The Monolith Brings the Boom to Maker Faire

[Ross Fish], [Darcy Neal], [Ben Davis], and [Paul Stoffregen] created “the Monolith”, an interactive synth sculpture designed to showcase capabilities of the Teensy 3.6 microcontroller.

The Monolith consists of a clear acrylic box covered in LED-lit arcade buttons. The forty buttons in front serve as an 8-step sequencer with five different voices, while touch sensors on the left and right panels serve as a polyphonic arpeggiator and preset controller, respectively.

In order to control all of those buttons, the team designed breakout boards equipped with a port expander, 16-channel PWM driver chip, and N-channel MOSFETs allowing the entire synth to be controlled from a single Teensy 3.6.

In terms of software, [Paul] made improvements to the Teensy Audio Library to accommodate the hardware, improving the way signal-controlled PWM waveforms are handled and enhancing the way envelopes work. Ultimately they combined three Arduino sketches into one to get the finished code.

After showing off the project on Tested, the team set up the Monolith in the Kickstarter booth at Maker Faire Bay Area. The project was a hit at the Faire, earning a coveted red ribbon and inspiring countless adults and kids to check it out. We love a project that inspires so much interaction. Not only can three people play with the Monolith at once, but they can see through the clear case and get an idea of what’s going on.

If you want to learn more you can download project files from [Paul]’s GitHub. In the meantime, check out some other synth projects we’ve published on Hackaday: we’ve grooved on a synth-violin, a 3D-printed synth, and a single-PCB synth, among many others.

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Starship One: The Ultimate 90’s Synthesizer

We’ve seen some crazy music production stations over the years. But this synthesizer system may just take the cake. Starship One is the creation of [Marc Brasse]. At first glance, this music battle station looks like it belongs on the bridge of the Enterprise. The resemblance is not entirely unintentional. [Marc] himself says “Commander Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation might actually (have) like(d) it if he did not have such a conservative taste in music.”

At the core of Starship One are two underappreciated synths from the 90’s. The Technics WSA1, and a Gem S3 turbo. Both were keyboards ahead of their time. The WSA1 is a modeling synth, a sound generation trend in the ’90s which sounded great, but never quite caught on. The other strike against it was that it was built by Technics, who had a reputation for building HiFi equipment and home keyboards. Professionals just didn’t pick it up.

The Gem S3 had a similar story — built by a company called General Music, the keyboard was a great design with incredible piano action, but never quite made it. [Marc] wasn’t turned off by the lineage of these two synths. In fact, he embraced them. [Marc] explains more about his philosophy in creating the Starship One in this PDF document.

[Marc] combined these two instruments with Fatar MP1 bass pedals, a ribbon controller, and more additional components than we could ever hope to name here. The frame of the synth is built from a discarded retail CD sales rack. Extruded aluminum pieces came from a sun slat curtain. Just about every part was reused to build one beast of a workstation.

If you’re wondering what the strange keyboard layout is, it’s a Janko keyboard adapter [Marc] custom made. Instead of 88 notes, there are 264 keys, arranged so that every chord has the same fingering, regardless of the scale being played.

Want more modulation? Check out this ARM based FM synth, or this monster post of open source synths!

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.

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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Copper Foil Makes Music–With a Little Help

Craft stores are often the source of odd inspiration. In the stained glass section, we’ve seen the copper foil, and even used it to prototype some RF circuits on the tops of shoeboxes. However, we could never get a good method for connecting ICs to the relatively thick foil. [Bryan Cera] did it though. His paperSynth uses some paper and cardboard for a substrate, copper foil, and an ATtiny CPU to make music. You can see the device in operation in the video, below.

The copper foil is sticky and it isn’t conductive on the back, so anywhere the foil is supposed to touch, you need a blob of solder. We wouldn’t trust the insulation by itself to cross wires, but with a bit of insulating material between–a piece of paper or electrical tape, for example–you could probably cross with impunity. For an RF circuit, you might even make low-value capacitors like that.

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The 35 Year Music Synthesizer that Spawned Chiptune

If you are a certain age, MOS6581 either means nothing to you, or it is a track from Carbon Based Lifeforms. However, if you were a Commodore computer fan 35 years ago, it was a MOS Technologies SID (Sound Interface Device). Think of it as a sound “card” for the computers of the day. Some would say that the chip — the power behind the Commodore 64’s sound system — was the sound card of its day. Compared to its contemporaries it had more in common with high-end electronic keyboards.

The Conversation has a great write up about how the chip was different, how it came to be, the bug in the silicon that allowed it to generate an extra voice, and how it spawned the chiptune genre of music. The post might not be as technical as we’d do here at Hackaday, but it does have oscilloscope videos (see below) and a good discussion of what it took to create music on the device.

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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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