Live Hacking And A MIDI Keytar

We can’t think of where you’d buy a new, cheap, MIDI keytar that’s just a keyboard and a handle with some pitch and mod wheels or ribbon controllers. This is a format that died in the 90s or thereabouts. Yes, the Rock Band controller exists, but my point stands. In fact, the closest you can get to a cheap, simple MIDI keytar is the Alesis Vortex Wireless 2 Keytar, but the buttons on the handle don’t make any sense. [marcan] of Wii and Kinect hacking fame took note. (YouTube, embedded below.)

Reverse engineering is a research project, and all research projects begin with looking at the docs. When it comes to consumer electronics, the best resource is the documents a company is required to submit to the FCC (shout out to, which gave [marcan] the user manual, and photos of the guts of the keytar. The ‘system update download’ files are living on the Alesis servers, and that’s really all you need to reverse engineer a keytar.

The first step is extracting the actual device firmware from whatever software package appears on the desktop when you download the software update. This is a simple job for 7zip, and after looking at a binary dump of the firmware, [marcan] discovered this was for an STM chip. With the datasheet of the chip, [marcan] got the entry point for the firmware, some values, and the real hardware hacking began. All of this was done with IDA.

This is a five-hour hacking session of cross-referencing the MIDI spec and a microcontroller built thirty years after this spec was developed. It’s an amazing bit of work just to find the bit of code than handled the buttons on the keytar grip, and it gets even better when the patched firmware is uploaded. If you want to ‘learn hacking’, as so many submitters on our tip line want to do, this is what you need to watch. Thanks [hmn] for the tip.

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Chris Gammell Talks Circuit Toolboxes

Chris Gammell wants to know: What’s in your circuit toolbox?

Personally, mine is somewhat understocked. I do know that in one of my journals, probably from back in the 1980s, I scribbled down a schematic of a voltage multiplier I had just built, with the classic diode and capacitor ladder topology. I probably fed it from a small bell transformer, and I might have gotten a hundred volts or so out of it. I was so proud at the time that I wrote it down for posterity with the note, “I made this today!”

I think the whole point of Chris’ 2018 Hackaday Superconference talk is precisely what I was trying to get at when I made my “discovery” — we all have circuits that just work for us, and the more you have, the better. Most readers will recognize Chris from such venues as The Amp Hour, a weekly podcast he hosts with Dave Jones, and his KiCad tutorial videos. Chris has been in electrical engineering for nearly twenty years now, and he’s picked up a collection of go-to circuits that keep showing up in his designs and making life easier, which he graciously shared with the crowd.

As Chris points out, it’s the little circuits that can make the difference. Slide after slide of his talk had schematics with no more than a handful of components in them, covering applications from dead-simple LED power indicators and switch debouncing to IO expansion using a 74HC595. And as any sensible engineer might, Chris’ toolbox includes a good selection of power protection circuits, everything from polarity reversal protection with a MOSFET and a zener to a neat little high-side driver shutoff using a differential amp and an optoisolator.

My favorite part of the talk was the “Codeless” section — things you can do with discrete components that make microcontroller circuits better. We see the “You could have used a 555!” comments from readers all the time, and Chris agrees, at least to a point. He aptly notes that microcontrollers can wake up with their IO pins in unknown states, and offered several circuits to keep the potential for mischief at bay, such as Schmitt trigger power-on reset or the simple addition of a pull-down resistor to default a MOSFET to a safe state. There’s a lot that code can accomplish, but adding just a few parts can make a circuit much safer and useful.

Chris acknowledges that in any audience, everyone is always at different places with regard to their hardware learning curve, so what’s old hat to someone might be a fresh revelation to another. Still, everything is new to someone at some point, and that’s often the best time to write it down. That’s what I did all those years ago with that voltage multiplier, and it never left me as a result. It’s good advice, and if you haven’t started building your own circuit toolbox, now’s the time.

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Do Other Things Besides Output Video

Small microcontrollers and tiny systems-on-chips are getting more and more popular these days as the price comes down and the ease of programming goes up. A Raspberry Pi is relatively inexpensive and can do pretty much everything you need, but not every chip out there can do something most of us take for granted like output video. For a lot of platforms, it’s next to impossible to do while saving any processor or memory for other tasks besides the video output itself.

[Dave] aka [Mubes] has been working on the Blue Pill platform which is a STM32F103C8 board. While they don’t natively output video, it’s a feature that provides a handy tool to have for debugging in order to see what’s going on in your code. However, if the video code takes up all of the processor power and memory there’s not much point. [Dave]’s video output program, on the other hand, takes up only 1200 bytes of RAM and 24% of the processor for a 50×18 text display over VGA, leaving a lot of room left for whatever else you need the tiny board to do.

Video output on a device this small and lightweight is an impressive feat, especially while saving room for other tasks. This brings it firmly out of the realm of novelty and into the space of useful tools to keep around. If you want to try the same thing on an ATtiny, though, you might have to come up with some more impressive tricks.

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Preventing Embedded Fails with Watchdogs

Watchdog timers are an often overlooked feature of microcontrollers. They function as failsafes to reset the device in case of a software failure. If your code somehow ends up in an infinite loop, the watchdog will trigger. This is a necessity for safety critical devices. If the firmware in a pacemaker or a aircraft’s avionics system gets stuck, it isn’t going to end well.

In this oldie-but-goodie, [Jack Ganssle] provides us with a great write up on watchdog timers. This tells the story of a failed Clementine spacecraft mission that could have been saved by a watchdog, and elaborates on the design and implementation of watchdog techniques.

If you’re designing a device that needs to be able to handle unexpected failures, this article is definitely worth a read. [Jack] explains a lot of traps of using these devices, including why internal watchdogs can’t always be trusted and what features make for a great watchdog.

Thanks to [Jan] for the tip!

Portable Pi Teensy Thumboard

Even on the go, there is no substitute for a physical keyboard with buttons that move and click. Sure, you could solder a bunch of tactile switches to some perfboard, but how about going all out and making something robust as [Anthony DiGirolamo] did for his Teensy Thumboard. Everything is insertion-mount so it is an approachable project for anyone who knows the dangerous end of a soldering iron, and that also makes it easy to hack on.

Each pin of the Teensy has an adjacent empty hole tied to it for easy access, and the serial data pins are exposed at the top of the board. All the holes use standard 0.1″ (2.54mm) spacing. The I/O points used by the keyboard are labeled, and the rest of them can use the space under the controller where proto-board style holes add some extra space for an IMU or whatever sensors suit your slant.

Most impressive is the shell, which is freely available on Thingiverse, where you can also find a bill of materials with links to everything you will need in case you don’t have drawers full of those tactile switches.

If this looks familiar, you have probably seen the PocketCHIP, and it is no secret that this project is an homage to that versatile pocket computer. We appreciate this kind of love for PocketCHIP, especially since they are now a limited commodity.

Machine Learning on Tiny Platforms Like Raspberry Pi and Arduino

Machine learning is starting to come online in all kinds of arenas lately, and the trend is likely to continue for the forseeable future. What was once only available for operators of supercomputers has found use among anyone with a reasonably powerful desktop computer. The downsizing isn’t stopping there, though, as Microsoft is pushing development of machine learning for embedded systems now.

The Embedded Learning Library (ELL) is a set of tools for allowing Arduinos, Raspberry Pis, and the like to take advantage of machine learning algorithms despite their small size and reduced capability. Microsoft intended this library to be useful for anyone, and has examples available for things like computer vision, audio keyword recognition, and a small handful of other implementations. The library should be expandable to any application where machine learning would be beneficial for a small embedded system, though, so it’s not limited to these example applications.

There is one small speed bump to running a machine learning algorithm on your Raspberry Pi, though. The high processor load tends to cause small SoCs to overheat. But adding a heatsink and fan is something we’ve certainly seen before. Don’t let your lack of a supercomputer keep you from exploring machine learning if you see a benefit to it, and if you need more power than just one Raspberry Pi you can always build a cluster to get your task done just a little bit faster, too.

Thanks to [Baldpower] for the tip!

“DB” = Abbreviated Microcontroller Debugging

We’ve all been there. When debugging a microcontroller project, we just want to put in a print statement to figure out what’s going on with the microcontroller in real time. However, advanced embedded programmers know that printf statements are verboten: they’re just too SLOW. While not fixing this plight entirely, [Atakan Sarioglu] has come up with a clever way to create readable debug messages with minimal runtime overhead.

[Atakan Sarioglu]’s innovation, called BigBug (Github), is a dynamically-generated codebook. The codebook translates abbreviated messages sent over serial (UART here) to longer-form human-readable messages. To generate the codebook, BigBug automatically parses your comments to create a lookup between an abbreviation and the long-form message. When you are running your program on the microcontroller, BigBug will translate the short codes to long messages in real-time as you send log/debug data over serial. Continue reading ““DB” = Abbreviated Microcontroller Debugging”