Old Chess Computer Revived as a Jazz Player

From pawns to saxophone notes, this 1970s chess computer has been given a new life.
Fabienne Lang

The time to jam with a computer has come. Entering its second stage of life, an old and dysfunctional chess computer was turned into a jazz computer. 

The newly-created jazz computer competes against a human, who enters a jazz chord to match the last one the computer created. 

Brought to life by Leo Neumann, who works at tonlichtstudio, a company that makes interactive music and light machines, the jazz computer is a perfect blend of retro style and new software.


Neumann was gifted the top section of the 1978 chess computer by his girlfriend a while back. It was a classic Chess Champion MK1 machine, and it no longer worked as the interior of it was no longer there, only the keyboard remained. 

Old Chess Computer Revived as a Jazz Player
How the computer system now looks. Source: Leo Neumann/tonlichtstudio

Neumann quickly forgot about it, until he recently had a conversation with a friend about converting trash objects into musical instruments. He then remembered his chess computer keyboard, which offered a perfect starting point. 

The keyboard was easily reused as chess moves and musical chords can easily be intertwined. Only minor changes to the keypad's stickers were added to refreshen its look.

Now for the system. Neumann integrated a Raspberry Pi Zero and a WM8960 audio amplifier with speakers for the hardware, and a larger LCD display.

Old Chess Computer Revived as a Jazz Player
The new components to make the machine work. Source: Leo Neumann/tonlichtstudio

In trying to keep with the original look of the chess computer, Neumann worked hard to find suitable outside parts that resembled the style. Using a 3D printer, he built a bottom case to the computer that would keep all the new parts inside, while still looking legit. 

The trickiest part of his work was learning how to have a computer play matching jazz chords. In his own words, Neumann explained that "By abstracting away the interface I created a prototyping environment in Python with the really great PYO module for sound generation and the amazing Kivy UI framework."

This enabled Neumann to try out different algorithms that could create chords and play in a game logic.

Old Chess Computer Revived as a Jazz Player
Assembling all the parts to fit into his 3D-printed box. Source: Leo Neumann/tonlichtstudio

To create the most accurate jazz harmonics, Neumann said he, "opted for another data-driven approach: I played all combinations of two tetrads in all twelve keys (a couple of thousands!) to myself and rated them according to how well they progress."

And voila! Now Neumann can jam with his new jazz computer to his heart's content! 

Jammin' with the Jazz Champion from tonlichtstudio on Vimeo.

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