XFM: A 32-Voice Polyphonic FM Synthesizer On An FPGA

There’s something about Frequency Modulation (FM) synthesizer chips that appeals to a large audience. That’s one of the reasons behind [René Ceballos]’s XFM project, aiming to duplicate on an FPGA the sound of pure-FM synthesizer chips of the past such as the Yamaha DX series, OPL chip series and TX81Z/802/816. The result is a polyphonic, 32-voice, 6-operator FM synthesizer stereo module.

The project page goes into a lot of detail about the design choices which ultimately led to XFM being implemented on an FPGA, instead of using a dedicated DSP or MCU. Coming from the world of virtual synthesizers running on PCs, [René ]’s first impulse was to implement something on a Raspberry Pi or equivalent. Unfortunately these boards require a lot of power (ruling out battery-powered operation) and can hardly be called real-time, which led [René ] to abandon this attempt.

The design choice against the use of an MCU is simple: though capable of real-time processing, they lack the necessary power to make them a good choice for audio-processing. Working through the calculations to determine what kind of processing power would be needed, it was found that around 650 MIPS would be needed, a figure which most MCUs struggle to achieve a fraction of.

As one of the further requirements for XFM was that it should be as cheap as possible, this ruled out as too expensive the DSP chips which do have the power and hardware features needed. The component chosen was a Xilinx Spartan 6 FPGA, which though somewhat infamous and shunned in FPGA circles turns out to be a very economical option for this project.

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Hacking The Pocket Operator

The number of easily usable and programmable microcontrollers is small, so when selecting one for a project there are only a handful of very popular, well documented chips that most of us reach for. The same can be said for most small companies selling electronics as well, so if you reach for a consumer device that is powered by a microcontroller it’s likely to have one of these few in it. As a result, a lot of these off-the-shelf devices are easy to hack, reprogram, or otherwise improve, such as the Robot Pocket Operator.

The Pocket Operator is a handheld, fully-featured synthesizer complete with internal speaker. It runs on a Cortex M3, a very popular ARM processor which has been widely used for many different applications, and features everything you would need for a synthesizer in one tiny package, including a built-in speaker. It also supports a robust 24-bit DAC/ADC and all the knobs and buttons you would need. And now, thanks to [Frank Buss] there is a detailed teardown on exactly how this device operates.

Some of the highlights from the teardown include detailed drawings of how the display operates, all of the commands for controlling the device, and even an interesting note about how the system clock operates even when the device has been powered off for a substantial amount of time. For a pocket synthesizer this has a lot to offer, even if you plan on using it as something else entirely thanks to the versatility of the Cortex M3.

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A Baby Named DJ

Some of us are guilty of picking up questionable hardware from garage sales, fleamarkets, and well-meaning relatives. There is a balance between turning down a good investment and hoarding, and if we figure out how to tell the difference you will be the first to know. [Clem Mayer] may start on the side of unwise acquisition, but he pushes a broken fetal detector into the realm of awesome by converting it to an analog synthesizer, born to headline at an Eastern European dance party.

He starts with a basic teardown, and we get to see how old hardware was serviceable with only two standard screws. It is a good thing too, because the nickel-cadmium batteries are older than some of you and they are in need of replacement. New nickel-metal hydride batteries got it up and running but [Clem] does not have a baby bump so its functionality turned to Pink Floyd era synthesizer circuit bending. Circuit bending involves modifying a circuit for sound it was not intended to make.

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Hack My Wired Heart

Liner notes? Passé. In Berlin, the release of a special edition synth-wave record came with an accompanying experimental synthesizer called Wired Heart.

At the core of this adorable heart-shaped synth, designed by music technology enthusiast [tobi tubbutec], is the classic 74HCT14 chip with six Schmitt trigger oscillators. The bright red PCB has eight gold touch and humidity sensing pads that activate and modulate these oscillators. As well as changing the sounds by playing with pressure and conductive liquids you can use the six sets of header pins on board to plug in your own components for noisy experimentation. Wired Heart ships with LEDs, photoresistors and a potentiometer, but we’ve also plugged our own DIY fabric pressure sensors into this synth to make some excellent electronic sounds.

In the Hackaday.io post linked above, [tobi tubbutec] walks us through a number of the circuit design decisions he made while prototyping his “cardiotronic human-touch hexoscillatric stereo esoteric snythespacer”. We enjoyed his creative and sometimes unconventional designs, from his inclusion of non-functioning traces for aesthetic reasons to his chosen method of hard syncing — injecting a small pulse of one oscillator into the other. If you want to examine his layout in more detail, [tobi tubbutec] has helpfully included the KiCad schematic file in his write up.

This adorable, hackable synth caught our eye at this year’s SuperBooth — an annual indie electronic music conference in Berlin that’s well worth checking out if odd noises and handmade electronics are your thing —  but it’s recently been listed on Tindie too. To listen to the upbeat synth-wave record Wired Heart originally shipped with, visit the artist Hyboid’s bandcamp.

If you’re interested in experimental musical instruments and synthy chip tune you’ll also love [jarek319]’s Sega Genesis synthesiser.

Check out a demo of the Wired Heart synth in the video after the break.

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The Motor Synth Is What You Get When You Forget Hammond Organs Exist

There’s nothing new, ever. It’s all been done. But that doesn’t mean you can’t invent something interesting. A case in point is the Motor Synth, a crowdfunding project from Gamechanger Audio. It’s what you get when you combine advanced quadcopter technology with the market for modular and semi-modular synthesizers.

The core feature of the Motor Synth is an octet of brushless motors tucked behind a plexiglass window. These (either through an electromagnetic pickup or something slightly more clever) produce a tone, giving the Motor Synth four-note polyphony with two voices per key. On top of these motors are reflective optical discs sensed with infrared detectors. These are mixed as harmonics to the fundamental frequency. The result? Well, they got an endorsement from [Jean-Michel Jarre] at Superbooth earlier this month (see video below). That’s pretty impressive. Continue reading “The Motor Synth Is What You Get When You Forget Hammond Organs Exist”

Eurorack Synth Module Runs On ESP32

The ESP32 is well known for both its wireless communication abilities, as well as the serious amount of processing power it possesses for a microcontroller platform. [Robert Manzke] has leveraged the hardware to produce a Eurorack audio synthesis platform with some serious capabilities.

Starting out as a benchmarking project, [Robert] combined the ESP32 with an WM8731 CODEC chip to handle audio, and an MCP3208 analog-to-digital converter. This gives the platform stereo audio, and the ability to handle eight control-voltage inputs.

The resulting hardware came together into what [Robert] calls the CTAG Strämpler. It’s a sampling-based synthesizer, with a wide feature set for some serious sonic fun. On top of all the usual bells and whistles, it features the ability to connect to the freesound.org database over the Internet, thanks to the ESP’s WiFi connection. This means that new samples can be pulled directly into the synth through its LCD screen interface.

With the amount of power and peripherals packed into the ESP32, it was only a matter of time before we saw it used in some truly impressive audio projects. It’s got the grunt to do some pretty impressive gaming, too. Video after the break.

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The Rhysonic Wheel Automates Live Music

Making waves in the music world is getting harder. Almost anyone who has access to the internet also has access to a few guitars and maybe knows a drummer or can program a drum machine. With all that competition it can be difficult to stand out. Rather than go with a typical band setup or self-producing mediocre rap tracks, though, you could build your own unique musical instrument from scratch and use it to make your music, and your live performances, one-of-a-kind.

[Pete O’Connell]’s instrument is known as the Rhysonic Wheel, which he created over the course of a year in his garage. The device consists of several wheels, all driven at the same speed and with a common shaft. At different locations on each of the wheels, there are pieces of either metal or rubber attached to strings. The metal and rubber bits fling around and can strike various other instruments at specified intervals. [Pete O’Connell] uses them to hit a series of percussion instruments, a set of bells, and even to play a guitar later on in the performance.

While it looks somewhat dangerous, we think that it adds a level of excitement to an already talented musical performance. After all, in skilled hands, any number of things can be used to create an engaging and unparalleled musical performance with all kinds of sounds most of us have never heard before.

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