We’re back! This week in our maker spotlight, we’re chatting with Kel Smith, musician and maker. This Q & A is just the tip of the iceberg; hear more from Kel on the Philly Maker Faire podcast that drops at 6pm EST, Tuesday, June 15.

What do you make?

I design and build strange electronic devices that make strange electronic sounds. Then I compose strange listening experiences that utilize these sounds. I record and release these works under the name Suss Müsik. Of late, I’ve been creating videos to demonstrate these tools in action and posting them on YouTube and Instagram.

A photo of the Vactrol VCO Tape Warbler by Kel Smith

Who do you make it for?

Mostly myself, I suppose, although Suss Müsik has a tiny little audience that’s surprisingly global. I’ve had people write to me from all corners of the world saying my sounds have helped them to study, to concentrate, to meditate. One woman sent me an email saying that listening to Suss Müsik helps her cope when she has a migraine episode. Some of my material has been used in an app developed by mental health professionals to relieve symptoms of anxiety. It’s quite humbling to me when that sort of thing happens.

Where are you located?

I live and work in a delightfully anachronistic neighborhood just north of Philadelphia.

When did you start making?

I’m an art school graduate with a mind for numbers, and I’ve always had a keen interest in the ways that science and art intersect. I also love working with “glitch” or broken technologies — I once built a camera out of malfunctioning scanner duct-taped to a 135mm Wollensack lens. That thing was hilarious. But really, I’ve always been a maker in some form or another. My grandfather was an architect and very much a maker — he used to build furniture and I still have a workbench he made for me thirty years ago. I imagine that I’ve picked up a bit of his influence along the way.

How long have you been making?

I began Suss Müsik in 2016, although I’ve only been building DIY instruments within the past year or so. I got into sound because working with audio felt like a natural progression of the DIY aesthetic I’d been pursuing but hadn’t quite mastered through visual media.

What inspired you to make this?

I took a DIY electronics class during the summer of COVID-19, taught by Kirk Pearson of Dogbotic. It was as if someone just opened my brain and poured in all these possibilities. Projects that I’d previously found intimidating were now exciting challenges to be discovered. Within eight weeks, I was transforming my workspace into an electronics laboratory and buying all sorts of components and tools. Then I realized, “Hey, maybe I can invent something unique” and that pushed me into a new territory of exploration.

Photo of the internal electronics of Artiphon Extension by Kel Smith

What makers inspire you?

Some years ago, I wrote a book called Digital Outcasts about the historical significance that people with disabilities have on design innovation. I remember being consistently impressed by those I interviewed, people who acclimated to daily life using tools they personally designed or retrofitted for their needs. While I can’t honestly say this research was a direct lineage to what I’m doing today, I think it does represent something universal that exists within all of us. It has to do with our intrinsic need to build, to create, to identify a gap and find out if the solution we have in mind is possible. I think most makers would relate to that sense of yearning, whether we’re designing a theremin or a 3D-printed wheelchair extension.

What’s next?

Starting in July, I’ll be studying at Vermont College of Fine Arts towards (finally) earning my MFA. I’m planning to investigate the topic of Transhumanism, from which I hope to develop a cogent visual/sonic narrative on remix culture and digital refactoring.

A photo of two Synthesizers by Kel Smith

What was the best moment for you as a maker?

Honestly, I’m always thrilled to be included among such gifted makers. I’m awestruck not only by how talented everyone is, but also how generous they are when it comes to sharing knowledge. It’s especially rewarding when you’ve created something that clearly resonates with your audience. It compensates for all the failures that happen along the way.

Anything else you want to add?

For those who tolerate Suss Müsik, maybe check out Egret Zero on Bandcamp. It’s my other project in partnership with guitarist and vocalist Wm. Wolfgang Allen. We got a couple of nice reviews earlier this year, and that was pretty exciting for us.

Kel Smith and Suss Müsik online

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