Leapfrog make some pretty awesome kids electronics. Especially admirable is the low cost, the battery life, and the audio quality of these devices. This circuit bending hack takes advantage of those audio circuits by turning the Alphabet Pal into your lead vocalist. The performance in the demo video begins with some impressive tricks, but just wait for it because by the end the little purple caterpillar proves itself an instrument worthy of a position beside that fancy Eurorack you’ve been assembling.
The image above provides a great look inside the beastie. [Jason Hotchkiss] mentions he’s impressed by the build quality, and we have to agree. Plus, look at all of those inputs — this is begging to leave toyland and join the band. With an intuitive sense that can only be gained through lots of circuit-bending experience, he guessed that the single through-hole resistor on the PCB was used to dial in the clock speed. That made it easy to throw in a trimpot for pitch-bending and he moved on to figure out individual note control.
All of those caterpillar feet are arranged in a keyboard matrix to detect button presses. After pulling out the oscilloscope for a bit of reverse engineering, [Jason] grabbed a PIC microcontroller and added it to the same solder points as the stock ribbon connector. The result is that the buttons on the feet still work, but now the Alphabet Pal also has MIDI control.
If you’ve been kind enough to accompany me on these regular hardware explorations, you’ve likely recognized a trend with regards to the gadgets that go under the knife. Generally speaking, the devices I take apart for your viewing pleasure come to us from the clearance rack of a big box retailer, the thrift store, or the always generous “AS-IS” section on eBay. There’s something of a cost-benefit analysis performed each time I pick up a piece of gear for dissection, and it probably won’t surprise you to find that the least expensive doggy in the window is usually the one that secures its fifteen minutes of Internet fame.
But this month I present to you, Good Reader, something a bit different. This time I’m not taking something apart just for the simple joy of seeing PCB laid bare. I’ve been given the task of repairing an expensive piece of antiquated oddball equipment because, quite frankly, nobody else wanted to do it. If we happen to find ourselves learning about its inner workings in the process, that’s just the cost of doing business with a Hackaday writer.
The situation as explained to me is that in the late 1990’s, my brother’s employer purchased a Yamaha Mark II XG “Baby Grand” piano for somewhere in the neighborhood of $20,000. This particular model was selected for its ability to play MIDI files from 3.5 inch floppy disks, complete with the rather ghostly effect of the keys moving by themselves. The idea was that you could set this piano up in your lobby with a floppy full of Barry Manilow’s greatest hits, and your establishment would instantly be dripping with automated class.
Unfortunately, about a month or so back, the piano’s Disklavier DKC500RW control unit stopped reading disks. The piano itself still worked, but now required a human to do the playing. Calls were made, but as you might expect, most repair centers politely declined around the time they heard the word “floppy” and anyone who stayed on the line quoted a price that simply wasn’t economical.
Before they resorted to hiring a pianist, perhaps a rare example of a human taking a robot’s job, my brother asked if he could remove the control unit and see if I could make any sense of it. So with that, let’s dig into this vintage piece of musical equipment and see what a five figure price tag got you at the turn of the millennium.
It may have passed you by in the news, but the MIDI Manufacturers Association (MMA) has recently unveiled more details about the upcoming MIDI 2.0 standard. Previously we covered the prototyping phase start of this new standard. The original Musical Instrument Digital Interface standard was revealed all the way back in August of 1983, as a cooperation between companies including Moog Music, Roland, Yamaha, Korg, Kawai and others. It was the first universal interface that allowed one to connect and control all kinds of musical instruments.
Over the years, MIDI has seen use with the composing of music, allowing instruments to be controlled by a computer system and to easily share compositions between composers. Before MIDI such kind of control was limited to a number of proprietary interfaces, with limited functionality.
The MMA lists the key features of MIDI 2.0 as: Bidirectional, Backwards Compatible, and the enhancing of MIDI 1.0 where possible. Using a new technology called MIDI Capability Inquiry (MIDI-CI), a MIDI 2.0 device can exchange feature profiles and more with other 2.0 devices. 1.0 is the fallback if MIDI-CI finds no new functionality. MIDI-CI-based configuration can allow 2.0 devices to automatically configure themselves for their environment.
Suffice it to say, MIDI 2.0 is a far cry from the original MIDI standard. By transforming MIDI into a more versatile, bidirectional protocol, it opens new ways in which it can be used to tie musical devices and related together. It opens the possibility of even more creative hacks, many of which were featured on Hackaday already. What will you make with MIDI 2.0?
See a brief demonstration of this feature of MIDI 2.0 in the below video:
It’s one thing to assemble your own circuits from scratch using off the shelf components. It’s quite another to build the components first, and then build the circuit.
That’s the path [Joris Wegner] took with this video distortion effects box, dubbed PHOSPHOR. One might wonder why you’d want a box that makes a video stream look like playback from a 1980s VHS player with tracking problems, but then again, audio distortion for artistic effect is a thing, so why not video? PHOSPHOR is a USB MIDI device, and therein lies the need for custom components. [Joris] had a tough time finding resistive optoisolators, commonly known as Vactrols and which are used to control the distortion effects. He needed something with a wide dynamic range, so he paired up a bright white LED and a cadmium sulfide photoresistor inside a piece of heat shrink tubing. A total of 20 Vactrols were fabricated and installed on a PCB with one of the coolest silkscreens we’ve ever seen, along with the Sparkfun Pro Micro that takes care of MIDI chores. Now, distortions of the video can be saved as presets and played back in sync with music for artistic effects.
The interesting aspect of these chips is how they use registers to change the audio output. Essentially, there is a complicated register map (one section of his write-up is simply called “Register Hell”) that can be called in order to access the various types of effects one would normally see on a synthesizer. It’s not straightforward at all, though, and got even more complicated once [Aidan] started adding MIDI functionality to it as well. Once he finished sifting through the Sega Genesis technical manuals and a bunch of registers, though, he had a unique synthesizer working that doesn’t sound like anything you’ve ever heard, unless you’ve ever played a Genesis.
If you’d like to check out his first project, the MegaBlaster, which plays the sound files of the old Genesis games directly, we featured that a while ago. Keep in mind though that his latest project isn’t just an updated MegaBlaster, though. He built this entire thing from the ground up.
Do you ever peer into the void…of your hardware scrap box? It may be a wonderland of parts with near-infinite potential, and they just need to be assembled and depending on what you hoard, programmed. Access to a laser engraver doesn’t hurt either. The stuff in [Mr. Sobolak]’s bin is cooler than average, at least by Hackaday writer standards. His sound palette project is a wild mixture of interfaces, hardware, channels, and color. There are arcade pushbuttons, slider potentiometers, rotary potentiometers, miniature laser harp, touch piano, and drum pads which earns the title of junk box build extraordinaire.
Under the hood, we find the usual copper tape, wire and solder connecting operators to a Teensy 3.2. In the more esoteric part of the BOM, we find some fancy SoftPots which look like great fun to play. All the code is linked in the Instructable, but there is absolutely no reason to make an exact copy. MIDI is from the 80s and libraries abound for this protocol so the building may be the hardest part of making an interface that fits your character. Some of the techniques in the Instructable may help you, like how to connect a piezo element so it can read something lighter than a wrecking ball or the laser harp roughly the size of your palm.
This goes back to Bach: if you want to change the sound an organ makes, you have to pull on some drawbars. This design didn’t change for 300 years, and in the 20th century with the advent of ‘tonewheel’ organs, you still had small bars to pull to change what sounds came out of the organ. While this was a simple solution for air-powered organs of the 1700s, when it comes to MIDI, rotary pots are a lot less expensive than linear pots. Given the lack of drawbar MIDI controllers, [Stefano] decided to build his own. It has nine drawbars and eight buttons, all connected to MIDI.
The interesting electromechanical part of this build, the drawbars themselves, are ripped from a Hammond organ. Don’t worry, plenty of these were made and only a handful actually sound good. To that, [Stefano] added a few pushbuttons soldered onto a piece of perfboard, and everything is wired up to a Teensy LC, the microcontroller platform that’s becoming the standard for everything from MIDI controllers to computer keyboards. MIDI over DIN and MIDI over USB are supported, and all the buttons and drawbars are individually programmable. You can even do that through SysEx messages, because that’s how things were done back in the day.
While there are a few MIDI-controlled organs that still use drawbars — the double manual Nord comes to mind imminently — this is a great solution to putting drawbars into anything that speaks MIDI, VSTs included.