Design Project Blends Passions of Engineering and Music

People sometimes forget that engineers have a life outside of the laboratory or the classroom – that there’s more to an engineer than equations, textbooks and lab instruments. Joey Brink, YC ’11, is a great reminder that engineers not only have a life outside of work, but that their work and “outside” lives can complement each other.

Brink, who studied mechanical engineering at Yale, played the Harkness Memorial Carillon throughout his time as an undergraduate. A pianist since childhood, learning about the carillon during an admissions tour contributed to Brink’s decision to attend Yale—and after he arrived, he found a way to combine his interest in engineering with his lifelong interest in music.

A carillon is played somewhat like a church organ, with the player (or “carillonneur”) using his fists to strike the “batons” (keys) of a keyboard and feet to hit a set of pedals. This in turn causes clappers to strike the giant bells that generate a carillon’s unique sound, with the resulting sound being dependent on the force with which a player strikes a key.

Yale students play the carillon twice a day throughout the academic year, and vary their selections based on personal preference or even requests from the community. But the carillon offers a unique challenge as a musical instrument: each one is different, with a different number of bells, different masses to the bells, and thus a different touch required on the part of a player depending on which carillon he is playing. Yale’s carillon has 54 bells and weighs 43 tons – not exactly something you can carry with you to practice on in the privacy of your home. Practicing on a carillon means playing where everyone can hear you.

The Yale carillonneurs use practice instruments to try to perfect their playing of a tune without all of campus listening. But these miniature instruments have a totally different feel than the real carillon, diminishing their value as a practice method. For his senior project, Brink decided to put his engineering experience to work to address the problem, creating a miniature practice carillon that could be adjusted to mimic the feel of a real instrument.

Working in the laboratory of mechanical engineering professor John Morrell (who will direct the new Center for Engineering Innovation and Design when it opens this fall), Brink worked to design a practice carillon that was haptically accurate – that is, it felt the same as a real carillon would when it was played. He traveled through Connecticut and Massachusetts, measuring the masses of bells and the force required to generate specific sound profiles in five different carillons selected for their wide range of feel. Brink then returned to the lab to build a 15-key device that can be adjusted to mimic real instruments.

Working with graduate student Jean Zheng, Brink also performed experiments in human perception to determine how sensitive carillon players and non-players would be to mass, stiffness and force parameters of the batons. Zheng and Brink presented their research at the 2012 Haptics Symposium in Vancouver, an international forum for research on touch in human-computer interaction. Brink also demonstrated his practice carillon, and was honored with the award for best demo at the symposium.

When asked if it was worth breaking down, shipping and then rebuilding the 180-pound practice instrument in Vancouver, Brink laughingly replied yes, noting that Zheng and Hari Vasudevan (also a graduate student in Morrell’s lab) spent an entire week designing and packing the practice carillon into three shipments, which he added “was an entire project in itself. Foam pieces [were] perfectly cut to fit around the frame pieces, batons, and clappers. Unpacking the shipments and rebuilding the instrument in Vancouver with Jean was like receiving a Lego set for Christmas and then excitedly putting it together all in one day.”

Morrell noted that Brink’s project took advantage of the rapid prototyping tools available to Yale engineers, including laser cutters, a computer-controlled milling machine, and a 3D printer to create molds for complex geometries.

“Having the ability to quickly implement and test designs on campus is a valuable resource for our engineering students,” said Morrell. “Combining these types of tools with software models of the carillon dynamics, Joey was able to iterate through six different designs in a semester, achieving a high level of function and aesthetic finish. Several of the demonstration judges at Haptics Symposium commented on how well his project combined technical function with aesthetic beauty.”

The Symposium judges also added they were impressed with the group’s clever solution, where “Using purely mechanical techniques [the Yale group] enabled their creation to mimic the ‘feel’ of a wide range of carillons.”

The new design center, which is built to encourage exactly the type of project Brink completed, will also include fabrication facilities for metal, plastics, wood, biomedical materials, and electronic devices, and will make these resources available to students beyond the engineering program.

Brink is currently studying carillon performance, composition, history, and yes, practice carillon design at the Royal Carillon School in Mechelen, Belgium, as part of a year of study sponsored by the Belgian American Educational Foundation. He plans to return to graduate school this fall on a Ph.D. track in mechanical engineering, and although his studies will not be at Yale, looks forward to visiting the new design center.

“I can't wait to come back to Yale next year and see it up and running!” Brink said. “I have a feeling that many projected-oriented engineering classes will become more sought out by undergraduates in all disciplines, raising the quality of output from these classes and ultimately drawing more prospective engineering students to Yale.”