As It Happens

Toronto duo create scary sounds with their 'Apprehension Engine'

A Toronto guitar maker invents "The Apprehension Engine," a scary music making instrument for his friend — a Toronto-based horror movie scorer.
Tony Duggan-Smith is a Toronto guitar maker who created 'The Apprehension Engine.' (Mark Korven)

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A horror film composer and a guitar maker have teamed up to create a fear-inducing instrument they call "The Apprehension Engine."

The project started last fall when Toronto composer Mark Korven called up his friend Tony Duggan-Smith and asked him to design a custom instrument that could create creepy, acoustic sounds. 

A custom instrument that creates scary sounds. (Mark Korven)
As It Happens guest host Laura Lynch spoke with him about the instrument and asked him to react to some of the machine's sounds. Here's an excerpt of that interview:  

Laura Lynch: How did you even begin to put this instrument together?

Tony Duggan-Smith: It was in a very short space of time.

With two weeks to do anything, it's kind of insane. Just designing something would take way longer than that normally. You know, so this was a situation, really, where I just had to look at what I had lying around.

So it was a lot of just emptying out cabinets and seeing what junk I'd collected over the years and put away in boxes and going from there.

LL: Let's listen to this:  

LL: Scary. What are we hearing there?

TDS: What you're hearing there are the four metal rulers that are sticking out the front of the box.  

LL: And when you say rulers, you mean rulers that people use to measure.

TDS: A steel ruler from a major sort of high-end tool company whose name I won't mention.

They're like clamped to the top of the box and sort of jutting out from the front of it towards Mark, who's playing it.

Just the same way as when you're a kid in school — you would take a ruler and sort of whack it against the edge of a table and move it around to create like a noise — it's that same kind of principle except it's actually clamped to the surface.

Personally, I'm transported to some kind of like strange, underwater sci-fi show, or something every time I hear that. It sounds like sonar. It just conjures up a bazillion different kinds of eerie images in my mind.  

LL: I want us to listen to a different part of it now:  

LL: Which part of the instrument is responsible for that sound?

TDS: That's the hurdy-gurdy part of the instrument, which is a medieval instrument that has been around for a long time. The only part of the hurdy-gurdy that we've basically stolen is the handle and the wheel rubbing up against the strings. Everything else about a hurdy-gurdy, we didn't go near. It's mostly because we're trying to make an instrument here that is not really melodic or harmonic.

It's just, it's sound, which kind of goes against, you know, everything you think about as far as like creating music. We generally kind of assume, you know, that melody and harmony would be involved. But, as you can hear, there are notes that are created.

A lot of that, in this case — because there is no fingerboard — is just Mark running his fingers and putting tension on the strings and creating harmonics that become notes that kind of alter and change.

That's all technique.

There's been a lot of interest in the custom instrument by musicians and researchers, alike. (Mark Korven)
LL: How much interest has there been in "The Apprehension Engine" since you made it?

TDS: Let's just say in the last couple months it has been kind of insane. Mark made a small film on it, I guess, last September.

Over the last six months or whatever, it has been watched maybe thirty, forty, fifty-thousand times.

But because we got a call from Great Big Story at CNN, and they asked for the opportunity to come up and make a short film about it, since then … it has been completely insane.

LL: Who's interested in it?

TDS:  Anybody you can imagine. It's strange.

Obviously like professional composers, and filmmakers. Every major sort of like horror production company making large series and films and TV episodes and stuff like that have contacted me already.

And then universities have contacted me, with music departments and also almost like Manchurian Candidate kind of research into fear.

Those people have contacted me as well, which is really scary.

LL: That's what's really scary?

TDS: It scares me, I'll tell ya.  

It's funny. In terms of people in general, it's interesting. When I look at this machine, I see two weeks of work. You know, very little time. Obviously, I have the history of my life of building instruments behind me to kind of work from. But, I see something that's fairly straightforward.

Other people, because they're experiencing it from hearing the sounds on it as well as seeing it, they have a whole other perspective. It's like anything else, sometimes you just have to let people say what they're feeling, how they experience it. I can't judge that objectively. But I find it very interesting.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To hear more from Tony Duggan-Smith, listen to the audio above.  

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