How The Roland 808 Cowbell Worked

Every generation has an instrument which defines its sound, and for those whose formative musical years lie in the 1980s, a very strong contender to the crown is the Roland TR-808 percussion synthesizer. Its sounds can be recognized across a slew of hits from that era and every decade since, and though the original instrument wasn’t a commercial success it remains accessible through sample packs, emulations, and clones. The 808 was an all-analogue device that didn’t use samples, thus [Mark Longstaff-Tyrrell] has been able to reproduce its distinctive cowbell sound with reference to some of the original circuitry.

It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to find that the circuit is refreshingly simple. The trigger pulse is converted into an envelope which controls a pair of oscillators. The mixed output passes through a bandpass filter to create the distinctive sound on the output which you can hear in the video below the break. The circuit is recreated on a breadboard with the only concession to modernity being a microcontroller taking the place of the Schmitt trigger oscillators in the original.

Altogether it provides a fascinating insight into the synthesis behind a classic sound, and gives us an increased appreciation for the design skills of those Roland engineers who created it. We’ve looked at the 808 before a few times, including an explanation of the famous faulty transistors which contributed to its sound.

Continue reading “How The Roland 808 Cowbell Worked”

Antique Beat Box Showcases 1950’s Engineering Prowess

Before you could just put a drum machine app on your phone, or fire up Garage Band, there were breakthroughs like the Roland 808 drum machine. But that’s not where it all started. In 1959 a company called Wurlitzer (known for things like juke boxes, pianos, and giant pipe organs) produced a new device that had musicians worried it would put drummers out of a job: The 1959 Wurlitzer Sideman. And in the video below the break, we have the joy of watching [LOOK MUM NO COMPUTER] open up, explain, and play one of these marvelous machines.

Can you spot the early circuit sculpture?

It’s noteworthy that in 1959, almost none of the advancements we take for granted had made it out of the laboratory. Transistors? Nope. Integrated Circuits? Definitely not. What does that leave us with? Vacuum tubes (Valves for those across the pond), resistors, capacitors, relays, and… motors? Yep. Motors.

The unit is artfully constructed, and we mean that quite literally- the build was clearly done with care and it is easy to see an early example of circuit sculpture around the 3 minute mark. Electromechanical mechanisms take on tasks that we’d probably use a 555 for these days, but for any of you working on mechanical projects, take note: Wurlitzer really knew what they were doing, and there are some excellent examples of mechanical and electrical engineering throughout this primordial beat box.

If you move to the beat of interesting drum machines, you might enjoy this Teensy based Open Source drum machine that you can build. No tubes required!

Continue reading “Antique Beat Box Showcases 1950’s Engineering Prowess”

Electronic Drum Toy Built From Scratch

Drum kits used to be key to any serious band, however, these days, much of our music is created on computer or using a drum machine instead. [spanceac] has built a simple example of the latter, using a microcontroller to build a basic sample-based drum toy.

The brains of the operation is the STM32F100VET6B, which comes complete with a 12-bit DAC for outputting sound. It’s also got a healthy 512 KB of flash, enabling it to store the drum samples onboard without the need for extra parts. Samples are stored at a sample rate of 22,050 Hz in 16-bit resolution – decent quality for a tiny little build, even if the DAC chops that back down to 12-bits later.

[spanceac] was sure to code proper mixing into the drum machine, so that triggering a second sample doesn’t stop the first one playing. With a kick, snare, two toms, and crash and ride samples onboard, there’s plenty to get a solid beat going on the kit.  It’s all built up on a small PCB with tactile buttons to activate each sound.

The demo video shows the kit performing ably; it’s not clear if there’s an issue with latency on the samples or that’s just from the difficulty of [spanceac] playing one-handed. If the former, likely some code tweaks or simply trimming silence at the start of samples would be all that was needed. Overall, it’s a neat little groovebox, and the kind of thing that’s great fun to use when jamming with other musicians. Video after the break.

Continue reading “Electronic Drum Toy Built From Scratch”

Drumming A Beat On A Hundred-Year-Old Typewriter

We have seen a fair share of unusual items being turned into musical instruments. Luckily, with a little bit of hacking it is possible to turn almost anything into a MIDI controller. [William Sun Petrus] just converted a 1920s typewriter into a drum machine and delivers a hell of a live performance on it.

The build is rather simple, all [William Sun Petrus] needed was an Arduino Mega and lots of wires to convert a hundred-year-old Remington typewriter into a MIDI controller. Whenever a key is pressed the hammer hits a metal plate at the center of the typewriter and closes the contact between one of the Arduino’s IO pins and the 5 V rail like a regular push button. The Arduino code is based on the MIDI library sending commands to a PC which is running Hairless MIDI and Ableton. As sort of a gimmick, [William Sun Petrus] included an LCD screen which shows a line from Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss every time a key is pressed.

Interestingly, the latency due to the hammer’s travel time does not disturb [William Sun Petrus’] live play. To calm the skeptics in the comments he also released an unedited version of the video to prove that the performance is real and an instructional video on how to play his beat note by note.

Other unusual MIDI controllers include a bandoneon accordion or this English concertina.

Video after the break.

Continue reading “Drumming A Beat On A Hundred-Year-Old Typewriter”

Shapeshifter – An Open Source Drum Machine

With microcontrollers growing ever more powerful each new generation, things that were mere pipedreams before are now readily possible. The Shapeshifter drum machine is a perfect example.

Shapeshifter’s design is open-source, with everything available on Github for the curious musical tinkerers out there. The device is built around a PCB with only through-hole components, making assembly easy for even the least experienced enthusiasts out there. A Teensy 3.6 is then slotted into the socket on the board, providing 180MHz of grunt to run the show. It’s an excellent choice, as the Teensy platform has a huge range of libraries which make it simple to work with audio.

Being open-source, not only is it a cinch to make your own, but there’s plenty of room to remix the design to your personal tastes. There’s even a breadboarding area and the capability to add an expansion card for even more possibilities. Some users have even gone so far as to add displays and filter mods to really open things up.

We love a good drum machine at Hackaday, from the Amstrad-based to pocket-sized wonders. If you’ve got a build of your own, be sure to drop it in the tips line.

Giving The Amstrad CPC A Voice And A Drum Kit

Back in the ’80s, home computers weren’t capable of much in terms of audio or multimedia as a whole. Arguably, it wasn’t until the advent of 16-bit computers such as the Amiga that musicians could make soundtrack-quality music without having to plug actual studio gear up to their machines. [Michael Wessel] is trying to bring some of that and many more features to the Amstrad CPC with his ambitious LambdaSpeak 3 project, an expansion card built completely up from scratch and jam-packed with features.

First, and likely giving it its name, is the speech synthesizer. [Michael] has made an emulation mode where his card can act just like the original SSA-1 expansion, being able to be controlled by the same software as back then. By default, the card offers this mode with an Epson S1V30120 daughterboard (which is based on DECTalk synthesis), however for further authenticity you also have the option of fitting it with an SP0256-AL2 chip, the same one used in the original Amstrad hardware in 1985.

As for the more musical part of the project, the board supports 4-channel PCM playback, much like the Amiga’s sound offering. This can be used for a drum machine sequencer program, and it has an Amdrum mode, emulating another expansion from the original Amstrad days. Sample playback can also be used alongside the speech synthesis as shown here, with random allophone beats that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Kraftwerk recording. Finally, by using the UART interface included on the LambdaSpeak, you can also turn the CPC itself into a synth by giving it MIDI in/out and interfacing a controller in real time with the computer’s AY-3-8912 sound chip.

If you like modern expansions giving old computers new life, did you know that you can get just about any retro computer online, perhaps a TRS-80, an Amiga and even a Psion Organizer? And if you’re interested in just using old systems’ sound chips with modern USB MIDI controllers, it’s easy to make a microcontroller do all the heavy lifting.

Continue reading “Giving The Amstrad CPC A Voice And A Drum Kit”

Probability-Based Drummer Leaves The Beats Up To Chance

Drum machines may seem like one of the many rites of passage for hardware makers, they’re a concept you can implement simply or take into the extreme making it as complex as you want. [Matt’s] DrumKid is one of them, and its long development history is wonderfully documented in the project logs.

[Matt’s] original intention was to use the automatic drummer as part of his band, wanting “the expressiveness of a good drummer but without the robotic tendencies of a simple drum machine”. For that, he created the first iteration of the DrumKid, a web-based project using the Web Audio API. The interface consisted of bars showing levels for different settings which could be intuitively tweaked, changing the probability of a drum sound being played. This gave the “drummer” its unpredictability, setting itself apart from any regular old drum machine.

Fast forward a few years, and [Matt] now wants to recreate his DrumKid as a proper piece of musical gear, porting the concept into a standalone hardware drum machine you can plug into your mixer. He decided to go with the Arduino framework for his project rather than the Teensy platform in order to make it cheaper to build. The controls are simplified down to a few buttons and potentiometers, and the whole thing runs off of three AAA batteries. Also, targeting the project for hardware like this allowed for new features to be added, such as a bit-crush filter.

We already saw the first prototype here on Hackaday when it was featured in a Hackaday Prize mentor session, and it’s nice to see how the project evolved since. After a number of revisions, the new prototype takes design cues from Teenage Engineering’s “Pocket Operator” drum machine, using the main PCB as its own faceplate rather than a 3D printed case in a familiar way we’ve seen before. Unfortunately, the latest board is non-functional due to a routing mistake, but you can see the previous working prototypes in his project logs.