The Red Special: Brian May’s Handmade Guitar

Guitarists are a special breed, and many of them have a close connection with the instruments they play. It might be a specific brand of guitar, or a certain setup required to achieve the sound they’re looking for. No one has a closer bond with an instrument than Brian May to his Red Special. The guitar he toured with and played through his career with Queen and beyond had very humble beginnings. It was built from scratch by Brian and his father Harold May.

A young Brian May playing the brand new Red Special. Note the disk magnets of the original handmade pickups

It was the early 1960’s and a young teenaged Brian May wanted an electric guitar. The problem was that the relatively new instruments were still quite expensive — into the hundreds of dollars. Well beyond the means of the modest family’s budget. All was not lost though. Brian’s father Harold was an electrical engineer and a hacker of sorts. He built the family’s radio, TV, and even furniture around the house. Harold proposed the two build a new electric guitar from scratch as a father-son project. This was the beginning of a two-year odyssey that resulted in the creation of one of the world’s most famous musical instruments.

Brian was already an accomplished guitarist, learning first on his dad’s George Formby Banjo-ukulele, and graduating to an Egmond acoustic guitar. Brian’s first forays into electric guitars came from experimenting with that Egmond. If you look close, you can even see the influence it had on the final design of the Red Special.

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Multifunction Raspberry Pi Chiptune Player

General Instrument’s AY-3-8910 is a chip associated with video game music and is popular with arcade games and pinball machines. The chip tunes produced by this IC are iconic and are reminiscent of a great era for electronics. [Deater] has done an amazing job at creating a harmony between the old and new with his Raspberry Pi AY-3-8910 project.

[Deater] already showed us an earlier version of the project on a breadboard however after having made some PCBs and an enclosure the result is even more impressive. The system consists of not one but two AY-3-8910 for stereo sound that feed a MAX98306 breakout for amplification. A Raspberry Pi 2 sends six channels worth of data via 74HC595 shift registers driven by SPI. There is a surplus of displays ranging from a matrix to bar graph and even 14-segment displays. The entire PCB is recognized as a hat courtesy an EEPROM which sits alongside a DS1307 RTC breakout board. The enclosure is simple but very effective at showing the internals as well as the PCB art.

The software that [Deater] provides, extends the functionality of the project beyond the chiptunes player. There is a program to use the devices as an alarm clock, CPU meter, electronic organ and even a playable version of Tetris as seen in the demo video below. The blog post is very informative and shows progress in a chronological fashion with pictures of the design at various stages of development. [Deater] provides a full set of instructions as well as the schematic along with code posted on GitHub.

If you have a soft spot for the Arduino you may want to check out the 8-bit version of a chip tune player and if you are craving some old hardware peripheral information, do check out the computer curiosities from the Iron Curtain periodContinue reading “Multifunction Raspberry Pi Chiptune Player”

The Monolith Brings the Boom to Maker Faire

[Ross Fish], [Darcy Neal], [Ben Davis], and [Paul Stoffregen] created “the Monolith”, an interactive synth sculpture designed to showcase capabilities of the Teensy 3.6 microcontroller.

The Monolith consists of a clear acrylic box covered in LED-lit arcade buttons. The forty buttons in front serve as an 8-step sequencer with five different voices, while touch sensors on the left and right panels serve as a polyphonic arpeggiator and preset controller, respectively.

In order to control all of those buttons, the team designed breakout boards equipped with a port expander, 16-channel PWM driver chip, and N-channel MOSFETs allowing the entire synth to be controlled from a single Teensy 3.6.

In terms of software, [Paul] made improvements to the Teensy Audio Library to accommodate the hardware, improving the way signal-controlled PWM waveforms are handled and enhancing the way envelopes work. Ultimately they combined three Arduino sketches into one to get the finished code.

After showing off the project on Tested, the team set up the Monolith in the Kickstarter booth at Maker Faire Bay Area. The project was a hit at the Faire, earning a coveted red ribbon and inspiring countless adults and kids to check it out. We love a project that inspires so much interaction. Not only can three people play with the Monolith at once, but they can see through the clear case and get an idea of what’s going on.

If you want to learn more you can download project files from [Paul]’s GitHub. In the meantime, check out some other synth projects we’ve published on Hackaday: we’ve grooved on a synth-violin, a 3D-printed synth, and a single-PCB synth, among many others.

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Controlling a Moog Werkstatt with a Capacitive Touch Jankó Keyboard

[Ben Bradley], a member of Freeside Atlanta, built a capacitive touch Jankó keyboard for the Georgia Tech Moog Hackathon. Jankó Keyboards are a 19th-Century attempt to add a more compact piano keyboard. There are three times as many keys as a traditional piano but arranged vertically for (supposedly) greater convenience while playing–an entire octave can be covered with one hand. But yeah, it never caught on.

[Ben]’s project consists of a series of brass plates wired to capacitive touch breakout boards from Adafruit, one for each of the Arduino Mega clone’s four I2C addresses. When a key is touched, the Arduino sends a key down signal to the Werkstatt while using a R-2R ladder to generate voltage for the VCO exponential input.

The most recent Moog Hackathon was the third.  Twenty-five teams competed from Georgia Tech alone, plus more from other schools, working for 48 hours to build interfaces with Moog Werkstatt-Ø1 analog synths, competing for $5,000 in cash prizes as well as Werkstatts for the top three teams.

We’re synth-fiends here on Hackaday: we cover everything from analog synths to voltage controlled filters.

Via Freeside Atlanta, photo by [Nathan Burnham].

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Starship One: The Ultimate 90’s Synthesizer

We’ve seen some crazy music production stations over the years. But this synthesizer system may just take the cake. Starship One is the creation of [Marc Brasse]. At first glance, this music battle station looks like it belongs on the bridge of the Enterprise. The resemblance is not entirely unintentional. [Marc] himself says “Commander Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation might actually (have) like(d) it if he did not have such a conservative taste in music.”

At the core of Starship One are two underappreciated synths from the 90’s. The Technics WSA1, and a Gem S3 turbo. Both were keyboards ahead of their time. The WSA1 is a modeling synth, a sound generation trend in the ’90s which sounded great, but never quite caught on. The other strike against it was that it was built by Technics, who had a reputation for building HiFi equipment and home keyboards. Professionals just didn’t pick it up.

The Gem S3 had a similar story — built by a company called General Music, the keyboard was a great design with incredible piano action, but never quite made it. [Marc] wasn’t turned off by the lineage of these two synths. In fact, he embraced them. [Marc] explains more about his philosophy in creating the Starship One in this PDF document.

[Marc] combined these two instruments with Fatar MP1 bass pedals, a ribbon controller, and more additional components than we could ever hope to name here. The frame of the synth is built from a discarded retail CD sales rack. Extruded aluminum pieces came from a sun slat curtain. Just about every part was reused to build one beast of a workstation.

If you’re wondering what the strange keyboard layout is, it’s a Janko keyboard adapter [Marc] custom made. Instead of 88 notes, there are 264 keys, arranged so that every chord has the same fingering, regardless of the scale being played.

Want more modulation? Check out this ARM based FM synth, or this monster post of open source synths!

Hackerspace Jukebox!

Depending on whom you talk to, music can be an integral part of getting work done. At the Hackheim hackerspace in Trondheim, Norway, [Nikolai Ovesen] thought that the previous system of playing music over Bluetooth took away from the collaborative, interactive spirit of the space. Solution: a weekend build of a Raspberry Pi-powered jukebox.

The jukebox is simply laser-cut from plywood and bolted together. Inside, the touchscreen is mounted using double-sided tape, with the Raspberry Pi 3 and buck converter mounted on its rear with motherboard spacers. An IBM ThinkPad power cable was re-purposed and modified so it supplies the amp, as well as the Pi and touchscreen through the buck converter.

Once everything was connected, tested, and fired up, a bit of clever software working around had to be done in order to get Golang working, along with setting up the touchscreen and amp. Hackers interact with the jukebox using the Mopidy music server and its Mopify(Spotify) plugin — but they can also request songs through a bot in the Hackheim Slack channel.

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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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