Wintergatan Marble Machine: Making music with marbles

This arcade-style music box features a range of programmable instruments.

Martin Molin of the Swedish folktronica band Wintergatan has played his fair share of instruments of the occult. His new appreciation for the subculture of marble machines is what inspired the design of the Wintergatan Marble Machine. It is an instrument that takes the vast complexity of marble music boxes one echelon higher - this one is programmable.

Marble machines are hand-operated devices that utilise the gravity and mobility of marbles to create music. Wintergatan’s iteration is comprised of hand-carved pieces of wood (a mixture of birch and plywood), various pulleys, siphons, a hand crank and a range of levers that are under Molin’s control. The inside of the Marble Machine features an extensive circuit of arteries that collect and redistribute the tiny metal balls among the machine’s collection of instruments.

The Wintergatan Marble Machine is essentially a mix of various percussions. It has a vibraphone, cymbals and kick drum - all of which are powered by the sound of colliding marbles.

The internal highway carries lanes of marbles that are funnelled and blocked at the user's will. At the top of the music box’s interface is a range of wooden handles that direct metal marbles to specific parts of the machine. The entire contraption is set in motion by a single crank on the side of the interface.

Speaking to Wired, Molin explains his desire to create a marble machine that is more than a single-noise demonstration model.

"Marble machines always make music, but I was thinking maybe I can make a programmable marble machine, that doesn't make chaos but is actually controllable in the sounds it makes," he says.

Development of Wintergatan’s model started in late 2014. During the marble machine’s design phase, Molin visited the Museum Speelklok in the Netherlands. Many automated musical contraptions are on display there and the trip helped to shape Wintergatan’s version.

Molin and his team aim to refine the machine that they have created to make it more compact. Currently, it must be disassembled and rebuilt for each travel journey and the band wishes to take it on tours more frequently in the future.