Kelly Trom
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A briefcase is placed haphazardly, wide open in the middle of the room. Sketches of circuits, a sea of tangled multicolor wires and sets of pliers overflow onto the floor. This briefcase serves as a toolbox for electrical engineering junior David Levi. It is the heart, soul and brains of Levi’s small business, Magnetovore, that sells magnetic cellos and other small musical accessories.

“The whole idea is to achieve a crazy new way of making music,” Levi said, “but instead of making a whole new instrument, put it into a way — a whole new way — of making music that musicians already understand.”

The magnetic cello is comprised of a resistive, plastic ribbon, magnetic coil, magnetic bow and wooden body. Levi harnessed the natural phenomenon of magnetic induction, used in speakers and motors, to make a new kind of musical instrument.

The volume is controlled by the magnetic bow, which is moved back and forth within a few inches of the coil on the body of the instrument. The musician’s left hand controls pitch by pressing along the ribbon to reach different frequencies. To switch to a different string (four in all, mimicking an ordinary cello), the user simply has to roll their thumb over a switch on the bow.

“If you play the cello, you can pick it up in a few weeks,” Levi said. “If you are a general musician, you can approach it without being super intimidated.”

Levi’s inspiration came from learning about the theremin, an electronic musical instrument controlled without using physical touch via electric fields, during his sophomore year of high school.

He ordered one online, but soon discovered it was a lot harder than it looked because there is no reference on where to place a musician’s hands to achieve the desired sound. Levi soon picked up the cello, which he said the theremin inventor played as well.

“I try out a lot of instruments to get ideas, but I am not super good at any of them,” he said. “Maybe that gives me a perspective about how to make them easier to play, or maybe that just makes me more of an engineer.”

A mixture of the cello and a theremin, the magnetic cello has the basic form of a cello and utilizes a magnetic field, much like how the theremin uses electric fields.

A few weeks after Levi first set foot onto Cal Poly’s campus, he went to the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) to seek advice.

“They said it was really cool and asked if I was going to make a whole bunch and sell them,” Levi said. “It wasn’t until then that I realized that I could sort of make a business out of this eventually.”

What started as a high school boy’s tinkering in a garage would soon become a business with multiple students and professionals involved. Levi invited many cello-playing students to use his prototypes for a few weeks and then come back to him with useful information on how to make it more playable.

Industrial engineering junior Tricia Santamaria tested the magnetic cello through three major design changes that made the magnetic bow lighter and easier to hold, changed the width of the neck and shaped the body of the cello for better portability.

“David is really devoted to how playable the magnetic cello is and that it is familiar and easy to use in the hands of a cellist,” Santamaria said.

Mechanical engineering senior Michael Evans also helped test the magnetic cello. He noticed the instrument is limited in ways a real cello is not. However, it also has more features that a real cello doesn’t have.

“It is difficult to change strings fluidly, but you can also switch from the bottom string to the highest string instantaneously, which could allow for some interesting musical techniques,” Evans said. “You can produce a lot of interesting experimental electrical sounds.”

The magnetic cello underwent six different prototypes — from the first one made during his junior year of high school up until a recent revision.

Architecture alumnus Lawrence Le worked with Levi to design the wooden body while Levi focused on fine-tuning the electronic components.

“David had the circuitry down, but he wanted someone that would help him design a modular, easy to design and fabricate body for the cello,” Le said. “I came in and helped him model it and use a laser cutter to digitally fabricate it.”

Using stock pieces of wood, their goal was to minimize the waste and labor while still making a design that was ergonomic and would be familiar to the average cello user.

Levi worked almost continuously during the last two weeks before school started in fall 2012, building three finished magnetic cellos that were of sellable quality.

“For the run of three that I already did in the the two weeks before school started, I worked all of the time,” Levi said. “I drank gallons of Mexican coca-cola, the stuff with cane sugar in it, just to get the caffeine.”

All of that work paid off with two of the cellos being sold. The more notable sale of the two was shipped to Ben Sollee, a professional folk musician based in Kentucky. He has several albums, is currently on tour and has been featured on National Public Radio as one of the Top 10 Great Unknown Artists of 2007.

“That is kind of the breakthrough I was waiting for,” Levi said. “He will be able to take it all over the place, show people what the instrument is able to do with a professional musician using it.”

Since that summer, Levi has streamlined the process. Instead of making one instrument at a time, he now makes multiples of one part at a time, continuing until he has built the entire instrument.

Levi also trimmed down the production time by including other professional workers to help him build, both locally and nationally. He enlisted the skills of Richard Clark, a woodworker from Morro Bay, who builds all of the wooden bodies. A machine shop in New York builds the metal boxes where most of the electronic components are housed.

With these additional hands, it takes Levi approximately 30 hours of building and assembling per instrument.

With no formal workplace or lab of his own, Levi uses the living room of his Poly Canyon Village apartment as well as the CIE Innovation Sandbox. He has access to soldering equipment there as well as other students who are working on their own inventions and side projects.

“I am very nomadic,” Levi said. “Wherever I am, I have my tools, otherwise it’s not home. Home is where the tools are.”

Balancing an electrical engineering course load and a business can be quite the task, but Levi manages by keeping on top of class notes, taking advantage of school holidays and taking 12 units every few quarters.

“The unexpected thing is that is not just constantly working,” he said. “You work really hard and you wait for a new idea or new part or to meet the right person or for someone to buy your thing, and then you work really hard and have to wait again.”

Levi’s dream is to own a small, 10 to 15 employee company that creates new musical instruments. But for now, he is focused on making five more magnetic cellos by early next year.

“It is cool to know that someone out there knows how to use something I invented and that they are using it to its potential,” Levi said.