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.

Run From the Sound of Footsteps in Blind Game of Tag

The human auditory system is a complex and wonderful thing. One of its most useful features is the ability to estimate the range and direction of sound sources – think of the way people instinctively turn when hearing a sudden loud noise. A team of students have leveraged this innate ability to produce a game of tag based around nothing but sound.

The game runs on two FPGAs, which handle the processing and communication required. The chaser is given a screen upon which they can see their own location and that of their prey. The target has no vision at all, and must rely on the sounds in their stereo headphones to detect the location of the chaser and evade them as long as possible.

The project documentation goes into great detail about the specifics of the implementation. The game relies on the use of the Head Related Transfer Function – a function related to how the ear picks up sounds relative to their position. This allows the FPGA to simulate the chaser’s footsteps, and feed the audio to the target who perceives the chaser’s position purely by sound.

It’s a great example of a gameplay mechanic that we’d love to see developed further. The concept of trying to find one’s way around by hearing alone is one which we think holds a lot of promise.

With plenty of processing power under the hood, FPGAs are a great choice for complex audio projects. A great project to try might be decoding MP3s.

 

Patents on MP3 Format Due to Expire

MP3 took off in the late 90s as the digital music format. It then proceeded to slaughter the CD, and launch the file sharing revolution as well. It’s a proud format that has roots stretching all the way back to the early 1980s, when the possibility of sending music over ISDN lines was first considered. Now the patents on it are beginning to expire and its licencing program has been terminated.

The MP3 standard was the property of Fraunhofer IIS, and the original licencing model was intended such that encoders would be expensive, and decoders relatively inexpensive. This would allow people to buy software to listen to MP3s cheaply, but the creation of MP3s would be expensive, and thus handled by studios and music labels. This all changed when a high-quality MP3 encoder was leaked to the public, and suddenly it became possible to readily convert your CDs at home into the MP3 format.

One hangover of this ownership of the MP3 standard was that when you installed certain FOSS software, such as Audacity or a Linux distro, you would find that you had to go and do some legwork to find an MP3 codec. That was because it wasn’t worth the legal trouble for the FOSS authors to arrange a workaround, and trading in proprietary software is the antithesis to everything they stand for.

However, now that more of the relevant patents are expiring, you can now expect MP3 support to be baked into more software. It may be more than a little late, with more advanced audio formats beginning to take over, but it’s great to know that Fedora, for one, is starting to include MP3 support with their releases.

If you’d like to read more about the history of the MP3, check out this great article from NPR. Fraunhofer have their own great history site, too. If all this talk of advanced audio formats has gotten you excited, check out this MP3 decoder written for the ESP8266.

[Thanks to Tim Trzepacz for the tip!]

Ultrasonic Tracking Beacons Rising

An ultrasonic beacon is an inaudible sound with encoded data that can be used by a listening device to receive information on just about anything. Beacons can be used, for example, inside a shop to highlight a particular promotion or on a museum for guided tours where the ultrasonic beacons can encode the location. Or they can be used to track people consumers. Imagine if Google find outs… oh, wait… they already did, some years ago. As with almost any technology, it can be used to ‘do no harm’ or to serve other purposes.

Researchers from the Technische Universitat Braunschweig in Germany presented a paper about Ultrasonic Side Channels on Mobile Devices and how can they be abused in a variety of scenarios , ranging from simple consumer tracking to deanonymization. These types of ultrasonic beacons work in the 18 kHz – 20 kHz range, which the human being doesn’t have the ability to hear, unless you are under twenty years old, due to presbycusis. Yes, presbycusis. This frequency range can played via almost any speaker and can be picked up easily by most mobile device microphones, so no special hardware is needed. Speakers and mics are almost ubiquitous nowadays, so there is a real appeal to the technology.

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Model Sputnik Finds its Voice After Decades of Silence

As we approach the 60th anniversary of the human race becoming a spacefaring species, Sputnik nostalgia will no doubt be on the rise. And rightly so — even though Sputnik was remarkably primitive compared to today’s satellites, its 1957 launch was an inflection point in history and a huge achievement for humanity.

The Soviets, understandably proud of their accomplishment, created a series of commemorative models of Earth’s first artificial moon as gifts to other countries. How one came into possession of the Royal Society isn’t clear, but [Fran Blanche] found out about it through a circuitous route detailed in the video below, and undertook to reproduce the original electronics from the model that made the distinctive Sputnik beeps.

The Royal Society’s version of the model no longer works, but luckily it came with a schematic of the solid-state circuit used to emulate the original’s vacuum-tube guts. Intent on building the circuit as close to vintage as possible and armed with a bag of germanium transistors from the 60s, [Fran] worked through the schematic, correcting a few issues here and there, and eventually brought the voice of Sputnik back to life.

If you think we’ve covered Sputnik’s rebirth before, you may be thinking about our article on how some hams rebuilt Sputnik’s guts from a recently uncovered Soviet-era schematic. [Fran]’s project just reproduces the sound of Sputnik — no license required!

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Little Laser Light Show is Cleverly Packaged, Cheap to Build

We’re suckers for any project that’s nicely packaged, but an added bonus is when most of the components can be sourced cheaply and locally. Such is the case for this little laser light show, housed in electrical boxes from the local home center and built with stuff you probably have in your junk bin.

When we first came across [replayreb]’s write-up and saw that he used hard drives in its construction, we assumed he used head galvanometers to drive the mirrors. As it turns out, he used that approach in an earlier project, but this time around, the hard drive only donated its platters for use as low mass, first surface mirrors. And rather than driving the mirrors with galvos, he chose plain old brushed DC motors. These have the significant advantage of being cheap and a perfect fit for 3/4″ EMT set-screw connectors, designed to connect thin-wall conduit, also known as electromechanical tubing, to electrical boxes and panels. The motors are mounted to the back and side of the box so their axes are 90° from each other, and the mirrors are constrained by small cable ties and set at 45°. The motors are driven directly by the left and right channels of a small audio amp, wiggling enough to create a decent light show from the laser module.

We especially like the fact that these boxes are cheap enough that you can build three with different color lasers. In that case, an obvious next step would be bandpass filters to split the signal into bass, midrange, and treble for that retro-modern light organ effect. Or maybe figuring out what audio signals you’d need to make this box into a laser sky display would be a good idea too.

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Retro Teardown: Inside An 8-Track Stereo Player

If you are a connoisseur of analogue audio, it’s probable you might have a turntable and a stack of records at home somewhere. If you are of a certain age you may even have a cassette deck, though you’re more likely to have abandoned that format some time in the 1990s. If you are old enough to have been around in the 1960s or 1970s though, you may have owned another analogue audio format. One of several that you might have found in a well-equipped home of that period was the 8-track stereo cartridge, a self-contained tape cassette format that fit four stereo tracks onto a single quarter-inch tape loop as eight parallel tracks, four each of left and right. A triumph of marketing, really, it should more accurately have been called 4-track stereo.

An 8-track stereo cartridge. Government & Heritage Library, State Library of NC (CC BY 2.0).
An 8-track stereo cartridge. Government & Heritage Library, State Library of NC (CC BY 2.0).

8-track cartridges were developed from earlier tape cartridge formats, largely to satisfy the demands of the automotive industry for interchangeable in-car entertainment. Thus if you owned an 8-track player it was most likely to have been found in your car, but it was not uncommon to find them also incorporated into home hi-fi systems. Thus we come to our subject today. Our retrotechtacular series usually highlights a video showing a bygone technology, but today we’re going to get a little more hands-on.

Some time in the early 1990s, I acquired an 8-track player, a BSR McDonald unit manufactured in the UK and dating from the early 1970s. BSR were much more well-known for their turntables, so this is something of an oddity. Where I found it has disappeared into the mists of time, but it was probably at a radio rally or junk sale. I certainly didn’t buy it because I wanted it to play 8-track tapes, instead I wanted a talking point for my hi-fi, something quirky to set it apart from everyone else’s. So every incarnation of listening enjoyment chez List for the last quarter century has had an 8-track player nestling within it, even if it has never played a tape while in my ownership. Thus we have a unique opportunity for this retro teardown.

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