Associate Spotlight on Chris DeHaas: The Innovation of Sound
Chris DeHaas has been a musician longer than he’s been an electrical engineer. Since the ’90s he’s played guitar and bass in numerous bands performing in Northeast Ohio, including Odd Girl Out, which toured the Midwest and opened for Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLaughlin, Joan Armatrading, Steve Chapin, Livingston Taylor and Robyn Hitchcock.
But for almost as long as Chris has been performing, he’s been tinkering with ways to meld traditional instrument designs and modern technology. We asked him to describe his involvement with two such hybrids, the Royel and the Zendrum.After graduating from Case Western Reserve University in 1987, I got a summer job playing guitar and bass in a country-music show at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Va. Joseph Wooten — who now plays keyboards with the Steve Miller Band — was in the same show, and one night I went with him to see his brother Roy’s band. Roy was playing an instrument a local guitar maker had built for him. It was an old guitar with sensors on it that he could tap to play drum sounds with his fingers. My education was in electrical engineering, and after the show I approached him and said I could help him further develop and refine the instrument. We ended up talking about various ideas and at the end of the summer, I went home with some of his equipment to experiment with.
First we developed a very elaborate keyboard, called the RoyEl, which looked like a mini grand piano. It had 192 round sensors, about the size of a nickel, and a small computer board that converted the signals from the sensors into MIDI data, which is a standard communication protocol for musical equipment. The MIDI data could then control keyboards, drum machines or any type of sound module that accepted MIDI data. But that instrument was not very portable, so we started working on a smaller one, based on Roy’s input. I made all the electronics and software and the people at Zendrum did the body design. Roy played it while touring with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones.
While I was working with Roy, Zendrum developed their own instrument. Roy introduced me to them around 1995, and I ended up making some accessories for their instrument, a power adapter and a battery pack. I still get orders for battery box from time to time.
I haven’t made any of these instruments for other musicians, although one of the circuit boards was used in a music exhibit at the Children’s Museum of Cleveland. I also used one of the boards in a set of bass pedals I made for myself. I still play in several bands around Cleveland — I play guitar (as a fill in) with Pieces of Eight, and bass with Steve Jochum, who was in the Cleveland band Wild Horses in the ’70s and ’80s. I’ve been mentioned in two books: Rock and Roll and the Cleveland Connection, which has a few paragraphs about Odd Girl Out, and a college textbook called Experiencing Music Technology.
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