A stitch in time: Local musician makes music out of sewing machine sounds

Carl Cadwell assigned sewing machine sounds to each button of this Novation Launchpad and used it to compose music for a video presented at a convention for employees and retailers of Bernina International. Parts of the piece performed at the conference were pre-recorded, but Cadwell played the others live on stage.

Maybe it was the part of his brain that focuses on business rather than the part that he uses to create music, but when Carl Cadwell was asked to create a musical piece based on sewing machines, he said "yes" right away.

"I maybe spoke too soon because right away I had no idea how I was going to even start," he says from his Skypunch Studios in St. Elmo.

photo Carl Cadwell demonstrates how he added lights to sewing machines in his Skypunch Studios. He created a video in this studio, located in the back of his home, using music and sounds from Bernina sewing machines that he and his musical partner, Joshua Green, performed and recorded.
photo Carl Cadwell demonstrates how he added lights to sewing machines in his Skypunch Studios, located in the back of his home. He and his musical partner, Joshua Green, recorded sounds from Bernina sewing machines and composed a song that was set to a light show.

Cadwell proved up to the challenge, however and, in Phoenix in July, he debuted his finished piece, called "This Machine (The Sewing Machine Song)," at a convention for employees and retailers of Bernina International AG sewing machine. A musician and producer, Cadwell has created music for local bands The Distribution, Infradig and Milele Roots, as well as for commercials and marketing videos, but nothing like this.

The idea was originally pitched to Cadwell from people at TwoxFour, a national advertising agency with offices in Chattanooga that works with Bernina. Cadwell has done work for them in the past, but none of it was as challenging as writing his sewing machine symphony.

"It was complicated because there were about three steps to do before I ever got to the place where I normally start composing," he says.

First, he needed to figure out what sounds sewing machines make beyond the obvious motor-running whir or the sound of the needle stabbing through material. Sewing machines put to a beat had been done by another artist in 2011, anyway.

But he got lucky when he visited the Bernina Sew N Quilt Studio on Shallowford Road.

Not sure what exactly he hoped to find there, Cadwell met store owner Bill Klingensmith and, as he and percussionist/collaborator Josh Green started poking around, recording sounds of them beating on machine bodies and explaining their mission, Klingensmith became inspired and that opened up new ideas.

"He was great," Cadwell says. "We were hitting, pulling, plucking, banging whatever and then Bill got excited. He started pulling out all these machines and parts and even explaining what certain parts do."

Klingensmith was impressed with the enthusiasm the two musicians had.

"At first I was like, 'This is pretty odd,' but then we started pulling out these old machines," he says. "I kind of know what the different machines sound like. We just tore them apart and let them play."

At one point, Klingensmith pointed out the sounds that a 730 Bernina machine makes upon powering up - kind of like when your phone or computer boots up - and says that any Bernina owner would recognize it. The sound opens Cadwell's finished piece and drew cheers at the convention - as Klingensmith expected.

"The audience loved it," says Klingensmith, who attended the conference. "Especially the 730. It makes a particular sound and everybody recognized it."

After the afternoon at Sew N Quilt, recording everything from running machines to drumsticks beating on machine parts to sewing needles being plucked, Cadwell returned to his studio and ran the sounds through Pro Tools software, altering the tone and pitch to get something he liked. He then assigned each to a button on his Novation Launchpad and started composing.

photo Carl Cadwell's Skypunch Studios is in his St. Elmo home.

The Launchpad is a square pad about a foot across and looks like a miniature Twister game mat with 16 different-colored buttons. Each can be assigned a sound and the operators hit the buttons to create a song. Parts of the piece performed at the Bernina conference were pre-recorded, but Cadwell played the others live on stage.

Paul Smallman created the accompanying light show using a computer program and some lights he and Cadwell made. The finished product sounds like something from Kraftwerk, Matmos or Daft Punk.

"This is the kind of stuff I love," Cadwell says. "It was exciting to have this experience."

Cadwell isn't sure how great the market might be for composing music using machine products, but he says the key for him was making music that could stand on its own. He's not sure if Bernina has any other plans for the piece, which the company now has the rights to.

"It had to be a song I would listen to and then, when you find out how it was made, you go 'Oh, well that is even more awesome.' I would love to do another one."

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.