NES Controller Slider-Based Light Theremin

Having never use a 555 before, [lonesoulsurfer] decided that his first foray into the world’s most popular and versatile IC would be to use a 555 to make beautiful chiptunes. For that, we commend him. He found [Dean Segovis]’ Slidersynth light-based Theremin and got to work building his own version it and stuffing it into a (knockoff!) NES controller.

For the uninitiated, a Theremin is a touch-less synthesizer that uses human capacitance and a pair of antennae to control oscillation and amplitude. In a light-based Theremin such as this one, the oscillation is controlled by the intensity of photons from a white LED and their interaction with a light-dependent resistor, also known as a photocell or ‘squiggly resistor’.

The oscillations themselves are created by wiring up the 555 as an astable oscillator, and the pitch is controlled with a potentiometer mounted on the back. It has a small built-in speaker, but [lonesoulsurfer] replaced the B button with a 3.5 mm audio jack so he can plug it into a powered speaker and really rock out. We’ve got his demo tape queued up after the break.

We love pocket instruments around here. If you prefer brass and woodwinds, this pocket woodwind MIDI controller just might draw your lips into an O.

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Learning The 555 From The Inside

One way to understand how the 555 timer works and how to use it is by learning what the pins mean and what to connect to them. A far more enjoyable, and arguably a more useful way to learn is by looking at what’s going on inside during each of its modes of operation. [Dejan Nedelkovski] has put together just such a video where he walks through how the 555 timer IC works from the inside.

We especially like how he immediately removes the fear factor by first showing a schematic with all the individual components but then grouping them into what they make up: two comparators, a voltage divider, a flip-flop, a discharge transistor, and an output stage. Having lifted the internals to a higher level, he then walks through examples, with external components attached, for each of the three operating modes: bistable, monostable and astable. If you’re already familiar with the 555 then you’ll enjoy the trip down memory lane. If you’re not familiar with it, then you soon will be. Check out his video below.

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Home Decorating with Tiny Arcade Cabinets

Thanks to the general miniaturization of electronics, the wide availability of cheap color LCD screens, and the fact that licensing decades old arcade games is something of a free-for-all, we can now purchase miniature clones of classic arcade cabinets for about $20 USD. In theory you could play these things, but given they’re less than 4 inches in height they end up being more of a desk novelty than anything. Especially since it seems like most of the effort went into making the cabinet itself; a classic example of “form over function”.

Unfortunately, if you want to buy these little arcade cabinets to use as decoration for your office or game room, they aren’t particularly well suited to the task. The “demo” mode where the game plays itself doesn’t last for very long, and even if it did, the game would chew through batteries at an alarming rate. [Travis] decided to tackle both issues head on by powering his Tiny Arcades over USB and locking them into demo mode.

The stock power for the Tiny Arcade comes from three AAA batteries, or 4.5 V. This made it easy enough to run over  5 V USB, and a four port USB charger is used to provide power to multiple machines at once. Forcing the game to stay in demo mode wasn’t much harder: a 555 timer was used to “push” the demo button with a frequency of every 10 seconds or so to keep the game up and running. A simple timer circuit was put together in the classic “dead bug” style, and sealed up with liquid rubber so it would play nice with the insides of the Tiny Arcade.

Since his little machines wouldn’t need their stock power switches anymore, [Travis] rewired the speaker lead through it. So now the machine stays on and in demo mode as long as it’s plugged into USB power, and you can flip the switch on the back to turn off the sounds. Perfect for sitting up on a shelf or the corner of your desk.

Usability issues not withstanding, there’s a pretty big (no pun intended) following for micro sized arcade cabinets. We’ve seen projects ranging from modding a Game Boy Advance to even tinier scratch builds.

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The Tiniest Of 555 Pianos

The 555 timer is one of that special club of integrated circuits that has achieved silicon immortality. Despite its advanced age and having had its functionality replicated and superceded in almost every way, it remains in production and is still extremely popular because it’s simply so useful. If you are of A Certain Age a 555 might well have been the first integrated circuit you touched, and in turn there is a very good chance that your project with it would have been a simple electric organ.

If you’d like to relive that project, perhaps [Alexander Ryzhkov] has the answer with his 555 piano. It’s an entry in our coin cell challenge, and thus uses a CMOS low voltage 555 rather than the power-hungry original, but it’s every bit the classic 555 oscillator with a switchable resistor ladder you know and love.

Physically the piano is a tiny PCB with surface-mount components and physical buttons rather than the stylus organs of yore, but as you can see in the video below the break it remains playable. We said it was tiny, but some might also use tinny.

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Upgrading A USB Soldering Iron!

Seeing the popularity of the TS-100 soldering iron, GitHub user [ole00] found himself desirous of a few of its features, but was put off by its lack of a power supply. What is a hacker to do? Find a cheaper option, and hack it into awesomeness.

[ole00] stumbled across the inexpensive ZD-20U and — despite a handful (sorry!) of issues — saw potential: it’s compact, lightweight, and powered via a USB power cable. Wanting to use as much of the ZD-20U’s original board as possible, the modifications were restricted to a few trace cuts and component swaps. The major change was swapping out the 555 timer IC controlling the iron with am ATtiny13a MCU to give it a bit more control.

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DIY Capacitive Rotational Encoder on the Cheap with FR4

Rotary encoders are critical to many applications, even at the hobbyist level. While considering his own rotary encoding needs for upcoming projects, it occurred to [Jan Mrázek] to try making his own DIY capacitive rotary encoder. If successful, such an encoder could be cheap and very fast; it could also in part be made directly on a PCB.

First prototype, two etched plates with transparent tape as dielectric material. Disc is 15 mm in diameter.

The encoder design [Jan] settled on was to make a simple adjustable plate capacitor using PCB elements with transparent tape as the dielectric material. This was used as the timing element for a 555 timer in astable mode. A 555 in this configuration therefore generates a square wave that changes in proportion to how much the plates in the simple capacitor overlap. Turn the plate, and the square wave’s period changes in response. Response time would be fast, and a 555 and some PCB space is certainly cheap materials-wise.

The first prototype gave positive results but had a lot of problems, including noise and possibly a sensitivity to temperature and humidity. The second attempt refined the design and had much better results, with an ESP32 reliably reading 140 discrete positions at a rate of 100 kHz. It seems that there is a tradeoff between resolution and speed; lowering the rate allows more positions to be reliably detected. There are still issues, but ultimately [Jan] feels that high-speed capacitive encoders requiring little more than some PCB real estate and some 555s are probably feasible.

This project is a reminder that FR4 (whether copper-clad, etched, or blank) shows up in clever applications: copper tape and blank FR4 can be used to quickly prototype RF filters, PocketNC built an entire small CNC tool around FR4, and our own [Voja] wrote a full guide on making beautiful enclosures from FR4.

Junkbox Freezer Alarm Keeps Steaks Safe

A fully stocked freezer can be a blessing, but it’s also a disaster waiting to happen. Depending on your tastes, there could be hundreds of dollars worth of food in there, and the only thing between it and the landfill is an uninterrupted supply of electricity. Keep the freezer in an out-of-the-way spot and your food is at even greater risk.

Mitigating that risk is the job of this junkbox power failure alarm. [Derek]’s freezer is in the garage, where GFCI outlets are mandated by code. We’ve covered circuit protection before, including GFCIs, and while they can save a life, they can also trip accidentally and cost you your steaks. [Derek] whipped up a simple alarm based on current flow to the freezer. A home-brew current transformer made from a split ferrite core and some magnet wire is the sensor, and a couple of op-amps and a 555 timer make up the detection and alarm part. And it’s all junk bin stuff — get a load of that Mallory Sonalert from 1983!

Granted, loss of power on a branch circuit is probably one of the less likely failure modes for a freezer, but the principles are generally applicable and worth knowing. And hats off to [Derek] for eschewing the microcontroller and rolling this old school. Not that there’s anything wrong with IoT fridge and freezer alarms.

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