The VU Meter and How It Got That Way

Given its appearance in one form or another in all but the cheapest audio gear produced in the last 70 years or so, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the ubiquitous VU meter is just one of those electronic add-ons that’s more a result of marketing than engineering. After all, the seemingly arbitrary scale and the vague “volume units” label makes it seem like something a manufacturer would slap on a device just to make it look good. And while that no doubt happens, it turns out that the concept of a VU meter and its execution has some serious engineering behind that belies the really simple question it seeks to answer: How loud is this audio signal?

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Shell Script Synthesizer Knocks Your SoX Off

Sound eXchange, or SoX, the “Swiss Army knife of audio manipulation” has been around for as long as the Linux kernel, and in case you’re not familiar with it, is a command line tool to play, record, edit, generate, and process audio files. [porkostomus] was especially interested about the generating part, and wrote a little shell script that utilizes SoX’s built-in synthesizer to compose 8-bit style music.

The script comes with a simple yet straightforward user interface to record the lead and bass parts into a text file, and play them back later on. Notes from C2 to C5 are currently supported, and are mapped to the keyboard in a two-row piano layout. The output file format itself is just a plain text listing of the played note, wave form, and note length. This lets you easily edit the song or even generate it from an alternative source, for example MIDI. Also note that there are no initial audio files required here, SoX will generate them as needed.

Admittedly, the command line interface may not be the most convenient way to create music, but nevertheless, it is a way — and that is [porkostomus]’s main mission here. Also, SoX is fun — and versatile, you can apply its audio effects even on images, or decode strange signals sent from a helicopter with it.

A Stereo Tube Amp For Less Than $5

Many of us have aspirations of owning a tube amp. Regardless of the debate on whether or not tube audio is nicer to listen to, or even if you can hear the difference at all, they’re gorgeous to look at. However, the price of buying one to find out if it floats your boat is often too high to justify a purchase.

A motor transformer

[The Post Apocalyptic Inventor] has built a stereo tube amplifier in the style of the Fallout video games. The idea came when he realised that the TK 125 tape recorder manufactured by Grundig was still using tube audio in the late 60s. What’s more, they frequently sell on eBay for 1-10€ in Germany. [TPAI] was able to salvage the main power amplifier from one of these models, and restore it so that it could be re-purposed and see use once more.

The teardown of the original cassette recorder yields some interesting parts. Firstly, an integrated motor transformer — an induction motor whose stator acts as the magnetic core of the transformer responsible for the tube electronics. There’s also an integrated capacitor which contains three separate electrolytics. The video after the break is well worth a watch (we always find [TPAI]’s videos entertaining).

A new chassis is created out of a steel base plate and aluminium angle, and some neat frames for the motor transformers are made from scrap copper wire bent and soldered together. It looks great, though there’s always the option to use a cake tin instead.

If you’re interested in the design of tube amps, we’ve covered heaps of cool builds: from this low-voltage design to this tiny guitar amp, or even ones using tubes which are flat.

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The Hot and Cold of Balanced Audio

A few summers of my misspent youth found me working at an outdoor concert venue on the local crew. The local crew helps the show’s technicians — don’t call them roadies; they hate that — put up the show. You unpack the trucks, put up the lights, fly the sound system, help run the show, and put it all back in the trucks at the end. It was grueling work, but a lot of fun, and I got to meet people with names like “Mister Dog Vomit.”

One of the things I most remember about the load-in process was running the snakes. The snakes are fat bundles of cables, one for audio and one for lighting, that run from the stage to the consoles out in the house. The bigger the snakes, the bigger the show. It always impressed me that the audio snake, something like 50 yards long, was able to carry all those low-level signals without picking up interference from the AC thrumming through the lighting snake running right alongside it, while my stereo at home would pick up hum from the three-foot long RCA cable between the turntable and the preamp.

I asked one of the audio techs about that during one show, and he held up the end of the snake where all the cables break out into separate connectors. The chunky silver plugs clinked together as he gave his two-word answer before going back to patching in the console: “Balanced audio.”

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Transforming A Bookshelf Speaker Into A Portable Boombox

There’s a lot of fun to be had in modernizing an old boombox but what about turning one of those ubiquitous shelf speakers into a portable boombox, complete with a handle for carrying? That’s what [GreatScott] did when a friend gave him a just such a shelf speaker.

These days you’d very likely use your phone as the audio source so he included a 20 watt stereo class D amplifier which could be disconnected at the throw of a switch if not needed. To power the amplifier he used 16 18650 lithium-ion batteries which were leftover from previous projects. He estimates they should give him around 100 hours of enjoyable tunes. And to make further use of the batteries, he also added a USB charger so that he could charge up his phone from it, something else which is nice to be able to do when on the road.

A battery management system (BMS), an XT60 connector for charging the batteries, his battery level indicator circuit which we talked about before, a new passive audio crossover, and some rather nice work on that case all round out the boombox. Check out his full construction in the video below and make sure to stay until the end when he gives a taste of its awesome sound (you may even swear your desk is vibrating from the bass despite wearing earbuds, like we did).

And on the subject of speaker-to-boombox conversions, here’s one from a few years ago which makes use of a car MP3 player module giving it FM, USB, and SD card support.

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Freak Out Your Smartphone with Ultrasound

There’s a school of thought that says complexity has an inversely proportional relation to reliability. In other words, the smarter you try to make something, the more likely it is to end up failing for a dumb reason. As a totally random example: you’re trying to write up a post for a popular hacking blog, all the while yelling repeatedly for your Echo Dot to turn on the fan sitting three feet away from you. It’s plugged into a WeMo Smart Plug, so you can’t even reach over and turn it on manually. You just keep repeating the same thing over and over in the sweltering July heat, hoping your virtual assistant eventually gets the hint. You know, something like that. That exact scenario definitely has never happened to anyone in the employ of this website.

Black Hat 2017 Presentation

So it should come as no surprise that the more sensors we pack into devices, the more potential avenues of failure we open up. [Julio Della Flora] writes in to tell us of some interesting experiments he’s been performing with the MEMS gyroscope in his Xiaomi MI5S Plus smartphone. He’s found that with a function generator and a standard speaker, he’s able to induce false sensor readings.

Now it should be said, [Julio] is not claiming to be the first person to discover that ultrasonic sound can confuse MEMS gyroscopes and accelerometers. At Black Hat 2017, a talk was given in which a “Sonic Gun” was used to do things like knock over self-balancing robots using the same principle. The researchers were also able to confuse a DJI Phantom drone, showing that the technique has the potential to be weaponized in the real-world.

It’s interesting to see more validation that not only is this a continuing issue with consumer devices, but that it doesn’t necessarily take expensive or exotic hardware to execute. Yet another reason to take ultrasound seriously as a potential threat.

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Vintage Headphones Bluetooth Conversion Goes The Extra Mile

[KaZjjW] wanted to retrofit a pair of nicely styled vintage headphones to be able to play wirelessly over Bluetooth. In principle this is an easy task: simply stick a Bluetooth audio receiver on the line-in, add a battery, and you’re all set. However, [KaZjjW] wanted to keep the aesthetic changes to the headphones at an absolute minimum, retaining the existing casing and volume control, whilst cramming the electronics entirely inside and out of sight.

With the inherent space constraints inside the cups of the headphones, this proved to be quite a challenge. The existing volume potentiometer which hung half outside the case was remounted on an ingenious hinge made of two PCBs, with the pot floating next to a surface mounted switch. This allowed it to not only control the volume, but also act as an on/off switch for the Bluetooth. The only other existing cuts in the casing were a circular hole for the audio cable, and a slit for the cable strain relief. These worked perfectly for an LED status indicator and micro-USB battery charging.

The main chip used for receiving audio over Bluetooth was the BM62 by Microchip. It’s a great all-in-one solution for this kind of project as it has built-in battery charging, an on-board DAC and audio amp, as well as a serial control interface. In part 2 of the project log, the process of programming the BM62 was documented, and it was painful – it’s a shame that the software support lets it down. But a hacker will always find a way, and we’ve seen some pretty neat hacks for reprogramming existing chips in off-the-shelf Bluetooth headphones.

Two PCBs for the pot button hinge, one for the LED and micro-USB connector, as well as one for the Bluetooth receiver and a PIC. That’s four PCBs in a pretty small space, enabled by some commendable design effort both electronically and mechanically. It certainly paid off, as the finished product looks very slick.

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