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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Tiny-TS: Just How Small Can A Playable Synethesiser Get?

The early electronic synthesizers were huge machines, racks of electronic modules that filled entire rooms. Integration of electronics over time successively reduced them, first to the size of a large piece of furniture, then to  tabletop consoles, to standalone keyboards, and to small MIDI black boxes taking their instructions from another instrument or a computer. The original mass of discrete electronics had been reduced to a pile of ICs, then chipsets, then finally single ICs and software implementations on microcomputers.

It’s thus possible to make a synthesizer these days that is pretty small. If you can fit a microcontroller in it, you can fit a synth into it. But how about a playable synthesizer? One with a keyboard, on which you can give a recital? How small can you make one of those? [Jan Ostman] has a contender for the smallest playable synthesizer prize with his Tiny-TS, a credit-card synthesiser with a one-octave capacitive keyboard and analog controls for synthesis parameters.

The heart of the synth is an ATMega328, for which he provides the software. The parameters adjustable by a series of pots are listed as DCO: Coarse pitch and Double, DCF: Filter peak and ENVmod, and ENV: Attack and Release affecting amplitude. You can build your own, or he tells us that he has the project up as a Kickstarter campaign if you fancy the chance of buying one ready-made.

In case you are wondering, it doesn’t sound too bad. Some minimalist synths sacrifice the breadth of sounds they can create, but not this one. He takes it through its paces in a YouTube video which we’ve put below the break.

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LEGO Looper Makes Modular Music

This LEGO synth made by [Rare Beasts] had us grinning from ear to ear.

It combines elements from LEGO Mindstorms with regular blocks in order to make music with color. A different music sample is assigned to each of five colors: red, blue, green, yellow, and white. The blocks are attached to spokes coming off of a wheel made with NXT an EV3. As the wheel turns, the blocks pass in front of a fixed color sensor that reads the color and plays the corresponding sample. The samples are different lengths, so changing the speed of the wheel makes for some interesting musical effects.

As you’ll see in the short video after the break, [Rare Beasts] starts the wheel moving slowly to demonstrate the system. Since the whole thing is made of LEGO, the blocks are totally modular. Removing a few of them here and there inserts rests into the music, which makes the result that much more complex.

LEGO is quite versatile, and that extends beyond playtime. It can be used to automate laboratory tasks, braid rope, or even simulate a nuclear reactor. What amazing creations have you made with it? Let us know in the comments.

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The Music of a Sunset

What would you do if you suddenly went blind and could never again see the sun set? How would you again experience this often breathtaking phenomenon? One answer is music, orchestrated by the sun and the Weather Warlock.

Built by the musician [Quintron] (builder and inventor of insane electronic instruments), the Weather Warlock is an analog synthesizer controlled by — you guessed it — the weather. It translates temperature, moisture, wind and sunlight into tones and harmonics with an E major root chord. UV, light, moisture, and temperature sensors combined with an anemometer set up outside feed the weather data to a synthesizer that has [Quintron] dialing knobs and toggling switches. The Weather Warlock steams 24/7 to the website weatherfortheblind.org so that the visually impaired are able to tune in and experience the joy of sunrise and sunset through music. Continue reading “The Music of a Sunset”

Modular Drum Machine Creates Random Rhythms

Don’t worry, the rhythms themselves aren’t random! That would hardly make for a useful drum machine. [kbob]’s creation does have the ability to randomly generate functional rhythms, though, and it’s all done on a breadboard.

The core of this tiny drum machine is two Teensy dev boards. One is an FM synth tuned to sound like drums, and the other is a random rhythm generator with several controls. The algorithms are from Mutable Instruments’ open source Eurorack modules. The entire thing fits on a breadboard with JIGMOD modules for the user interface. The machine runs on lithium batteries in the form of USB cell phone chargers. The battery holders were designed in Fusion 360 and 3D printed.

The function of the drum machine is pretty interesting as well. There are a set of triggers tied to the buttons on the machine. When a button is pressed, the drum machine plays that sound at the appropriate time, ensuring there are no offbeat beats. The potentiometers are polled once every millisecond and the program updates the output as required. There’s also a “grid” of rhythms that are controlled with two other knobs (one to map the X coordinate and the other for the Y) and a “chaos” button which adds an element of randomness to this mapping.

The modular nature of this project would make this a great instrument to add to one’s musical repertoire.It’s easily customizable, and could fit in with any of a number of other synthesizer instruments.

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Very Clever 555 Bassline Synth/Sequencer

If we had a dime for every 555-based noisemaker circuit we see… But this one’s got a twist.

[Tristan] does two things that elevate his sawtooth-wave noisemaker above the norm. First, he gets a clean sawtooth wave out of it so that it sounds about right. Then he manages to make it more or less playable. It’s a refined version of a classic hack.

555sawtoothosc2

The first trick is a matter of putting a constant current supply upstream of the timing capacitor. The usual 555-timer circuit just charges the capacitor up from the power rails through a resistor. This is fine if all you care about is timing. But because the current is proportional to the constantly dropping voltage difference, the voltage on the capacitor is an exponential function over time.

A simple transistor current source linearizes the waveform in no time. Raw sawtooth waves are “rich in harmonics” which is synth-geek code for “a bit grating”, but it will surely do well with a little filtering. The Javascript suggests that he’s already thinking in that direction, but we’re going to need video proof!

The second cool trick up [Tristan]’s sleeve is the light-dependent resistor (LDR) that determines the pitch. Yeah, we’ve all made those before — the light-dependent “Theremin”. But [Tristan] took the extra step and wrote up a Javascript application that makes his monitor brighter and darker, enabling him to get musical pitches out of the gizmo.

We’ve always wanted to implement LED-to-LDR control while writing the Logic Noise series, but never found a reliable way to make it work. It’s cool to see [Tristan]’s efforts. Maybe we’ll pull a 555 out of the junk box in his honor.