FabricKeyboard Is Piano, Theremin And More

Two researchers of Responsive Environments, MIT Media Lab, have put to together a device that is an amazing array of musical instruments squeezed into one flexible package. Made using seven layers of fabrics with different electrical properties, the result can be played using touch, proximity, pressure, stretch, or with combinations of them. Using a fabric-based keyboard, ribbon-controller, and trackpad, it can be played as a one-octave keyboard, a theremin, and in ways that have no words, such as stretching while pressing keys. It can also be folded up and stuffed into a case along with your laptop, and care has even been taken to make it washable.

The FabricKeyboard layers
The FabricKeyboard layers

Layer one, the top layer, is a conductive fabric for detecting proximity and touch. The twelve keys can work independently with a MPR121 proximity touch controller or the controller can treat them all as one, extending the distance the hand can be and have it still work. Layer two is just a knit fabric but layers three to six detect pressure, consisting to two conductive layers with a mesh fabric and a piezo-resistive fabric in between. The piezo-resistive fabric is LTT-SPLA from eeonyx, a knit fabric coated with the conductive polymer, polypyrrole (PPy). Layer seven consists of two strips of knitted spandex fabric, also coated with PPy, and detects stretching. Two strips of this are sewn on the bottom, one horizontal and one vertical. You can see and hear the amazing sound this all produces in the video below.

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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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The Smallest Wave Blaster Card

In the early 90s, the Creative Sound Blaster was the soundcard. It wasn’t the absolute best sounding card on the market, but it quickly became the defacto standard and delivered good sound at the right price. It relied primarily on the Yamaha OPL-3 FM synthesis chip, but if you were feeling spendy, you could pimp it out with a Wave Blaster add-on card, which essentially bolted a sample synthesis engine onto the card. This gave the card a broad palette of sampled instruments with which to play MIDI tunes all the sweeter, so you could impress your grade school chums who came over to play DOOM.

It’s now 2017, if you hadn’t checked the calendar, and Sound Blasters from yesteryear are only going to go further upward in price. It goes without saying that add-on daughterboards and accessories are even rarer and are going to be priced accordingly. So, if you’re building a vintage gaming rig and are desperate for that sample-synth goodness, [Serdashop] are here to help with their latest offering, the Dreamblaster S2.

It’s reportedly the smallest Wave Blaster add-on board available, which is awesome. If you’re sticking it on top of your Sound Blaster 16, yes, it’s pointless – you’re not exactly short on room. But if you want to integrate this with a compact microcontroller project? Size matters. Yes, you can feed this thing MIDI signals and it’ll sing for you. A hot tip for the uninitiated: MIDI speaks serial, just like everything and everyone else. Your grandma learned to speak it in the war, you know.

Your options for hooking this up are either slotting it into a Wave Blaster compatible card, or buying the carrier board that allows you to use it with a Game Port, in addition to custom-wiring it to your own hardware. We’d love to see this as a HAT for the Raspberry Pi Zero. Do it, send it in and we’ll write it up.

We’ve seen [Serdashop]’s hardware here before – namely, the earlier Dreamblaster X2. Video below the break.

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MIDI Drawings Paint with Piano Keyboards

Musician [Mari Lesteberg] is making music that paints pictures. Or maybe she’s making pictures that paint music. It’s complicated. Check out the video (embedded below) and you’ll see what we mean. The result is half Chinese scroll painting, and half musical score, and they go great together.

Lots of MIDI recorders/players use the piano roll as a model for input — time scrolls off to the side, and a few illuminated pixels represent a note played. She’s using the pixels to paint pictures as well: waves on a cartoon river make an up-and-down arpeggio. That’s a (musical) hack. And she’s not the only person making MIDI drawings. You’ll find a lot more on reddit.

Of course, one could do the same thing with silent pixels — just set a note to play with a volume of zero — but that’s cheating and no fun at all. As far as we can tell, you can hear every note that’s part of the scrolling image. The same can not be said for music of the black MIDI variety, which aims to pack as many notes into a short period of time as possible. To our ears, it’s not as beautiful, but there’s no accounting for taste.

It’s amazing what variations we’re seeing in the last few years on the ancient piano roll technology. Of course, since piano rolls are essentially punch-cards for musical instruments, we shouldn’t be too surprised that this is all possible. Indeed, we’re a little bit surprised that new artistic possibilities are still around. Has anyone seen punch-card drawings that are executable code? Or physical piano rolls with playable images embedded in them?

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Neural Network Composes Music; Says “I’ll be Bach”

[carykh] took a dive into neural networks, training a computer to replicate Baroque music. The results are as interesting as the process he used. Instead of feeding Shakespeare (for example) to a neural network and marveling at how Shakespeare-y the text output looks, the process converts Bach’s music into a text format and feeds that to the neural network. There is one character for each key on the piano, making for an 88 character alphabet used during the training. The neural net then runs wild and the results are turned back to audio to see (or hear as it were) how much the output sounds like Bach.

The video embedded below starts with a bit of a skit but hang in there because once you hit the 90 second mark things get interesting. Those lacking patience can just skip to the demo; hear original Bach followed by early results (4:14) and compare to the results of a full day of training (11:36) on Bach with some Mozart mixed in for variety. For a system completely ignorant of any bigger-picture concepts such as melody, the results are not only recognizable as music but can even be pleasant to listen to.

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A Six-Voice Synth Built On The Raspberry Pi

Over the last few decades, audio synthesizers have been less and less real hardware and more and more emulations in software. Now that we have tiny powerful computers that merely sip down the watts, what’s the obvious conclusion? A six-voice polyphonic synthesizer built around the Raspberry Pi.

The exquisitely named ‘S³-6R’ synthesizer is a six-voice phase modulation synthesizer that outputs very high resolution (24-bit and 96 kHz) audio. It’s the product of R-MONO Lab, who have displayed interesting musical devices such as a recorder-based pipe organ in the past. This build is a bit more complex, offering up some amazing sounds, all generated on a Raspberry Pi 3.

While talk of oscillators and filters is great, what’s really interesting here is the keyboard itself. The S³-6R is using the Roland K-25m, a tiny MIDI keyboard meant to serve as a ‘dock’ of sorts for Roland’s recent re-releases of the classic Jupiter and Juno synths. Building a MIDI keyboard is not easy by any stretch of the imagination, and using this little keyboard dock is a cheap way to pipe MIDI notes into any project without a lot of fuss.

Below, you can check out the audio demos of the S³-6R. It’s a real synth and sounds great. We can only hope the software will be uploaded somewhere eventually.

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A Very MIDI Christmas Lightshow

Christmas light displays winking and flashing in sync to music are a surefire way to rack up views on YouTube and annoy your neighbours. Inspired by one such video, [Akshay James] set up his own display and catalogued the process in this handy tutorial to get you started on your own for the next holiday season.

[James], using the digital audio workstation Studio One, took the MIDI data for the song ‘Carol of the Bells’ and used that as the light controller data for the project’s Arduino brain. Studio One sends out the song’s MIDI data, handled via the Hairless MIDI to serial bridge, to the Arduino which in turn sets the corresponding bit to on or off. That gets passed along to three 74HC595 shift registers — and their three respective relay boards — which finally trigger the relay for the string of lights.

From there, it’s a matter of wiring up the Arduino shift register boards, relays, and connecting the lights. Oh, and be sure to mount a speaker outdoors so passers-by can enjoy the music:

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