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Hacking Geiger Counters


Over the last year I have been working with a group of artists as part of the project  ‘Power in The Land’ responding to the decommissioning of Wylfa nuclear power station on Anglesey in North Wales.  Each member of the group has approached the subject matter from a different stance, addressing topics ranging from history to security, from geology and sociology to the still controversial topic of nuclear power itself.  

I have been hacking Geiger counters….  Not just any Geiger counters but specifically vintage Victoreen Geiger counters that employ an analog oscilator to generate the recognisable click sound (some counters generate the clicks with reed switches instead).  Victoreen Geiger counters are actually American Civil Defence units.  For this project I wanted to use something that looked iconic, and the design of these units really stands out from European models… The circuit diagrams and technical maintenance manuals are also widely available and contain far better information than any of the other manufacturers.   For the synthesizer and sound creation heads out there, the oscillator is a square/pulse wave generator that is choked so that you don’t hear the tone, just the initial “attack”.  In order to trigger, “control” and organise the oscillations I have been playing with radioactive material, automating it’s proximity to the counters.  I have also been experimenting with both the replacement and manipulation of the traditional Geiger counter sound.

I have three geiger counters and they are all hacked and rigged differently. Please be aware that the next three paragraphs are very geeky! 

Geiger counter #1 now has an integral two channel passive audio mixer with CV control of volume from an internal Arduino and side mounted 3.5mm jack sockets (so it can link up to a Eurorack modular synthesiser set up) as well as an inbuilt 22khz Mono sampler utilising the internal Arduino, a wave shield and the WaveHC library.  I have also incorporated a speaker with amplifier running from 5v and dual control voltage outputs for driving motorised faders moving the radioactive test sources in relation to the Geiger tubes detecting the radioactivity.  

Geiger counter #2 now has an in built speaker and a power modification to run from mains supply (all of the units are now rigged to work off mains supply instead of the original internal 4 D cell batteries).  The original 5v audio out is used as both as an audio signal and as a CV signal to control Geiger counter #1’s audio behaviour and the proximity of the test sources on the automation rails.  

Geiger counter #3 is a different model to the previous two and was sold as non functioning.  I have rigged the original sensitivity switch to control audio parameters and added a three channel passive audio mixer, again with CV control.  This unit contains two linked Arduinos, the first again utilising the WaveHC library to play digital audio files and the second utilising the Mozzi audio library to play a pre-recorded wavetable of the click from another Geiger counter.  The audio on this counter is triggered by the use of a proximity sensor and the library.  The two internal Arduinos communicate internally via I2C.  

The first thing that really interested me when looking at Geiger counters was the randomness of the sound that they produce.  Although the counters are wholly man-made, the audio output from them actually sounds (and is) incredibly organic.  In terms of the audio pieces that I am creating, this radioactivity dictated randomness defines the “rhythm”….if you can call it that.  Because of the half life of the test source, if the hacked Geiger counters were left to generate their hacked sound piece unattended, over a period of time (possibly ten years) it would change in intensity and eventually stop.  

A concept that I really wanted to look at in this project was “control”.  Because of the unpredictable nature of radioactive material and the use of it to generate sound, control is somewhat limited. There is the illusion of control i.e. if one moves the test source closer to the geiger tube it generates more pulses…. But it never becomes rigid or uniform… It is always unpredictable. A rather apt metaphor for nuclear power itself.   

I also wanted to somehow incorporate audio elements that relate directly to Wylfa itself… On the internal samplers I have utilised the sounds of both Opera and recordings taken from within the power station itself. Before the power station was built, in the 1950s, a house stood on Wylfa head.  This house was apparently owned by a famous Soprano; Rosina Buckman.  There is a story of a ghost that haunted the power station as it was being built.  It is believed that the ghost was Rosina Buckman.  I have used a recording of her singing One Fine Day from Madame Butterfly taken from an old 78rpm record.  It is triggered and rearranged by the pulses generated from the radioactivity.  

Power In The Land will be showing:

Oriel Davies,  Newtown  6th of Feb - 6th April  

Aberystwyth Arts Centre 14th May - 2nd July

Bay Arts,  Cardiff   Feb 17th - March 17th 2017


Oriel Ynys Mon will be showing the related archive exhibition Jan 23rd - July 10th

Anglesey Arts Weeks, Working process one studio 20th March - 3rd April