This Ukulele Does Chiptunes, and Not Just Because It’s Made Out Of a Game Boy

When you think about singer-songwriters, the name Bob Dylan might come to your mind. You might think about Jeff Buckley, you might think about Hank Williams, Springsteen, David Bowie, or Prince. You’d be wrong. The greatest singer-songwriter of all time is Tiny Tim, the guy who looks like Weird Al traveled in time and did a cameo in Baker-era Doctor Who. Tiny Tim had the voice of an angel, because Mammon and Belial were angels too, I guess. Tiny Tim is also the inspiration behind the current resurgence of the ukulele, the one thing keeping the stringed instrument industry alive today.

Even though Tiny Tim passed in 1996, he would have loved to see this project that brings the ukulele into the late 20th century. It’s a Game Boy, DMG-01, transformed into a playable musical instrument. It’s a functional uke, but it also has electronics to turn this into a chiptune machine.

The first goal of this project was to build a functional ukulele out of a Game Boy case. This was simple enough — the neck was 3D printed, the bridge was screwed in, and the case of the Game Boy was reinforced with some PCB material. So far, this is nothing new; you can get a model for a 3D printed ukulele on Thingiverse.

The second goal of this project was to make this ukulele into a chiptune machine. This means designing a pickup for the strings, and since these are nylon you’re not going to do a magnetic pickup on a ukulele. The first solution was an IR reflectance sensor, which worked but had too high of a power draw. The better solution was a standard flex pressure sensor, which worked well enough. This signal is distorted into a square wave that gives a surprisingly Game Boy-like sound. You can check out the video demo below.

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Tiptoe Through the Tulips in No Time With Ukule-LED

Take it from someone who has played at the guitar for over 20 years: reading sheet music can be a big stumbling block to musical enjoyment. Playing by ear is somewhat unreliable, tablature only works well if you’re already familiar with the tune and tempo, and pulling melody from chord charts is like weaving fiction from the dictionary. A lot can be said for knowing basic chord formations, but it can be difficult get your fingers to mimic what you see on the page, the screen, or someone else’s fretboard. Enter Ukule-LED, a learning tool and all-around cool project by [Raghav and Jeff] at Cornell.

Ukule-LED uses 16 NeoPixels across the first four positions of the fretboard to teach chord positions. All 16 NeoPixels are connected in series to a single pin on an ATMega1284P, which sits on a board mounted to the bottom of the uke along with power and serial. [Raghav and Jeff] set the NeoPixels below the surface so as not to interrupt playability. The uke can operate in either of two modes, ‘play’, and ‘practice’. In ‘play’ mode, the user feeds it a text file representing a song’s chords, tempo, and time signature. The LEDs show the chord changes in real-time, like a karaoke teleprompter for fingers. In ‘practice’ mode, the user enters a chord through the CLI, and the lights hold steady until they get a new assignment. Knowing which fingers to use where is up to the user.

To add another layer of learning, major chords alight in green, minor chords in red, and 7th chords in blue. These are the currently supported chord types, but the project was built with open, highly extendable Python sorcery available for download and subsequent tinkering. Go on tour after the break.

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