Compose Any Song With Twelve Buttons

Limitations placed on any creative process often paradoxically create an environment in which creativity flourishes. A simple overview of modern pop, rock, or country music illustrates this principle quite readily. A bulk of these songs are built around a very small subset of music theory, often varying no more than the key or the lyrics. Somehow, almost all modern popular music exists within this tiny realm. [DeckerEgo] may have had this idea in mind when he created this tiny MIDI device which allows the creation of complex musical scores using a keyboard with only 12 buttons.

The instrument is based around the Adafruit MacroPad, which is itself built on the RP2040 chip. As a MIDI device, it needs to be connected to a computer running software which can support MIDI instruments, but once its assembled and given its firmware, it’s ready to rock. A musician can select one of any number of musical scales to operate within, and the 12 keys on the pad are mapped to the 12 chromatic notes within that scale. It can also be used to generate drum tracks or other backing tracks to loop before being used to create melodies as well.

[DeckerEgo] took a bit of inspiration from an even simpler macro pad we featured before which is based around the idea that a shockingly high number of songs use the same four chords. His macro pad includes creation of chord progressions as well, but expands on that idea to make more complete compositions possible. And, for those looking to build their own or expand on this project, he has also made all of the source code available on his GitHub page.

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Mechanical Keyboard As Travel Saxophone

Those who play larger musical instruments, things like drums, piano, harp, tuba, upright bass, or Zeusaphone, know well the challenges of simply transporting their chosen instrument to band practice, a symphony hall, or local watering hole. Even those playing more manageably-sized instruments may have similar troubles at some point especially when traveling where luggage space is at a premium like on an airplane. That’s why [jcard0na] built this electronic saxophone, designed to be as small as possible.

Known as the “haxophone”, the musical instrument eschews the vibrating column of air typical of woodwind instruments in favor of an electronic substitute. Based around the Raspberry Pi, the device consists of a custom HAT with a number of mechanical keyboard switches arrayed in a way close enough to the layout of a standard saxophone that saxophonists will be able to intuitively and easily play. Two pieces of software run on the Pi to replicate the musical instrument, one that detects the player’s breaths and key presses, and another that synthesizes this information into sound.

While [jcard0na] notes that this will never replicate the depth and feel of a real instrument, it does accomplish its design goal of being much more easily transportable than all but the most soprano of true saxophones. As a musical project it’s an excellent example of good design as well, much like this set of electronic drums with a similar design goal of portability.

A man sits in front of a wooden table. There is a black box with a number of knobs hand-labeled on blue painter's tape. A white breadboard with a number of wires protruding from it is visible on the box's left side. An oscilliscope is behind the black box and has a yellow waveform displaying on its screen.

A More Expressive Synth Via Flexure

Synthesizers can make some great music, but sometimes they feel a bit robotic in comparison to their analog counterparts. [Sound Werkshop] built a “minimum viable” expressive synth to overcome this challenge. (YouTube)

Dubbed “The Wiggler,” [Sound Werkshop]’s expressive synth centers on the idea of using a flexure as a means to control vibrato and volume. Side-to-side and vertical movement of the flexure is detected with a pair of linear hall effect sensors that feed into the Daisy Seed microcontroller to modify the patch.

The build itself is a large 3D printed base with room for the flexure and a couple of breadboards for prototyping the circuits. The keys are capacitive touch pads, and everything is currently held in place with hot glue. [Sound Werkshop] goes into detail in the video (below the break) on what the various knobs and switches do with an emphasis on how it was designed for ease of use.

If you want to learn more about flexures, be sure to checkout this Open Source Flexure Construction Kit.

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Arduino Synthesizer Uses Modified Slide Pots

There comes a point in every Arduino’s life where, if it’s lucky, it becomes a permanent fixture in a project. We can’t think of too many better forever homes for an Arduino than inside of a 3D-printed synthesizer such as this 17-key number by [ignargomez] et al.

While there are myriad ways to synthesizer, this one uses the tried-and-true method of FM synthesis courtesy of an Arduino Nano R3. In addition to the 17 keys, there are eight potentiometers here — four are used for FM synthesis control, and the other four are dedicated to attack/delay/sustain/release (ADSR) control of the sound envelope.

One of the interesting things here is that [ignargomez] and their team were short a few regular pots and modified a couple of slide pots for circular use — we wish there was more information on that. As a result, the 3D printed enclosure underwent several iterations. Be sure to check out the brief demo after the break.

Don’t have any spare Arduinos? The BBC Micro:bit likes to make noise, too.

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BBC Micro:Bit As Handheld Synthesizer

The BBC Micro:bit, while not quite as popular in our community as other microcontroller development boards, has a few quirks that can make it a much more interesting piece of hardware to build a project around than an Arduino. [Turi] took note of these unique features and decided that it was the perfect platform to build a synthesizer on.

The Micro:bit includes two important elements that make this project work: the LED matrix and a gyro sensor. [Turi] built a 5×5 button matrix for inputs and paired each to one of the diodes, which eliminates the problem of false inputs. The gyro sensor is used for detuning, which varies the pitch of any generated sound by a set amount according to the orientation of the device. It also includes a passive low-pass filter to make the sound more pleasant to the ear, especially for younger players of the machine. He’s released the source code on his GitHub page for anyone interested in recreating it.

While this was a one-off project for [Turi], he notes that using MicroPython to program it instead of C led to a lot of unnecessary complications, and the greater control allowed by C would enable some extra features with less hassle. Still, it’s a fun project that really showcases the unique features of this board, much like this tiny Sumo robot we covered over the summer.

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Sight And Sound Combine In This Engaging Synthesizer Sculpture

We’ll always have a soft spot for circuit sculpture projects; anything with components supported on nice tidy rows of brass wires always captures our imagination. But add to that a little bit of light and a lot of sound, and you get something like this hybrid synthesizer sculpture that really commands attention.

[Eirik Brandal] calls his creation “corwin point,” and describes it as “a generative dual voice analog synthesizer.” It’s built with a wide-open architecture that invites exploration and serves to pull the eyes — and ears — into the piece. The lowest level of the sculpture has all the “boring” digital stuff — an ESP32, the LED drivers, and the digital-to-analog converters. The next level up has the more visually interesting analog circuits, built mainly “dead-bug” style on a framework of brass wires. The user interface, mainly a series of pots and switches, lives on this level, as does a SeeedStudio WIO terminal, which is used to display a spectrum analyzer of the sounds generated.

Moving up a bit, there’s a seemingly incongruous vacuum tube overdrive along with a power amp and speaker in an acrylic enclosure. A vertical element of thick acrylic towers over all and houses the synth’s delay line, and the light pipes that snake through the sculpture pulse in time with sequencer events. The video below shows the synth in action — the music that it generates never really sounds the same twice, and sounds like nothing we’ve heard before, except perhaps briefly when we heard something like the background music from Logan’s Run.

Hats off to [Eirik] for another great-looking and great-sounding build; you may remember that his “cwymriad” caught our attention earlier this year.

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An LCD mounted inside a Roland synthesizer

Reverse-Engineering A Display Protocol To Repair A Roland Synthesizer

Repairing electronic devices isn’t as hard as it used to be. Thanks to the internet, it’s easy to find datasheets and application notes for any standard component inside your gadget, and once you’ve found the faulty one, you simply buy a replacement from one of a million web shops — assuming you don’t end up with a fake, of course. When it comes to non-standard components, however, things get more difficult, as [dpeddi] found out when a friend asked him for help in repairing a Roland Juno-G synthesizer with a broken display.

The main issue here was the fact that the display in question was a custom design, with no replacement or documentation available. The only thing [dpeddi] could figure out from the service manual was the basic pinout, which showed a parallel interface with two lines labelled “chip select” — an indication that the display contained two separate controllers. But the exact protocol and data format was not documented, so [dpeddi] brought out his logic analyzer to try and decode the signals generated by the synthesizer.

After a bit of trial and error, he was able to figure out the protocol: it looked like the display contained two KS0713-type LCD controllers, each controlling one half of the screen. Finding a compatible replacement was still proving difficult, so [dpeddi] decided instead to decode the original signals using a microcontroller and show the picture on a modern LCD driven by SPI. After some intial experiments with an ESP32, it turned out that the task of reading two reasonably fast parallel buses and driving an even faster serial one was a bit too much for the ESP, so [dpeddi] upgraded to a Raspberry Pi Pico. This worked a treat, and thanks to a 3D-printed mounting bracket, the new display also fit snugly inside the Roland’s case.

The Pico’s code is available on [dpeddi]’s GitHub page, so if you’ve also got a dodgy display in your Juno-G you can simply download it and use it to plug in a brand-new display. However, the method of reverse-engineering an existing display protocol and translating it to that of a new one is pretty universal and should come in handy when working with any type of electronic device: say, a vintage calculator or multimeter, or even another synthesizer.