There are many ways to take an electrical audio signal and turn it into something you can hear. Moving coil speakers, plasma domes, electrostatic speakers, piezo horns, the list goes on. Last week at the Electromagnetic Field festival in the UK, we encountered another we hadn’t experienced directly before. Bite on a brass rod (sheathed in a drinking straw for hygiene), hear music.
This was Skull Radio, a bone conduction speaker courtesy of [Tdr], one of our friends from TOG hackerspace in Dublin, and its simplicity hid a rather surprising performance. A small DC motor has its shaft connected to a piece of rod, and a small audio power amplifier drives the motor. Nothing is audible until you bite on the rod, and then you can hear the music. The bones of your skull are conducting it directly to your inner ear, without an airborne sound wave in sight.
The resulting experience is a sonic cathedral from lips of etherial sibilance, a wider soft palate soundstage broadened by a tongue of bass and masticated by a driving treble overlaid with a toothy resonance before spitting out a dynamic oral texture. You’ll go back to your hi-fi after listening to [Tdr]’s Skull Radio, but you’ll know you’ll never equal its unique sound.
(If you are not the kind of audiophile who spends $1000 on a USB cable, the last paragraph means you bite on it, you hear music, and it sounds not quite as bad as you might expect.)
Do any of you stay awake at night agonizing over how the keytar could get even cooler? The 80s are over, so we know none of us do. Yet here we are, [James Cochrane] has gone out and turned a HP ScanJet Keytar for no apparent reason other than he thought it’d be cool. Don’t bring the 80’s back [James], the world is still recovering from the last time.
Kidding aside (except for the part of not bringing the 80s back), the keytar build is simple, but pretty cool. [James] took an Arduino, a MIDI interface, and a stepper motor driver and integrated it into some of the scanner’s original features. The travel that used to run the optics back and forth now produce the sound; the case of the scanner provides the resonance. He uses a sensor to detect when he’s at the end of the scanner’s travel and it instantly reverses to avoid collision.
A off-the-shelf MIDI keyboard acts as the input for the instrument. As you can hear in the video after the break; it’s not the worst sounding instrument in this age of digital music. As a bonus, he has an additional tutorial on making any stepper motor a MIDI device at the end of the video.
If you don’t have an HP ScanJet lying around, but you are up to your ears in surplus Commodore 64s, we’ve got another build you should check out.
If the first circuit a hacker builds is an LED blinker, the second one has to be a noisemaker of some sort. From simple buzzers to the fabled Atari punk console, and guitar effects to digitizing circuits, hackers, makers and engineers have been building incredible audio projects for decades. This week the Hacklet covers some of the best audio projects on Hackaday.io!
We start with [K.C. Lee] and Automatic audio source switching. Two audio sources, one amplifier and speaker system; this is the problem [K.C. Lee] is facing. He listens to audio from his computer and TV, but doesn’t need to have both connected at the same time. Currently he’s using a DPDT switch to change inputs. Rather than manually flip the switch, [K.C. Lee] created this project to automatically swap sources for him. He’s using an STM32F030F4 ARM processor as the brains of the operation. The ADCs on the microcontroller monitor both sources and pick the currently active one. With all that processing power, and a Nokia LCD as an output, it would be a crime to not add some cool features. The source switcher also displays a spectrum analyzer, a VU meter, date, and time. It even will attenuate loud sources like webpages that start blasting audio.
Next up is [Adam Vadala-Roth] with Audio Blox: Experiments in Analog Audio Design. [Adam] has 32 projects and counting up on Hackaday.io. His interests cover everything from LEDs to 3D printing to solar to hydroponics. Audio Blox is a project he uses as his engineer’s notebook for analog audio projects. It is a great way to view a hacker figuring out what works and what doesn’t. His current project is a 4 board modular version of the Big Muff Pi guitar pedal. He’s broken this classic guitar effect down to an input board, a clipping board, a tone control, and an output stage. His PCB layouts, schematics, and explanations are always a treat to view and read!
Next we have [Paul Stoffregen] with Teensy Audio Library. For those not in the know, [Paul] is the creator of the Teensy family of boards, which started as an Arduino on steroids, and has morphed into something even more powerful. This project documents the audio library [Paul] created for the Freescale/NXP ARM processor which powers the Teensy 3.1. Multiple audio files playing at once, delays, and effects, are just a few things this library can do. If you’re new to the audio library, definitely check out [Paul’s] companion project Microcontroller Audio Workshop & HaD Supercon 2015. This project is an online version of the workshop [Paul] ran at the 2015 Hackaday Supercon in San Francisco.
Finally we have [drewrisinger] with DrDAC USB Audio DAC. DrDac is a high quality DAC board which provides a USB powered audio output for any PC. Computers these days are built down to a price. This means that lower quality audio components are often used. Couple this with the fact that computers are an electrically noisy place, and you get less than stellar audio. Good enough for the masses, but not quite up to par if you want to listen to studio quality audio. DrDAC houses a PCM2706 audio DAC and quality support components in a 3D printed case. DrDAC was inspired by [cobaltmute’s] pupDAC.
[Sven337]’s rebuild of a cheap and terrible baby monitor isn’t super visual, but it has so much more going on than it first seems. It’s also a how-to for streaming audio via UDP over WiFi with a pair of ESP8266 units, and includes a frank sharing of things that went wrong in the process and how they were addressed. [Sven337] even experimented with a couple of different methods for real-time compression of the transmitted audio data, for no other reason than the sake of doing things as well as they can reasonably be done without adding parts or spending extra money.
The original baby monitor had audio and video but was utterly useless for a number of reasons (French). The range and quality were terrible, and the audio was full of static and interference that was just as loud as anything the microphone actually picked up from the room. The user is left with two choices: either have white noise constantly coming through the receiver, or be unable to hear your child because you turned the volume down to get rid of the constant static. Our favorite part is the VOX “feature”: if the baby is quiet, it turns off the receiver’s screen; it has no effect whatsoever on the audio! As icing on the cake, the analog 2.4GHz transmitter interferes with the household WiFi when it transmits – which is all the time, because it’s always-on.
Small wonder [Sven337] decided to go the DIY route. Instead of getting dumped in the trash, the unit got rebuilt almost from the ground-up.
A few years ago, [Artem] learned about ways to focus sound in an issue of Popular Mechanics. If sound can be focused, he reasoned, it could be focused onto a plane of microphones. Get enough microphones, and you have a ‘sound camera’, with each microphone a single pixel.
Movies and TV shows about comic books are now the height of culture, so a device using an array of microphones to produce an image isn’t an interesting demonstration of FFT, signal processing, and high-speed electronic design. It’s a Daredevil camera, and it’s one of the greatest builds we’ve ever seen.
[Artem]’s build log isn’t a step-by-step process on how to make a sound camera. Instead, he went through the entire process of building this array of microphones, and like all amazing builds the first step never works. The first prototype was based on a flatbed scanner camera, simply a flatbed scanner in a lightproof box with a pinhole. The idea was, by scanning a microphone back and forth, using the pinhole as a ‘lens’, [Artem] could detect where a sound was coming from. He pulled out his scanner, a signal generator, and ran the experiment. It didn’t work. The box was not soundproof, the inner chamber should have been anechoic, and even if it worked, this camera would only be able to produce an image or two a minute.
The idea sat in the shelf of [Artem]’s mind for a while, and along the way he learned about FFT and how the gigantic Duga over the horizon radar actually worked. Math was the answer, and by using FFT to transform a microphones signals from up-and-down to buckets of frequency and intensity, he could build this camera.
That was the theory, anyway. Practicality has a way of getting in the way, and to build this gigantic sound camera he would need dozens of microphones, dozens of amplifiers, and a controller with enough analog pins, DACs, and processing power to make sense of all of this.
This complexity collapsed when [Artem] realized there was an off-the-shelf part that was a perfect microphone camera pixel. MEMS microphones, like the kind found in smartphones, take analog sound and turn it into a digital signal. Feed this into a fast enough microcontroller, and you can perform FFT on the signal and repeat the same process on the next pixel. This was the answer, and the only thing left to do was to build a board with an array of microphones.
[Artem]’s camera microphone is constructed out of several modules, each of them consisting of an 8×8 array of MEMS microphones, controlled via FPGA. These individual modules can be chained together, and the ‘big build’ is a 32×32 array. After a few problems with manufacturing, the board actually worked. He was recording 64 channels of audio from a single panel. Turning on the FFT visualization and pointing it at a speaker revealed that yes, he had indeed made a sound camera.
The result is a terribly crude movie with blobs of color, but that’s the reality of a camera that only has 32×32 resolution. Right now the sound camera works, the images are crude, and [Artem] has a few ideas of where to go next. A cheap PC is fast enough to record and process all the data, but now it’s an issue of bandwidth; 30 sounds per second is a total of 64 Mbps of data. That’s doable, but it would need another FPGA implementation.
Is this sonic vision? Yes, technically the board works. No, in that the project is stalled, and it’s expensive by any electronic hobbyist standards. Still, it’s one of the best to grace our front page.
Building a marble run has long been on my project list, but now I’m going to have to revise that plan. In addition to building an interesting track for the orbs to traverse, [Jack Atherton] added custom sound effects triggered by the marble.
I ran into [Jack] at Stanford University’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics booth at Maker Faire. That’s a mouthful, so they usually go with the acronym CCRMA. In addition to his project there were numerous others on display and all have a brief write-up for your enjoyment.
[Jack] calls his project Leap the Dips which is the same name as the roller coaster the track was modeled after. This is the first I’ve heard of laying out a rolling ball sculpture track by following an amusement park ride, but it makes a lot of sense since the engineering for keeping the ball rolling has already been done. After bending the heavy gauge wire [Jack] secured it in place with lead-free solder and a blowtorch.
As mentioned, the project didn’t stop there. He added four piezo elements which are monitored by an Arduino board. Each is at a particularly extreme dip in the track which makes it easy to detect the marble rolling past. The USB connection to the computer allows the Arduino to trigger a MaxMSP patch to play back the sound effects.
For the demonstration, Faire goers wear headphones while letting the balls roll, but in the video below [Jack] let me plug in directly to the headphone port on his Macbook. It’s a bit weird, since there no background sound of the Faire during this part, but it was the only way I could get a reasonable recording of the audio. I love the effect, and think it would be really fun packaging this as a standalone using the Teensy Audio library and audio adapter hardware.
Many of the hacks featured here are complex feats of ingenuity that you might expect to have emerged from a space-age laboratory rather than a hacker’s bench. Impressive stuff, but on the other side of the coin the essence of a good hack is often just a simple and elegant way of solving a technical problem using clever lateral thinking.
Take this project from [drtune], he needed to synchronize some lighting to an audio stream from an MP3 player and wanted to store his lighting control on the same SD card as his MP3 file. Sadly his serial-controlled MP3 player module would only play audio data from the card and he couldn’t read a data file from it, so there seemed to be no easy way forward.
There was a small snag though, the MP3 player summed both channels before supplying audio to its amplifier. Not a huge problem to overcome, a bit of detective work in the device datasheet allowed him to identify the resistor network doing the mixing and he removed the component for the data channel.
He’s posted full details of the system in the video below the break, complete with waveforms and gratuitous playback of audio FSK data.