MechBass: A Robotic Bass Guitar That Sounds Fantastic

[James] wrote in to show us his honors project for his fourth year at Victoria University of Wellington. He designed and built this robotic bass guitar. You can hear it performing “mass hysteria” by the band Muse after the break. It sounds great, but we’d love to hear it without the full accompaniment.

[James] doesn’t have a site up for the MechBass, so we’ve included details below.

  • Everything I designed in Solidworks, and lasercut/3D printed and assembled my self. Most components went through 3 or more design iterations.
  • The pitch shifter is open loop, with a NEMA23 stepper driving it to the desired position, and limit switches allowing alignment upon startup. Carriage is a custom design, riding on 80/20 using their low friction bearing pads. An igus cable carrier manages the wires for the solenoids during movement.
  • The control board is a completely custom design, based upon the ATMega328 (for Arduino compatibility), and as such is programmed with that IDE. Stepper motor drivers are dropped in that interface between the Microcontroller and stepper motors, while a MOSFET drives the solenoids. MIDI interface follows the MMA standard for connecting the devices on a bus. Each string only responds to MIDI messages on their designated MIDI channel. Decoupling capacitors and TVS’s in close proximity to the drivers are present to minimize transients during braking of the stepper motors (particularly the one for the pitch shifter).
  • A servo beneath the pickwheel stepper motor enables the motor to be pivoted, bringing the picks closer to or further away from the string, allowing the volume of the picks to be altered.
  • Felt covered arm attached to a servo allows for damping (muting) of the string on demand (noteOff).
  • An optical pickup is employed instead of the traditional magnetic pickup, due to the large amount of electromagnetic noise associated with all the actuators of the system.
  • Traditional bass machine heads are used for tensioning the string, integrated into the top of the main pitch shifter assembly.
  • Power supply box at back houses 3 power supply units (5V and 2x 24V, 750 watts total), attached to modular connectors for connection to each of the boards. 5 V supplies logic and servos, as well as the pickups (through a 3.3V LDO regulator on a board close to the pickups), while one 24 V supplies the solenoids, and the other for the stepper motors.
A large amount of attention to detail was paid in this project, for example all the servo cables were manually extended, while every cable is neatly sleeved and heatshrunk, with molex connectors for all actuators. Over 800 bolts in total in the project… Among many other things.

If you want some detail shots and tons of information about the design and operation, there is a short PDF that [James] supplied, available here (whoops, he wasn’t supposed to publish that. Website coming soon)

43 thoughts on “MechBass: A Robotic Bass Guitar That Sounds Fantastic

  1. Sorry if this is kind of a n00b question…What is the name of the aluminum stock he used for the structure of his design? I’ve heard it called a few different names, but I can’t remember any of them

  2. “If you want some detail shots and tons of information about the design and operation, there is a short PDF that [James] supplied, available here (whoops, he wasn’t supposed to publish that. Website coming soon)”

    Haha found it anyway!

    1. That was the next stage in the project, which I’m going to begin working on, just figuring out the most elegant solution to add the rollers in place of their current acrylic counterparts.

      1. How about mounting them on opposite edges of a disc with its axis perpendicular to the string, so that, as it turns, one pulley is rotated down onto the string, while the other is rotated up. It’s a simple mechanism that, if made strong enough, could even be used as a tensioner.

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