Music Reading for Machines

“Dammit Jim, I’m a hacker, not a musician!”, to paraphrase McCoy Scotty from the original Star Trek series. Well, some of us are also musicians, some, like me, are also hack-musicians, and some wouldn’t know a whole note from a treble clef. But every now and then the music you want is in the form of sheet music and you need to convert that to something your hack can play. If you’re lucky, you can find software that will read the sheet music for you and spit out a MIDI or WAV file. Or, as with my hand-cranked music player, you may have to read just enough of the music yourself to convert musical notes to frequencies for something like a 555 timer chip. We’ll dive into both cases here.

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Bring Home a Classic Synth with the DIY Fairlight CMI

[Davearneson] built a modern version of a classic synthesizer with his DIY Fairlight CMI. If there were a hall of fame for electronic instruments, the Fairlight CMI would be on it. An early sampling synth with a built-in sequencer, the Fairlight was a game changer. Everyone from A-ha to Hans Zimmer has used one. The striking thing about the Fairlight was the user interface. It used a light pen to select entries from text menus and to interact with the audio waveform.

The original Fairlight units sold for £18,000 and up, and this was in 1979. Surviving units are well outside the price range of the average musician. There is an alternative though – [Peter Vogel] has released an iOS app which emulates the Fairlight.

[Davearneson] had an old iPad 2 lying around. Too slow to run many of the latest apps, but just fast enough to run the Fairlight app. An iPad doesn’t exactly look like a classic instrument though. So he broke out the tools and created a case that looked the part.

The front of the case is made of framing mat board. The rest of the shell is wood. [Davearneson] used Plasti-Dip spray to replicate the texture of 1970’s plastics. The audio interface is a Griffon unit, which provides audio and MIDI connections. [Davearneson] extended the connections from the Griffon to the rear of the case, making for a clean interface.

The iPad doesn’t exactly support a light pen, so a rubber tipped stylus on a coil cord takes it place. The result is a device that looks and works like a Fairlight – but doesn’t need a steady diet of 8″ floppy discs to operate.

Interested in classic digital synthesizers that are a bit more budget friendly? Check out Al Williams’ article on the SID chip, or this 3D printed synth based upon the 4046 PLL chip.

A MIDI Harmonica

MIDI, or Musical Instrument Digital Interface, has been the standard for computer control of musical instruments since the 1980s. It is most often associated with electronic instruments such as synthesisers, drum machines, or samplers, but there is nothing to stop it being applied to almost any instrument when combined with the appropriate hardware.

[phearl3ss1] pushes this to the limit by adding MIDI to the most unlikely of instruments. A harmonica might seem to be the ultimate in analogue music, yet he’s created an ingenious Arduino-powered mechanism to play one under MIDI control.

The harmonica itself is mounted on a drawer slide coupled to a wheel taken from a pool sweeper and powered by a motor  that can move the instrument from side to side with a potentiometer providing positional feedback to form a simple servo. The air supply comes from a set of three bellows driven via a crank from another motor, and is delivered by what looks like a piece of PVC pipe to the business end of the harmonica.

The result is definitely a playable MIDI harmonica, though it doesn’t quite catch the essence of the human-played instrument. Judge for yourselves, he’s posted a build video which we’ve placed below the break.

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Synthesizing Strings on a Cyclone V

Cornell students [Erissa Irani], [Albert Xu], and [Sophia Yan] built a FPGA wave equation music synth as the final project for [Bruce Land]’s ECE 5760 class.

The team used the Kaplus-Strong string synthesis method to design a trio of four-stringed instruments to be played by the Cyclone V FPGA. A C program running on the development board’s ARM 9 HPS serves as music sequencer, controlling tempo and telling the FPGA which note to play.

The students created versions of four songs, including “Colors of the Wind” from the Pocahantas soundtrack, “Far Above Cayuga’s Waters” (Cornell’s alma mater) and John Legend’s “All of Me”. A simple GUI allows the viewer to select a song and to choose which instrument or instruments to play, providing multiple variations for each song.

Thanks, [Bruce]!

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3D Printing A Synthesizer

Before there were samplers, romplers, Skrillex, FM synths, and all the other sounds that don’t fit into the trailer for the new Blade Runner movie, electronic music was simple. Voltage controlled oscillators, voltage controlled filters, and CV keyboards ruled the roost. We’ve gone over a lot of voltage controlled synths, but [Tommy] took it to the next level. He designed a small, minimum viable synth based around the VCO in an old 4046 PLL chip

For anyone who remembers [Elliot]’s Logic Noise series here on Hackaday, this type of circuit should be very familiar. The only thing in this synth is a few buttons, a variable resistor for each button, and the very popular VCO for an analog square wave synth.

The circuit for this synth is built in two halves. The biggest, and what probably took the most time designing, is the key bed. This is a one-octave keyboard that’s completely 3D printed. We’ve seen something like this before in one of the projects from the SupplyFrame Design Lab residents, though while that keyboard worked it was necessary for [Tim], the creator of that project, to find a company that could make custom key beds for him.

The rest of the circuit is just a piece of perf board and the 4046. This project is all wrapped up in a beautiful all-wood enclosure with 3D printed hinges, knobs, and a speaker grille. The sound is phenomenal, and exactly what you want from a tiny monophonic square wave synth. You can check out a video of that below.

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DIY Tiny Single-PCB Synthesizer

[Jan Ostman] has been pushing the limits of sound synthesis on the lowly AVR ATMega microcontrollers, and his latest two project is so cute that we just had to write it up. The miniTS shares the same basic sound-generation firmware with his previous TinyTS, which we’ve covered here before, but adds a lot more keys, an OLED, and MIDI, while taking away some of the knobs.

Both feature keyboards that are just copper pads placed over a ground plane, and the code does simple capacitive-sensing to figure out if they’re being touched or not. The point here is that you could pick up a PCB from [Jan] on the cheap, and experiment around with the code. Or you could just take the code and make a less refined version for yourself with a cheapo Arduino and some copper plates.

Either way, we like the combination of minimal materials and maximum tweakability, and think it’s cool that [Jan] shares the code, if not also the PCB designs. Anyone with PCB layout practice could get a clone worked up in an afternoon, although it’s going to be cheaper to get these made in bulk, and you’re probably better off just buying one from [Jan].

A Queen Mystery: The Legend of The Deacy Amp

It sounds like a scene from a movie. A dark night in London, 1972. A young man walks alone, heading home after a long night of practicing with his band. His heavy Fender bass slung over his back, he’s weary but excited about the future. As he passes a skip (dumpster for the Americans out there), a splash of color catches his attention. Wires – not building power wires, but thinner gauge electronics connection wire. A tinkerer studying for his Electrical Engineering degree, the man had to investigate. What he found would become rock and roll history, and the seed of mystery stretching over 40 years.

The man was John Deacon, and he had recently signed on as bassist for a band named Queen. Reaching into the skip, he found the wires attached to a circuit board. The circuit looked to be an amplifier. Probably from a transistor radio or a tape player. Queen hadn’t made it big yet, so all the members were struggling to get by in London.

Deacon took the board back home and examined it closer. It looked like it would make a good practice amplifier for his guitar. He fit the amp inside an old bookshelf speaker, added a ¼ “ jack for input, and closed up the case. A volume control potentiometer dangled out the back of the case. Power came from a 9-volt battery outside the amp case. No, not a tiny transistor battery; this was a rather beefy PP-9 pack, commonly used in radios back then. The amp sounded best cranked all the way up, so eventually, even the volume control was removed. John liked the knobless simplicity – just plug in the guitar and play. No controls to fiddle with.

And just like that, The Deacy amp was born.

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