Swedish designer, craftsman, woodworker, and audio-visual artist Love Hultén has consistently displayed a talent for crafting ingenious, unconventional, and custom-built instruments, product designs, and sound installations that are as zany and resourceful, as they are extraordinary. He joined forces with Swedish tech company Teenage Engineering for Hjärtebarnsfonden, to create CHD-4, a unique, arrhythmic modular synthesiser that produces rhythms based on the heartbeats of four Swedish children with congenital heart defects.
Their ECGs were decoded into a turntable-like disc, divided into four different circular sequencers, “enabling the user to play and create with the heartbeats of each child. The patterns can be played together or individually to create sounds that exemplify each child's irregular heartbeat," share Love Hultén and Teenage Engineering.
According to global statistics, over 1.3 million babies are born each year with congenital heart disease (CHD), making it the most common birth defect in the world. Despite the alarming number, the devastating matter has low general awareness. Even though CHD is now treatable with modern techniques, it can deeply affect a child’s healthy heart development, eventually resulting in premature death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
For this unique piece of portable industrial design that produces music and beauty from something so overwhelming, real echocardiograms from four children with different congenital heart diseases were printed from real hospital check-ups. Each ECG was then decoded into patterns, based on its individual shape, pace, and BPM and then converted into a four-track rotary sequencer for the music design. The sequences—or 'heartbeats'—can be played separately or together, and each heartbeat can be adjusted offset in relation to the other(s) for further exploration with CHD-4.
“So when in use, the machine produces sounds and rhythm sequences based on their individual and unique heartbeats. These sequences can be played separately or together to produce a wide range of sounds, and one can manually offset each ‘heart’ in relation to the other(s) in order to explore further and create unique rhythm patterns. For further manipulation, there is a mute switch for each channel and the overall tempo is adjusted via a knob up front,” Hultén explains.
The four ‘hearts’ are linked to an array of sound modules designed and manufactured by Teenage Engineering. “This is where the rhythm triggers from the sequencer transform into audio,” he says. Soundscapes are created and explored by adjusting a variety of analog sound parameters, while a small OLED screen displays the audio and beats in real-time, much like an ECG.
Hultén relays his favourite element of the heartbeat drum machine —“I'm quite proud of the circular sequencer concept with its ability to offset each ‘heart’ manually in relation to each other. Each of these four ‘hearts’ can be played individually of course, but mixing them together for the 'full drum kit’ does make rather interesting beats.”
“The CHD-4 was a joy to build, much due to the whole context and the support from everybody involved. I'm used to customer-focused builds, often working within set frames and client-specific needs. It's always fun to dig into more conceptual ideas. From a design perspective, I struggled a bit in terms of portability. I needed to keep things slim and light enough to have the device fold and unfold correctly. Some trial and error also went into the pin locking mechanism and the carrying handle doubled as back support, but I'm happy about how it all turned out. Converting the four different EKG printouts into interesting rhythm ensembles was tricky as well. In order to prevent chaos, I needed to find the right balance between sync and unsync, this while staying true to the printouts,” he elaborates.
“Drum machines are defined by order—beats, pace, and rhythm. This machine disrupts that system, the same way life is disrupted when a child is born with congenital heart disease. Transforming these tiny broken hearts into sound was a truly heartfelt experience. I sincerely hope the machine ends up with someone who will cherish the craft and purpose and that the auction generates a sizable donation to the cause”, says the Swedish designer.
The creators from Sweden relay that the four Swedish children—Liv: Third-degree atrioventricular block; Vincent: Tricuspid atresia; Wega: Ventricular Septum Defect; and Janiyah: Pulmonary atresia & Tricuspid valve stenosis—were all born with different heart defects but are alive today thanks to research and medical advances. All proceeds will go to the Swedish Heartchild Foundation, a non-profit that supports children born with congenital heart diseases and their families.