Oh, and musicians, they're going to do another round of these videos sometime in the future. If you want a heads up the next time The Open Spark Project is looking for musical submissions, head over to their website and ask to "receive updates."

Thanks to Dr. Aaron for Submitterating!


  1. sure is dope, but I’m confused.

    It says that it is playing the Girl Talk mix, and I hear it in the background, but then they say that a keyboardist can be playing via fiber optic cable. So is this the GT recording accompanied by a Tesla coil keyboard player? Given that we see sparks corresponding to bass lines and melodies, but not percussion and voices, it makes me think that they can’t reproduce the full spectrum of sound, necessitating an accompaniment.

    But if they are isolating the the melody and bass from the actual recording (like a cross-over routes specific freqs to woofers vs tweeters) and the leftover freqs go to the PA, why so quiet? Is the video mic’d poorly, or do they need a bigger amp/PA combo to be heard over the coils?

    I’m not mad if they need accompaniment, but they need to balance that sound before this is performance-ready. Why is nobody in the audience? If you’re playing club music, it’s pretty eerie to have nobody around. It would be dope to have them ceiling-mounted, so they didn’t take up the whole dance floor.

    Also, I wonder how does one safely ground those posts? Directly into the ground, or is there boss insulated cable between or what? it looks like serious business.

  2. Given that we see sparks corresponding to bass lines and melodies, but not percussion and voices, it makes me think that they can’t reproduce the full spectrum of sound, necessitating an accompaniment.

    The signing Tesla coils don’t have quite the detail to handle voice and can’t really hit the low frequency of percussion. Consider, instead of stiff speaker cones, the sound must come from the the ion recombination in the after the plasma arcs, giving it its unique sound. ArcAttack has a pretty wile robot driven drum set for accompaniment.

  3. ~4:02 clearly demonstrates that tesla coil music was designed for some Iron Maiden style dual lead guitar cheese

  4. This is a cool idea, but most of the cheezy techno soundtrack music they use here is really awful (to anyone except a fan of cheezy techno music, I guess).

    But I did like that little Bach-inspired piece in the middle where the two poles teased each other over who got to fuse to the next note.

  5. I took my family to see Arc Attack at the NYC maker faire last year. My step-mom had never seen a tesla coil before, and certainly not a totally bad-ass huge pair of them. I saw a tear in her eye when they started! But then her face kind of sank when she realised they were playing the Imperial March from Star Wars. I had to agree that the music thing was a big downer. It’s tacky!

  6. Back in the 60’s my dad brought me to a Christmas party at work in Lackland AFB, San Antonio, TX. He was a researcher for the Air Force, and used an IBM mainframe to run data. At the party, someone ran a program to make the line printer play Christmas songs. It was a dot matrix printer that printed a whole line of text at once, and you could get different notes using different combinations of letters and spaces hitting the paper.

  7. the featured paragraphs aren’t a very good explanation of how “anything can be music.” There’s a big difference between “doing something faster” and speeding up a recording. If I tap my finger really fast, the pitch doesn’t change at all. Speeding up or slowing down a recording of it does that.

    So going from that, to the Tesla coils, I don’t think is a very apt comparison. Unless they just recorded a Tesla sound and sped it up, which I don’t think is what they are saying.

    1. Thanks for the link, I was at the maker faire on Saturday but couldn’t stay for Sunday so missed both of them. They did the Doctor Who theme on Saturday (with a little girl from the audience in the cage) and I think that worked particularly well, though it’s not a particularly faithful rendition it just seemed to work anyway.

  8. This has existed for a LOOOoonnnggg time.. Look up “Plasma Speakers”.

    Typically they are used for high frequencies.. But there you go.

  9. I could swear that I found out about music performed by tesla coils years ago here on boing boing… Still cool though.

  10. I hope I live long enough to see this same thing done in an orbiting microgravity venue.

  11. Girl Talk? Well, OK, but I’m pretty sure Bananarama should get the credit for “Cruel Summer” (1983).

    Otherwise, it’s like giving Vanilla Ice credit for “Under Pressure.”

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