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The most organic oscillator in the world

Submitted by on June 8, 2009 – 9:50 pm 5 Comments

Analogue. Some people love it, some people hate it, and some people quest after it like it’s the panacea of sound. Personally, I love analogue synthesizers – I love how they sound, I love how they feel, and I love how they look.

Even among analogue synths, some filters and oscillators can sound more organic than others. Well, ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the most ‘organic’ oscillator on earth: the electric fish oscillator!

If you go into most pet stores, you can find a little fish called a Gnathonemus Petersii – a member of the Mormyrid family. Most pet store employees will recognize it as the Elephant Nose Fish.

The interesting thing about this fascinating little animal is that it emits pulses of electricity into the water. It uses these tiny little shocks to locate food, other fish, and potential mates. You can actually listen to this electric fish rather easily if if use a small piezoelectric earphone or amplified speaker.

Here’s what you do:

Get a piezoelectric earphone  here or at Radio Shack or any electronics store. Piezoelectric earphones are very sensitive to small electrical signals. Alternatively, you could use a cheap computer speaker.

Take one of the wires (there are two connected to the earphone, it doesn’t matter which one) and put this wire underwater  into one side of the fish tank. Put the other wire into the other side of the fish tank – make sure that there is a small amount of bare wire at each end.

Put the fish in the tank, and put the earphone up to your ear. Here is what you’ll hear:

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Because the fish uses the electrical signals to ‘see’, the more it moves around the more signals it will produce.

Here’s an example of the assembled ‘oscillator’, done by the crazy kids at sci-toys.com:

If you record the signal, you’ll see a waveform similar to this:

The Elephant Nose Fish has an small organ near its tail that can produce an electric pulse. In the picture to the right, it’s the reddish area near the rear of the fish.

This reddish area is a modified muscle that generates the signal. There are also receptors that can detect the reflections of the pulses, and pulses from other fish.

In some places, these fish are actually used to detect lead in city’s water supplies because it is much cheaper and easier to use the fish than to perform clinical tests.

So, there you have it – a real, “live” oscillator. Can’t get any more organic sounding that that, can you?  I wonder if Doepfer will come out with a module based on the Elephant Nose Fish?

5 Comments »

  • Paul Szego says:

    Alright, I gotta ask (cause I have no idea about how to do these things or if they’re even possible):

    What do I need to hook up to use the random ossilations from this very cool fish, to change the frequency/envelope in some cool way? All I want is the tank, what ever equipment I need, and a knob that lets me muck with some facet of the sound.

    How do I turn this fish into the engine of sound? Please help me out, and then I’m off to the pet store!

  • Robert says:

    I’d imagine that if you somehow hooked up the fish to a series of guitar pedals, you could then affect the sound in many many ways! I too wanna do some Interesting funn stuff! though I hear they don’t go well with another Elephant nose fish.. too aggressive.

  • Alan says:

    For starters one could take this soundbyte of the fish and slow it down, stretch it out, change the pitch, see if there is a pattern. It’s sound, and I wonder how many Hz it is.
    I would have a much bigger tank with things the fish could echolocate –perhaps also other fish it does not eat. I would have to learn more about taking care of fish and keeping aquariums before I did this.
    Also, there is the trick of playing the fish’s clicks back to him, seeing what that produces.

  • Jason says:

    Cool! I did an art piece (photo + sound) about a situation in Marin, California where people living in house boats were being haunted by another type of sound producing fish (the midshipmen):
    http://art.jaywar.com/photographs/sound-with-pictures/sausalito-houseboats/

  • frederik says:

    Hi,

    I’ve made some installation with electric fishes. Feel free to check one of them out!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WvLctD62G58

    Enjoy,

    F

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