The Amazing Rave-O-Matic Laser Disco Music Machine

Burning Man

August 29 - September 5, 2005

Burning Man at last! A week in the desert, thirty thousand people, lights, music, action, the environment for which this machine was designed - and, in a way, an anticlimax. People loved it, just as much as I'd hoped they would, and all the parts worked as well as I'd hoped they would. After two test runs, I had no doubts about the electronics, and the assembly process was down to a system. I wasn't missing any tools or parts, and I didn't have to jury-rig anything. Everything went smoothly, and I had a pleasant, mellow time riding around watching people get a kick out of my creation.

There were two untested technical changes, which both worked out fine. After watching the original PVC pole sway and bend alarmingly at the Phoenix Festival, I built a new pole out of steel conduit sections, joined with screw couplings. The new pole worked really well - it was a bit heavier than the original, but not so much that I noticed it against the rest of the system. I also finally added the microphone, which I used to automatically synchronize the Rave-O-Matic's light show with the sound produced by the large P.A. systems I passed by. The microphone was the beginning of the project, really, but everything else grew up around it until it ended up being a fairly minor part of the eventual machine. It was still nice to have it, but it's funny how the emphasis shifts over the course of a project's life.

I set the machine up on Tuesday, at dusk, and gave it a quick test run. I don't think my camp mates had quite realized what it was I planned to build, or how tall it was going to end up being. In any case it got a lot of attention, and as soon as I turned the music on people started drifting over. I noticed this phenomenon over and over again: the machine itself wasn't the sort of thing that people spent a lot of time watching directly, but it defined whatever random patch of dirt it happened to be sitting on as a place worth hanging out in. People would drift by, pause for a moment, and stand around talking to each other over the music as the machine glowed and thumped with all its might.

My original vision had involved a sort of pied piper effect, where the machine would slowly drift around, towing a small crowd as it went. It turns out that it is really hard to ride a bike slowly enough that people feel like drifting along at the same pace. Instead the project became a series of stationary exhibitions: I'd drive to some random place, park, and then just relax and talk to people for ten or twenty minutes. Wherever I parked, no matter how random or out of the way, the lights drew people in; nobody ever really came walking directly toward me, but the machine exerted a sort of gravity, and people showed up all the same.

The one major technical problem I experienced came late enough in the week that I was getting tired and didn't mind anyway. I brought a generator and a charger, which I used to fill up the battery after each outing, but the pervasive alkaline dust corroded some of the charger's internal components and it burnt itself out after only a couple of days in the dust. When I ran the power out on Friday night, that was the end. I had hoped to haul the Rave-O-Matic up to the fire line on Saturday night, to provide music for my camp's fire performers, but it was not to be. Oh, well; I had enough fun with it during the week to count myself satisfied.

Unloading the parts, not yet covered in playa dust

Finished with assembly, right at dusk

The laser and strobe on the tower

Closeup of the machine's body: the CD player is sealed inside a plastic bag to protect it from dust.

All hitched up and ready to go