Making Synths out of Audio Cassettes

8bit Mixtapes are simple Arduino-based sound and beat generators based on ATtiny 84s and 85s and designed fit inside old audio cassettes, or at least be about that size. Founded by [Dusjagr], [Ucok] and [Lyok], and including participants from around the globe, 8bit Mixtapes are small synthesizers that play one-line algorithmic symphonies, simple sound generators that work off of a single line of code.

The project has been going on for a number of years, with several different iterations released over the years–the most recent is the Mixtape NEO, released about a month ago that features audio bootloading and a row of NeoPixel LEDs. It’s well documented and fully open source, with a code repository and wiki. The arty PCBs look great as well!

8bit Mixtapes are a natural project for electronics students to tackle. An ATtiny85 with two pots and two buttons? Pretty simple, and the musical payoff makes it a cinch for one-day workshops. The code simplicity makes it easy to modify the software as well.

Quirky synths are Hackaday’s bag, including one we published previously that controls a hexagonal matrix of LEDs.

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Dumping Synth ROMs and Avoiding Bitrot

Bitrot is setting in, and our digital legacy is slowly turning to dust. Efforts preserve our history are currently being undertaken numerous people around the Internet, and [Jason Scott] just got an automated CD ripper, so everything is kinda okay.

However, there is one medium that’s being overlooked. ROMs, and I don’t mean video game cartridges. In the 80s, mask ROMs were everywhere, found in everything from talking cars to synthesizers.

[Ali] bought a Korg i5m workstation from eBay a few years ago, but this unit had a problem. Luckily, he had a similar synth with the same samples stored on board. There was only one way to find out if bitrot was the cause: desoldering the chips and dumping all the information.

After fiddling around with his broken synth, [Ali] still had a problem with the sound output. Deciding the ROM chips had to be the issue, [Ali] desoldered the chips and ordered a breadboard SOP44 adapter after deciding soldering wires to each lead of the chip was a bad idea. This adapter was connected to an Arduino Mega — still the best tool for weird tasks like this — and the contents of the ROM were dumped to a PC with the help of a helpful Arduino sketch.

Dumping the ROMs took about 15 minutes, and that’s if he was able to maintain a good connection between the chip and Arduino for that long. [Ali] wrote an improved ROM reader after much trial and error, and was eventually able to get the same data out of the same chip eventually.

While the broken synth hasn’t been repaired yet, at least [Ali] has the important bits off of this antique instrument. That’s good enough for now, but [Ali] intends to take this project to completion and get those vintage samples playing out of this great old synth.


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 Mess Of Wires Turned Into An Analog Synth

Over on YouTube, [GumpherDM3] built one of the greatest musical projects we’ve seen in a long time. It’s an analog synthesizer that is one of a kind. It’s going to stay one of a kind, too: no one would ever want to copy this mess of wires and perfboard that was successfully turned into a complete musical instrument.

The design of this synth is what you would expect from something that draws its inspiration from semimodular synths such as the Minimoog and Korg MS20. There are four VCOs on this synth, two audio and two used for the LFOs. A four-pole low pass filter, VCA, and two envelope generators round out the purely analog portion of the build. There’s an arpeggiator in there too, which makes for a really great demo video (below).

Inside, this is a true analog synth with the VCOs, filter, and VCA built around the LM13700 transconductance amplifier. The build log shows these chips spread out around half a dozen breadboards before being plugged into sockets soldered to handwired perf board. This synth is a one of a kind instrument – no one would want to build this thing twice.

Additional features include an Arduino with a MIDI in port sending out CV signals to the analog part of the synth. This thing has everything you would expect from a modern take on an analog synthesizer, and it sounds good, too.

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Sync Your Pocket Synth with Ableton

The Teenage Engineering Pocket Operators are highly popular devices — pocket-sized synthesizers packed full of exciting sounds and rhythmic options. They’re also remarkably affordable. However, this comes at a cost — they don’t feature MIDI connectivity, so it can be difficult to integrate them into a bigger digital music setup. Never fear, little-scale’s got your back. This Max patch allows you to synchronize an Ableton Link network to your Pocket Operators.

little-scale’s trademark is creating useful software and hardware devices using cheap, off-the-shelf hardware wherever possible. The trick here is a simple Max patch combined with a $2 USB soundcard or Bluetooth audio adapter. It’s all very simple: the Pocket Operators have a variety of sync modes that sync on audio pulses, essentially a click track. They use stereo 3.5mm jacks on board, generally using one channel for the synth’s audio and one channel for receiving sync pulses. It’s a simple job to synthesize suitable sync pulses in Ableton, and then pump them out to the Pocket Operators through the Bluetooth or USB audio output.

The Pocket Operators sync at a rate of 2 PPQN — that’s pulses per quarter note. little-scale says that KORG volcas & monotrons should also work with this patch, as they run at the same rate, but it’s currently untested. If you happen to try this for yourself, let us know if it works for you. Video below the break.

We’ve seen pocket synths on Hackaday before, with this attractive mixer designed for use with KORG Volcas.

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Building A Wavetable Synth

Every semester at one of [Bruce Land]’s electronics labs at Cornell, students team up, and pitch a few ideas on what they’d like to build for the final project. Invariably, the students will pick what they think is cool. The only thing we know about [Ian], [Joval] and [Balazs] is that one of them is a synth head. How do we know this? They built a programmable, sequenced, wavetable synthesizer for their final project in ECE4760.

First things first — what’s a wavetable synthesizer? It’s not adding, subtracting, and modulating sine, triangle, and square waves. That, we assume, is the domain of the analog senior lab. A wavetable synth isn’t a deep application of a weird reverse FFT — that’s FM synthesis. Wavetable synthesis is simply playing a single waveform — one arbitrary wave — at different speeds. It was popular in the 80s and 90s, so it makes for a great application of modern microcontrollers.

The difficult part of the build was, of course, getting waveforms out of a microcontroller, mixing them, and modulating them. This is a lab course, so a few of the techniques learned earlier in the semester when playing with DTMF tones came in very useful. The microcontroller used in the project is a PIC32, and does all the arithmetic in 32-bit fixed point. Even though the final audio output is at 12-bit resolution, the difference between doing the math at 16-bit and 32-bit was obvious.

A synthesizer isn’t useful unless it has a user interface of some kind, and for this the guys turned to a small TFT display, a few pots, and a couple of buttons. This is a complete GUI to set all the parameters, waveforms, tempo, and notes played by the sequencer. From the video of the project (below), this thing sounds pretty good for a machine that generates bleeps and bloops.

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