What is Anthesizer?

Q: What the f*** is Anthesizer?

Anthesizer, ‘Ant’ + ‘Synthesizer’, is a tool to turn the complex social behaviors of ants into an immersive soundscape.

Contact mics are placed inside the nests and outworlds. Those mics are connected to MaxMSP, which is a program that does real-time sound synthesis with the incoming signals taken from an ant colony in real time.

Awarded by Interdisciplinary Grant, and HANSOM Student Project Fund from California Institute of the Arts, Anthesizer has been showcased at SEAMUS 2023, CalArts Expo 2022/ 2023, Music Maker Festival 2023,  ICAD 2023.

Q: How it all started?

A: Well, It started with my final paper in Eco-acoustics class led by Sam Wells and Ben Ritcher.

The paper was about UFO (Underground Formicidae Octopus), a device that can detect, record, and playback the sound of an ant colony underground. David Dunn’s bark beetle project, and Doug Van Nort’s GSO (Genetically Modified Organisms) were two of the major influence of this paper. While UFO still remains confined to the paper, it got me interested in ants and their social behavior, and led me to the journey of ant keeping, starting from Jan 1st, 2022.

In the following semester, I took Interface Design class where I should build something for the final project. Plus, the CalArts Expo was coming.

I decided to take this opportunity to realize UFO (at first).

In an attempt to simplify and realize the UFO concept, I searched for a starting point and stumbled upon Oh!m1gas created by Kuai Shen.

Eureka!! This is it! Contact mics!

Through countless revisions, trials and errors, I accommodated contact mics into one of my ant colonies step by step. And eventually, the very first model of Anthesizer was born, and exhibited at CalArts Expo 2022.

If you want to go check Anthesizer I, CLICK HERE

Big shoutout to Kuai Shen — He not only granted me permission to utilize his amp circuit diagram but also generously offered guidance and insights through Zoom.

Q: What aspect of ants inspires you?

A: Did you know that there are over 16,000 “known” species of ants all over the world?

Ants exhibit remarkable diversity in terms of their appearance, size, habitat preferences, food sources, and behavioral characteristics. This vast array of ant species showcases an incredible range of adaptations and ecological roles.

But what got me interested the most is their social behavior.

Ants are social animal. They exhibit division of labor, communication through chemical signals, and impressive coordination in tasks such as foraging, nest building, and rearing their young.

They are farmers cultivating fungus gardens and livestocking aphids for honeydews. They are soldiers going into a war when there is a conflict over territories or resources. They are just like us.

That inspires me.

Q: Why Anthesize?

I think my background as a sound designer naturally led me to the idea of sonifying an ant colony.

I also believe that listening to the sounds of an ant colony provides a more intuitive and immersive experience compared to simply watching them. By sonifying their behaviors, we can engage our auditory senses and gain a deeper understanding of their collective dynamics.

Secondly, listening to the activity of ants offers a unique perspective that complements traditional visual observation. Because sound can reveal patterns, rhythms, and subtle cues that may not be as apparent through visual observation alone.

Since I started building their nests and outworlds by myself, I have been able to design the sonification procedure with greater delicacy, tailoring it specifically to the unique characteristics of their behavior.

Q: What genre of music is it?

I would say primarily ambient music or soundscape.

However, it has the potential to encompass a wide range of genres depending on how I design the sound synthesis process in MaxMSP. It would be truly exciting to see Anthesizer jam with other musicians in the future, bridging the worlds of natural soundscapes and human-created music. 

Stay tuned!

Q: What are the challenges?

Ugh, tell me about it!!

There were so many, but let me highlight three major hurdles that truly tested me.

1) the Ants

The biggest challenge I face with Anthesizer is undoubtedly the ants themselves. Unlike our lovely dogs, ants cannot be easily communicated with or trained as a swarm. They are solely devoted to their queen and follow the innate rules encoded in their genes.

Additionally, their sensitivity to light and vibrations adds another layer of complexity when it comes to exhibition.

As Shen advised me, the key is to “know your ants.” To overcome this challenge, I must dedicate myself to studying and observing them closely.

2) Amplification

Another challenge I face is the amplification process.

Amplifying the sound from tiny ants requires significant amplification from each input source, making it susceptible to outside noise and potential feedback issues with the speakers. This makes it challenging to exhibit Anthesizer in noisy environments with large crowds.

To address this challenge, I have employed several methods:

  •  Double enclosure: I use a larger acrylic case that houses all the Anthesizer setups. This acts as an additional barrier, effectively isolating the setup from the external environment. However, the cost of the acrylic case increases as its size grows.
  • Speakers Placement: It is crucial to separate the speakers from the Anthesizer setup to prevent the occurrence of feedback loops.
  • Cloth: Placing thick cloth underneath the Anthesizer setup helps dampen low-frequency thumps that may originate from the ground or the table/pedestal surface.
  • HPF – Highpass Filter: Implementing a highpass filter helps reduce unwanted noise from the lower frequency range, enhancing the clarity of the desired ant sounds.


3) Mobility

The last challenge I face is mobility. It is difficult to move and travel with a live colony of ants, especially as transporting Californian ants to other states or countries is typically illegal. This limitation hinders my ability to showcase my work across different boundaries.

To overcome this, I am developing another Anthesizer model that can be installed outside in the wild, similar to my initial UFO concept. This approach would allow for the exploration of ant colonies in their natural habitats without the need for transportation.

Additionally, I am also working on creating ASMR content that utilizes the sound recordings from Anthesizer. This will provide an alternative way to experience and share the unique auditory perspectives of ant colonies, even in situations where live demonstrations are not feasible.

Q: What is the goal?

Honestly, Anthesizer is about entertainment and making cool shit.

But, there is more to it.

1. Bridging the gap between biology and art: Anthesizer aims to merge the scientific study of ants and their behaviors with the artistic medium of sound. By sonifying the activities of ant colonies, it creates a unique intersection of biology and art, offering a new perspective on these fascinating creatures.

2. Creating a connection and fostering a deeper understanding between humans and the natural world: Anthesizer strives to cultivate a stronger bond between humans and the natural world. By experiencing the intricate soundscape of ant colonies, we can develop a heightened appreciation for the complexity and interconnectedness of nature. It encourages us to see and listen to the world around us in a different way, forging a deeper connection to the wonders of the natural world.

3. Serving as an educational tool: Anthesizer holds great potential as an educational resource. It offers a captivating and immersive platform for teaching about ant biology, social behaviors, and the ecological significance of these tiny organisms. By engaging students through the power of sound, Anthesizer can inspire curiosity and facilitate a deeper understanding of the natural world in educational settings.

Q: Future Plan?

One of my primary goals for the future of Anthesizer is to achieve complete independence from the laptop. To accomplish this, I am currently experimenting with Daisy Seed, a microcontroller that can run MaxMSP gen~ patches.

Additionally, I am actively seeking out a variety of different sensors that can be utilized in conjunction with or as alternatives to piezo elements (contact mics). These sensors would expand the range of data capture possibilities and enhance the versatility of Anthesizer.

Thank you for reading ❣️

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