Vintage Pro Audio Hack Chat Gets In The Groove

Despite the fact that we’ve been doing them for years now, it’s still hard to predict how a Hack Chat will go. There’s no question it will be an hour of interesting discussion of course, that much is a given. But the dynamics of the conversation can range from a rigid Q&A, which isn’t exactly unexpected when you’ve only got a limited amount of time with a subject matter expert, to a freewheeling hangout with a group of people who all happen to be interested in the same thing.

This week’s Vintage Pro Audio Hack Chat with Frank Olson definitely took the latter approach. The allotted hour flew by in a blink, with so many anecdotes and ideas flying back and forth that at times it was tricky to follow. But no worries, with the Chat transcript to pore over, we can make sure none of that accrued first-hand knowledge goes to waste.

So what did we learn during this Chat? Well, it probably won’t come as much of a surprise to find that those who have an opinion on audio gear tend to have a strong opinion on it. Folks were painting with some fairly broad brushes, with particular manufacturers and even whole fields of technology receiving a bit of good-natured ribbing. If your favorite brand or piece of gear gets a specific shout-out, try not to take it too personally — at the end of the day, most in the Chat seemed to agree that sound is so subjective that the right choice is more often than not whatever sounds best to you at the moment.

Which leads directly into Frank’s work with custom microphones. As a musician he knew the sound he was looking for better than anyone, so rather than spend the money on big-name gear, he prefers to build it himself. But the real hook here is their unique construction, with pieces that reimagine design concepts from mid-century commercial equipment using unexpected materials such as thin pieces of walnut cut with a vinyl cutter. Frank explains that the structure of the microphone isn’t as critical these days thanks to the availability of powerful neodymium magnets, which gives the builder more freedom in terms of materials and tools. He says the goal is to inspire others to try building gear from what’s available to them rather than assuming it won’t work because it’s unconventional.

We appreciate Frank, and everyone else, stopping by this week for such a lively and friendly discussion. Let’s be honest, a Chat specifically for folks who want to discuss concepts as personal and nebulous as how they perceive the warmth of sound could have gotten a little heated. But the fact that everyone was able to express their opinions or ask for advice constructively is a real credit to the community.


The Hack Chat is a weekly online chat session hosted by leading experts from all corners of the hardware hacking universe. It’s a great way for hackers connect in a fun and informal way, but if you can’t make it live, these overview posts as well as the transcripts posted to Hackaday.io make sure you don’t miss out.

Vintage Pro Audio Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, May 25 at noon Pacific for the Vintage Audio Hack Chat with Frank Olson!

There was a time, and not all that long ago on the cosmic scale, that if you wanted to hear music, you either needed to make it yourself or hire someone to do it for you. For most of history, music was very much a here and now thing, and when the song was over, that was it.

Thankfully, those days are long gone, and for better or worse, we have instant access to whatever music we’re in the mood for. The Spotify client in your pocket is a far cry from the iPod of a few years back, or the Walkman of the 80s, or even a mid-century transistor radio. But no matter how you listen to your music, it all starts with getting the live music recorded, and that’s where we’ll be going with this Hack Chat.

join-hack-chatHooking up the preamps, mixers, mics, and recorders that make modern music possible is what Frank Olson is all about. You’ll probably recognize Frank’s name from his unique niche as a maker of wooden microphones, but dig a little deeper and he’s got a lot of experience with vintage pro audio gear. As both a musician and an audio engineer, Frank brings an enthusiast’s passion for recording gear to the Hack Chat, and we’re looking forward to picking his brain on the unique ways he’s found to turn sounds into music and to get to all down on tape.

Our Hack Chats are live community events in the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, May 25 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have you tied up, we have a handy time zone converter.

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Hackaday Links: May 1, 2022

We start this week with news from Mars, because, let’s face it, the news from this planet isn’t all that much fun lately. But a couple of milestones were reached on the Red Planet, the first being the arrival of Perseverance at the ancient river delta it was sent there to explore. The rover certainly took the scenic route to get there, having covered 10.6 km over the last 424 sols to move to a position only about 3.5 km straight-line distance from where it landed. Granted, a lot of that extra driving was in support of the unexpectedly successful Ingenuity demonstration, plus taking time for a lot of pit stops along the way at interesting features. But the rover is now in place to examine sedimentary rocks most likely to harbor the fossil remains of ancient aquatic life — as opposed to the mainly igneous rocks it has studied along the crater floor so far. We’re looking forward to seeing what happens.

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Building A Swiss Army Lab With Software Defined Instrumentation

It’s a fair bet that anyone regularly reading Hackaday has a voltmeter within arm’s reach, and there’s a good chance an oscilloscope isn’t far behind. But beyond that, things get a little murky. We’re sure some of you have access to a proper lab full of high-end test gear, even if only during business hours, but most of us have to make do with the essentials due to cost and space constraints.

The ideal solution is a magical little box that could be whatever piece of instrumentation you needed at the time: some days it’s an oscilloscope, while others it’s a spectrum analyzer, or perhaps even a generic data logger. To simplify things the device wouldn’t have a physical display or controls of its own, instead, you could plug it into your computer and control it through software. This would not only make the unit smaller and cheaper, but allow for custom user interfaces to be created that precisely match what the user is trying to accomplish.

Wishful thinking? Not quite. As guest host Ben Nizette explained during the Software Defined Instrumentation Hack Chat, the dream of replacing a rack of test equipment with a cheap pocket-sized unit is much closer to reality than you may realize. While software defined instruments might not be suitable for all applications, the argument could be made that any capability the average student or hobbyist is likely to need or desire could be met by hardware that’s already on the market.

Ben is the Product Manager at Liquid Instruments, the company that produces the Moku line of multi-instruments. Specifically, he’s responsible for the Moku:Go, an entry-level device that’s specifically geared for the education and maker markets. The slim device doesn’t cost much more than a basic digital oscilloscope, but thanks to the magic of software defined instrumentation (SDi), it can stand in for eleven instruments — all more than performant enough for their target users.

So what’s the catch? As you might expect, that’s the first thing folks in the Chat wanted to know. According to Ben, the biggest drawback is that all of your instrumentation has to share the same analog front-end. To remain affordable, that means everything the unit can do is bound by the same fundamental “Speed Limit” — which on the Moku:Go is 30 MHz. Even on the company’s higher-end professional models, the maximum bandwidth is measured in hundreds of megahertz.

Additionally, SDI has traditionally been limited to the speed of the computer it was attached to. But the Moku hardware manages to sidestep this particular gotcha by running the software side of things on an internal FPGA. The downside is that some of the device’s functions, such as the data logger, can’t actually live stream the data to the connected computer. Users will have to wait until the measurements are complete before they  pull the results off, though Ben says there’s enough internal memory to store months worth of high-resolution data.

Of course, as soon as this community hears there’s an FPGA on board, they want to know if they can get their hands on it. To that end, Ben says the Moku:Go will be supported by their “Cloud Compile” service in June. Already available for the Moku:Pro, the browser-based application allows you to upload your HDL to the Liquid Instruments servers so it can be built and optimized. This gives power users complete access to the Moku hardware so they can build and deploy their own custom features and tools that precisely match their needs without a separate development kit. Understanding that obsolescence is always a problem with a cloud solution, Ben says they’re also working with Xilinx to allow users to do builds on their own computers while still implementing the proprietary “secret sauce” that makes it a Moku.

It’s hard not to get excited about the promise of software defined instrumentation, especially with companies like Liquid Instruments and Red Pitaya bringing the cost of the hardware down to the point where students and hackers can afford it. We’d like to thank Ben Nizette for taking the time to talk with the community about what he’s been working on, especially given the considerable time difference between the Hackaday Command Center and Liquid’s Australian headquarters. Anyone who’s willing to jump online and chat about FPGAs and phasemeters before the sun comes up is AOK in our book.


The Hack Chat is a weekly online chat session hosted by leading experts from all corners of the hardware hacking universe. It’s a great way for hackers connect in a fun and informal way, but if you can’t make it live, these overview posts as well as the transcripts posted to Hackaday.io make sure you don’t miss out.

Software Defined Instrumentation Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, April 27 at noon Pacific for the Software Defined Instrumentation Hack Chat with Ben Nizette!

Imagine, if you will, the perfect electronics lab. Exactly how it looks in your mind will depend a lot upon personal preferences and brand loyalty, but chances are good it’ll be stocked to the gills with at least one every conceivable type of high-precision, laboratory-grade instrument you can think of. It’ll have oscilloscopes with ridiculously high bandwidths, multimeters with digits galore, logic analyzers, waveform generators, programmable power supplies, spectrum analyzers — pretty much anything and everything that can make chasing down problems and developing new circuits easier.

Alas, the dream of a lab like this crashes hard into realities like being able to afford so many instruments and actually finding a place to put them all. And so while we may covet the wall of instruments that people like Marco Reps or Kerry Wong enjoy, most of us settle for a small but targeted suite of instruments, tailored to our particular needs and budgets.

It doesn’t necessarily need to be that way, though, and with software-defined instrumentation, you can pack a lab full of virtual instruments into a single small box. Software-defined instrumentation has the potential to make an engineering lab portable enough for field-service teams, flexible enough for tactical engineering projects, and affordable for students and hobbyists alike.

join-hack-chatBen Nizette is Product Manager at Liquid Instruments, the leader in precision software-defined instrumentation. He’s the engineer behind Moku:Go, the company’s first consumer product, which squeezes eleven instruments into one slim, easily transported, affordable package. He’s been in the thick of software-defined instrumentation, and he’ll drop by the Hack Chat to talk about the pros and cons of the virtual engineering lab, what it means for engineering education, and how we as hobbyists can put it to work on our benches.

Our Hack Chats are live community events in the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, April 27 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have you tied up, we have a handy time zone converter.

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Movie Prop Electronics Hack Chat Takes Us Behind The Scenes

It’s no surprise that the hacking and making community has traditionally had something of a love affair with movie props, especially those of the science fiction variety. Over the years we’ve seen folks put untold hours into incredible recreations of their favorite pieces of fictional gear — and by the time this post goes out, our 2022 Sci-Fi Contest will be entering into the final stretch. So it’s a safe bet that if you make your living by creating the electronics behind all that Hollywood movie magic, you’ll find ours to be an especially welcoming community.

We were fortunate enough to see this in action this week when Ben Eadie stopped by to host the Hack Chat. It’s no exaggeration to say that he’s been living out what most of us would consider a dream, having worked on films from iconic franchises such as Star Trek and Predator. But perhaps his most enviable credit is that of propmaster for 2021’s Ghostbusters: Afterlife, where he got the chance to work on the proton packs and ghost traps; arguably some of the most well-known props in the history of cinema.

Not bad for a guy who only recently got in the game. Ben spent 20 years working as an aerounatical engineer until a friend from his local maker space mentioned they were working on a film and could use a hand. Suddenly he found himself behind the scenes of Star Trek: Beyond in 2015, helping to design and fabricate one of the largest rotating sets ever made. He figures he must have done something right, because Hollywood has been calling ever since.

This anecdote about his first time working on a feature film helped answer what many wanted to know early on in the Chat, which was how one manages to get into the prop and special effects industry. Ben once again confirmed a truth well known to this community: that what you’re capable of is far more important than where you went to school and what you studied. There’s not a lot of formal education out there that can train you to make the impossible possible, and Ben says the majority of his day-to-day knowledge came from a lifetime of fiddling around with electronics. In fact, he attributes much of his professional success with hanging out in maker spaces, reading Hackaday, and watching YouTube. If that’s the recipe, then we should all be in pretty good shape.

Over the last few years, Ben has been trying to pay that forward by documenting some of the tricks of the trade on his own YouTube channel. In a particularly interesting piece of marketing on Sony’s part, some of Ben’s videos have even been featured on the official Ghostbusters YouTube channel as part of a “Maker Monday” series. In fact, we first got in contact with Ben when he left a comment on our coverage of his “PKE  Meter” prop build. This is the kind of advertisement we can get behind, and wish more companies would embrace the hacker and maker culture with this kind of interactive content. Ben says the best way to make initiatives like this more popular is to consume it — if Sony sees people watching and sharing this kind of content, hopefully more will follow.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Hack Chat unless some arcane compartmentalized technical knowledge was dished out. In this case, several of the questions were about the unique challenges posed by operating custom electronics on a movie set. For example, Ben says he always uses addressable LEDs controlled by the APA102 chip as it offers an external clock pin that he can feed with a different frequency to avoid on-screen flickering. The radio spectrum also tends to be pretty noisy on set, so if at all possible, you want to make sure your gear has a wired connection. Otherwise, you’ll need to get intimately acquainted with what other RF signals are being used on set so as not to interfere with the production.

Ben’s creations include the Remote Trap Vehicle (RTV) from Ghostbusters: Afterlife.

But while some of the challenges he has to deal with might seem pretty foreign to us, the technology itself is in some cases more familiar than you might think. It turns out there’s plenty of Sparkfun and Adafruit gear behind the scenes, with Ben specifically mentioning the Feather nRF52 as one of his go-to microcontrollers. Sometimes the graybeards on set grumble about his “consumer grade” tech, but when his gear is up and running in half the time, it’s usually he who gets the last laugh.

Towards the end of the Chat, Ben says the most important thing he’s learned over the years is to always have backups. His motto is “One is None”, and if he can help it, he usually builds four of everything: that gives him two to learn from, and a pair to actually use for whatever the project is. Even if our own projects don’t quite rise to the level of a key prop from a summer blockbuster, there’s no certainly no harm in being prepared.

We want to thank Ben Eadie for taking the time to talk with the community and sharing some of his fascinating stories and tips with us. At the risk of sounding a bit sappy, stories like his are what motivates us here at Hackaday. If we can provide even a small part of the what it takes to help people like Ben achieve their goals, that’s reason enough for us to keep the lights on.


The Hack Chat is a weekly online chat session hosted by leading experts from all corners of the hardware hacking universe. It’s a great way for hackers connect in a fun and informal way, but if you can’t make it live, these overview posts as well as the transcripts posted to Hackaday.io make sure you don’t miss out.

Movie Prop Electronics Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, April 20 at noon Pacific for the Movie Prop Electronics Hack Chat with Ben Eadie!

It wasn’t too long after the invention of cinema that the need for special effects became apparent. If you want to tell stories, especially the science fiction type of story, you need to build a plausible universe, including all the gadgets and gizmos within it. And so right from the start, propmakers and set designers have had the challenge of making things look futuristic using the technology of the present day.

join-hack-chatAll too often, the realities of budgets and time constraints have reduced this crucial world-building to an exercise in blinkenlights. But not always. Ben Eadie is a maker and inventor who works in the world of movie magic, specializing in props and practical effects. While he’s certainly as much in love with blinkenlights as any of us, there’s more than that to making a movie look good. He’ll stop by the Hack Chat to talk about how he incorporates electronics into his practical effect builds, and perhaps even reveal some of the movie magic for us.

Our Hack Chats are live community events in the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, April 20 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have you tied up, we have a handy time zone converter.

Continue reading “Movie Prop Electronics Hack Chat”