Introduction: Cacophones- a Monstrous Mechanical Mashup

About: Huur... derrr.

I do stuff with junk. That's all you really need to know about me. I find cool bits in the trash and mechanical treasures buried in dead tech and I play with them until an idea takes shape.

The original Cacophones (you know- like 'cacophony' + 'headphones') came about when I found a few music boxes while cleaning out an old house. They were pretty cheesy but I liked the musical mechanisms so I brought them home. Around the same time I found an old pair of headphones from the 70's. The speakers were dead and the wiring was dry-rotted, but they looked really cool. It seems almost inevitable that I'd end up mounting the music box mechanisms in the headphones. Why not?

So apparently the line between art, music and torture is pretty thin and shifty. It was interesting when folks tried the Cacophones- they either loved it or they hated it. The sensation of two different songs playing at different tempos separately in your ears is kind of disorienting and weird. I could type a bunch of words but you really need to hear it for yourself. Here's how to build your own.

Step 1: Disassembling the Ear Muffs

I used cheap hearing protection ear muffs from Harbor Freight for this project since they're easy to find and cheap.

I took the ear muffs apart. The individual ear parts were held on with rubber toggles that twisted to remove them. The ear pad slid off the muff easily. Next was a press-fit oval ring that popped out easily. Finally, the ear cup was stuffed with foam to reduce sound.

The inside of the ear muff had a rubber protrusion on the back of the rubber toggle. This was a long point that probably made the part easier to insert, but it was in my way. I trimmed it with a small pair of parallel cutters so it wouldn't interfere with the music box mechanism. Now it was ready to add the music box..

Step 2: Installing the Music Boxes

Whether it's a sad ceramic clown, a ballerina in a box or or a plush bear, if it has a wind up music box in it, it's probably one of two styles. They are both similar but one is all metal and the other one has a metal and plastic body. The plastic ones are slightly smaller, so I used them here.

The mechanisms I used for this project played Eidelweisse and Send in the Clowns. First I removed the winding key from the mechanism. I fit the mechanism into the ear muff and estimated where the winding key would go through the plastic. I marked it and drilled out both ear muffs. The original winding key wasn't long enough to reach through the ear muff so I used some recycled hardware- two threaded stand-offs and two knurled screws- to create a new winder.

The mechanisms usually mount with machine screws, but the screws I had were not long enough due to the curve of the ear muff. I used JB Weld to fix the mechanisms in place. I scratched the plastic to create a better physical bond and I wiped the mating surfaces with alcohol to remove any grease and grime. I mixed equal parts of the JB Weld and applied it with a toothpick. I set it aside to cure overnight.

Step 3: Putting It All Together

I was going through some music box mechanisms trying to decide which ones to use for this project. When you have several going at the same time it's hard to identify the individual tunes. I was holding one up to my ear when a single strand of hair got caught in the flywheel and seized the whole works. I broke out a loupe and tweezers but it wouldn't budge. I finally used a lighter to burn the hair and it worked again good as new.

The ear muffs have the pad, the snap ring and some foam. I basically replaced the foam with the musical mechanism but it left the moving parts exposed to hair and other contaminants that coud clog it up. I decided to use a bit of fabric inside the ear muff to protect the tiny gears. I used a cool scrap of Fubu Fat Albert print cotton and stretched it over the oval snap ring. I pushed it into place and then trimmed the excess cloth. I gently slipped the ear pad back on and then replaced the ear muff on the headband, I repeated this for the other side and that was that- the Cacophone is born!

Step 4: Musical Experiment or DIY Torture Device?

This is a fun project. I like how the notes of the two separate songs combine to create new melodies. Sometimes miracles happen and things fall into place perfectly for a moment, but it changes again and does something else. It's more of a noise installation than a musical device.

I'm now on a quest for two mechanisms that play It's a Small World After All. Since the springs are all have slightly different tensions so the tempos of the two mechanisms will be different. That would make the song fall in and out of sync in a weird, spacey way. It would either be awesome or horrifying. Maybe both.