Musical Tesla Coils

For many years, Tesla coil builders Steve Ward, Jeff Larson and DR. ZEUS (aka Terry Blake) have been using their 7-foot Tesla coils to perform music. Each individual arc makes a popping sound, and if you fire many arcs per second you get a musical tone. Steve built a control box based on a PIC microcontroller to convert MIDI data from a computer into coil trigger signals.

Here are some videos of Steve, Jeff, and DR ZEUS's performances:

Engineering Open House 2008

In the Spring of 2008, Steve Ward was an electrical engineering student at the University of Illinois, taking the "Advanced Projects Lab" class from professor Lippold Haken, inventor of the Continuum Fingerboard. For the 2008 Engineering Open House, we decided to do a Tesla coil concert. Lippold Haken worked with Steve to develop an interface between the Continuum Fingerboard and the coils, and we performed some of my progressive rock tunes outdoors at EOH. I played one of the coils live from the Continuum while the other coil was playing bass lines driven by MIDI from my NeKo keyboard, which was also playing audio backing tracks through a PA system. The concert was a big hit despite the very cold weather.

Videos of the 2008 Engineering Open House Concert

A nice one we produced


In the fall of 2008, Professor Scott Wyatt, director of the U of I Experimental Music Studios, asked me to co-compose with him a piece for Tesla coils and Continuum Fingerboard. I knew Scott from working as a tech in his studios in the early 1990s, and he had seen videos of our Engineering Open House concert and gotten interested. We set about composing "Risky Business: A Tribute to Nikola Tesla", and submitted an early draft to the SEAMUS composer's society to be considered for performance at their 2009 conference in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Scott came up with the overall structure of the piece and the electroacoustic tracks to be heard through the PA speakers, then left me a lot of room to add Tesla coil and Continuum parts.

Our piece was accepted, so we set about working on a final draft. I wanted to get some more unusual sounds out of the Tesla coils, so Steve Ward and I worked out a system where I would send audio tracks out of my laptop to control the firing of each individual pop of the coils, rather than me sending MIDI to produce simple tones like we did at EOH 2008. The audio tracks consisted of a series of small pulses, all at the same amplitude, which were sent to Steve's box to tell it when to set off a single arc (making a single popping sound). This allowed me to make the coils do some synthesizer-like effects such as oscillator synch, FM, comb filtered noise, and even speech.

Engineering Open House 2009

At EOH 2009 we were not allowed to do an outdoor night performance due to scheduling conflicts, so we did an indoor performance with Steve and Jeff's medium coils, which are about 4 feet tall. It was deafeningly loud and we blew people's eardrums out. I'm serious...parents with small children were getting up and leaving! So I'm not posting any recordings of that.

This was a very important learning experience before SEAMUS, though. We learned that:

1. The Tesla coil control system worked as intended.
2. My laptop would not crash even when it was within 20 feet of a Tesla coil.
3. I needed to MASSIVELY reduce and simplify the stuff that I was making the Tesla coils play. Before SEAMUS, I re-did the entire thing almost from scratch.


After the revisions , we performed the piece at the 2009 SEAMUS Conference in April. The piece was very well received.

A video of the piece at SEAMUS

The ability to make an "oscillator synch" sound with the Tesla coils pretty much DEMANDED that I do a Tesla coil arrangement of "Let's Go" by The Cars (which is probably the most famous synch sound ever), which we performed as encore at SEAMUS.

Krannert Center Concert

In September of 2009 we did a repeat performance of the piece in the amphitheater on top of Krannert Center for the Performing Arts in Urbana, IL.

Here are a couple of YouTube videos of the Krannert concert

"Risky Business: A Tribute to Nikola Tesla"
"Let's Go" by The Cars

Engineering Open House 2012

Let's Go (The Cars)

Engineering Open House 2013

Frankenstein (Edgar Winter)
Evolution (Mark Smart)