Montana State University

Student builds marimba playing robot for senior project

April 14, 2011 -- Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service

Sam Heuck built and programmed "573ph3n," the marimba-playing robot. The robot will perform at a concert featuring senior projects of students enrolled in MSU's music technology program. The free concert will be held at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, April 17, in the MSU Black Box Theatre. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.    High-Res Available

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
When Sam Heuck was graduating from high school in Sheridan, Wyo. with interests and talents in music and computers, the new music technology program at Montana State University got his attention.

"The program is really unique -- one of the only programs in the nation like it -- and I came here mostly because of it," Heuck said.

Now Heuck is in the first graduating class of MSU's music technology program and he is getting a lot of attention in turn from a 7-foot long marimba playing robot that he has built with parts largely purchased from a local hardware store.

"573ph3n" the robot, which in the alternate computer alphabet leetspeak spells the name Stephen, will be one of the performers in a concert featuring projects of seniors in MSU's music technology program. The free concert will be held at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, April 17, in MSU's Black Box Theatre. It will showcase the talents of the first full senior class of the program, which began in 2007, according to Kristi McGarity, music professor and director of MSU's music technology program.

"This concert is going to be wild," McGarity said. "There's really a lot of stuff. It's really exciting to see the fruits of what this brand-new program has been able to bring to MSU."

Among the creative pieces will be "Stephen and 573ph3n," a duet between Heuck's marimba-playing robot and Stephen Versaevel, MSU professor of percussion.

Heuck said his senior project was inspired when he learned that students at Georgia Tech had created a marimba-playing robot.

"I've always been interested in computer science and music, so I thought that there might be a way for me to build it myself," Heuck said.

Heuck said he began building the robot, which cost about $200 in parts, in February. With the exception of a few electronic parts that were ordered over the Internet from a robot supply house, Heuck bought the rest of the parts locally. The robot is plugged into Heuck's laptop and a program that Heuck has written to make it play music.

"Now that I have done it and can see what it can do, I want to redesign it and make it even better," he said.

He may have an opportunity with his new job as the computer tech for MSU's School of Music. He eventually plans to get an advanced degree in computer science at MSU that will help him achieve his dreams of eventually opening a recording studio.

"The music technology degree trains people to be entrepreneurs," Heuck said."I can see having my own company one day."

McGarity said Heuck made an impact from the beginning.

"Sam has been here since fall '07 and almost immediately it became apparent that he had pretty valuable chops in computer and tech support and became our right-hand tech guy " McGarity said. "He tends to see systems and see ways to make the system better."

For example, McGarity said he programmed a concert attendance system that allows MSU music students to swipe their student ID cards to register attendance at concerts, eliminating the need to turn in tiny slips of paper.

"Sam liked the idea of being involved in the ground floor and building something new. Which he has done," she said.

McGarity said Heuck's senior project -- building his own instrument -- isn't a typical project. But perhaps neither are those of the other music tech students.

"We will have, among other pieces, a Gamelan ensemble with electric guitar and keyboards, a liturgical piece that includes children dancing with flags, oboe and double bass... Even a Christian rock band," she said. She said the concert will be enhanced with a large mixing board and speakers brought in for the event.

To learn more about MSU's Music Technology Program, go to

Kristi McGarity, 994-5762,