It’s a Synthesizer. It’s a Violin. It’s a Modulin

It sounds a little like a Theremin and looks a lot like the contents of your scrap bin. But it’s a unique musical instrument called a modulin, and after a few teasers we finally have some details on how it was built.

Making music with marbles is how we first heard of [Martin] of the Swedish music group Wintergatan. He seems as passionate about making his own instruments as he is about the music itself, and we like that. The last time we saw one of his builds was this concert-ready music box, which he accompanied with an instrument he called a modulin. That video gave only a tantalizing look at this hacked together instrument, but the video below details it.

“Modulin” comes from the modular synthesizer units that create the waveforms and pressure-sensitive ribbon controller on the violin-like neck. The instrument has 10 Doepfer synthesizer modules mounted to a hacked-together frame of wood and connected by a forest of patch cables. [Martin]’s tour of the instrument is a good primer on how synthesizers synthesize – VCOs, VCAs, envelope generators, filters – it’s all there. We’re treated to a sample of the sounds a synthesizer can make, plus majestic and appropriately sci-fi sounding versions of Also sprach Zarathustra and the theme from Jurassic Park. And be sure to check out the other video for another possibly familiar tune.

This might be old hat to musicians, but for those of us to whom music is a mystery, such builds hold extra sway. Not only is [Martin] making music, he’s making the means to make music. We’re looking forward to hearing what’s next.

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MIDI Guitar Pedals

Ever since Jimi Hendrix brought guitar distortion to the forefront of rock and roll, pedals to control the distortion have been a standard piece of equipment for almost every guitarist. Now, there are individual analog pedals for each effect or even digital pedals that have banks of effects programmed in. Distortion is just one of many effects, and if you’ve built your own set of pedals for each of these, you might end up with something like [Brian]: a modular guitar pedal rack.

ae0fmjxTaking inspiration from modular synthesizers, [Brian] built a rack out of wood to house the pedal modules. The rack uses 16U rack rails as a standard, with 3U Eurorack brackets. It looks like there’s space for 16 custom-built effects pedals to fit into the rack, and [Brian] can switch them out at will with a foot switch. Everything is tied together with MIDI and is programmed in Helix. The end result looks very polished, and helped [Brian] eliminate his rat’s nest of cables that was lying around before he built his effects rack.

MIDI is an extremely useful protocol for musicians and, despite being around since the ’80s, doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. If you want to get into it yourself, there are all kinds of ways that you can explore the studio space, even if you play an instrument that doesn’t typically use MIDI.

Hackaday Prize Entry: Modular, Low Cost Braille Display

A lot of work with binary arithmetic was pioneered in the mid-1800s. Boolean algebra was developed by George Boole, but a less obvious binary invention was created at this time: the Braille writing system. Using a system of raised dots (essentially 1s and 0s), visually impaired people have been able to read using their sense of touch. In the modern age of fast information, however, it’s a little more difficult. A number of people have been working on refreshable Braille displays, including [Madaeon] who has created a modular refreshable Braille display.

The idea is to recreate the Braille cell with a set of tiny solenoids. The cell is a set of dots, each of which can be raised or lowered in a particular arrangement to represent a letter or other symbol. With a set of solenoids, this can be accomplished rather rapidly. [Madaeon] has already prototyped these miniscule controllable dots using the latest 3D printing and laser cutting methods and is about ready to put together his first full Braille character.

While this isn’t quite ready for a full-scale display yet, the fundamentals look like a solid foundation for building one. This is all hot on the heels of perhaps the most civilized patent disagreement in history regarding a Braille display that’s similar. Hopefully all the discussion and hacking of Braille displays will bring the cost down enough that anyone who needs one will easily be able to obtain and use one.

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The Key to Modular Smartphones

Cellphone startup Fairphone is now taking pre-orders for their modular smartphone, which is expected to start shipping in December of this year. Although I’m much more familiar with Google’s project Ara, this is the first modular concept to make it to market. It does lead me to a few questions though: is this actually a modular smartphone, and how widely will modular concepts be adopted?

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Hackaday Prize Entry: 3D Printed Modular Keyboard

There is a big community of people creating all kinds of synthesizers, but until now no one has attempted to make a keyboard controller like the one [Tim] created. Not only has he created the keyboard synthesizer, but he’s developed one that is modular and 3D printed so you can just expand on the synth you have rather than go out and buy or build a new one.

The design has a lot useful features. Since the design is modular, you can 3D print extra octaves of keys if you need, and simply build off of the existing keyboard. The interior has mounts that allow circuit boards to be screwed down, and the exterior has plenty of available places to put knobs or sliders. Anything that could possibly be built into a synthesizer is possible with this system, and if you decide you want to start small, that’s possible too!

All of the design files are available from Pinshape if you want to get started. The great thing about this controller is that you could use a 555-based synth in this keyboard controller, or a SID synth, or any other synth you could think of!

The 2015 Hackaday Prize is sponsored by:

A Modular 1GHz Spectrum Analyzer


[MrCircuitMatt] has been doing a lot of radio repair recently, quickly realized having a spectrum analyzer would be a useful thing to have. Why buy one when you can build one, he thought, and he quickly began brushing up on his RF and planning out the design of a 1000 MHz spectrum analyzer

The project is based on Scotty’s Spectrum Analyzer, a sweep-mode, modular 1GHz spectrum analyzer that is, unfortunately, designed entirely in ExpressPCB. [Matt] didn’t like this proprietary design software tied to a single board house. The basic building blocks of [Scotty]’s spectrum analyzer were transferred over to KiCAD, the boards sent off to a normal, Chinese board house.

In the second video, [Matt] goes over the design of the control board, a small module that connects the spectrum analyzer to the parallel port of a PC. There’s a lot of well thought out design in this small board, a good thing, too, since he’s powering his VCO with a switched mode supply. The control board has a 32-bit I/O, so how’s he doing that with a parallel port, what is ultimately an 8-bit port? A quartet of 74ACT573, a quad buffer with latch enable. Using the eight data lines on the parallel port allows him to toggle some pins while the ancient pins on the parallel bus – Strobe, Select Printer, and Line Feed control the latches on each of the buffers. This gives him the ability to write to 32 different pins in his spectrum analyzer with a parallel port.

Right now, [Matt] is wrapping up the construction of his control board, with the rest of the modules following shortly. He thinks the completed analyzer might even be cheaper than a professional, commercial offering, and we can’t wait to see another update video.

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CuteUino: Only use the parts of the Arduino that you need for each project


[Fran’s] been working on her own version of the Arduino. She calls it CuteUino for obvious reasons. The size of the thing is pretty remarkable, fitting within the outline of an SD card. But that doesn’t mean you won’t get the power that you’re used to with the device. She’s broken it up into several modules so you can choose only the components that you need for the project.

The main board is shown on the right, both top and bottom. It sports the ATmega328p (it’s hard to believe we could make out the label on the chip package in the clip after the break) in a TQFP-32 package soldered to the underside of what she calls the Brain Module. You can also see the extra long pins which stick through from the female pin headers mounted on the top side of the board. Inside of these pin headers you’ll find the clock crystal, status LEDs, and a capacitor. The other module is an FTDI board used to connect the AVR chip to a USB port.

You’ll definitely want to check out her prototyping post for this project. She uses a very interesting technique of combining two single-sided boards to make a 3-layer PCB. The side that was not copper clad is fitted with copper foil by hand to act as a ground plane for the vias. Neat!

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