Check out these amazing DIY controllers people made with OpenDeck

You’ve got plenty of off-the-shelf controllers – but what if you want something that’s unique to you? OpenDeck is an affordable, young, Arduino-powered controller platform for DIYers, and it’s starting to produce some jaw-dropping results.

There was a time when you needed to build your own stuff to add custom controls to synths and computers, sourcing joysticks and knobs and buttons and whatnot yourself. Doepfer’s Pocket Electronic platform spawned tons of weird and wonderful stuff. But then a lot of people found they were satisfied with a growing assortment of off-the-shelf generic and software-specific controllers, including those from the likes of Ableton, Native Instruments, Novation, and Akai.

But a funny thing happened at the same time. Just as economies of scale and improved microcontroller and development platforms have aided big manufacturers in the intervening years, DIY platforms are getting smarter and easier, too.

Enter OpenDeck. It’s what you’d expect from a current generation platform for gear makers. It supports class-compliant MIDI over USB, but also runs standalone. You can configure it via Web interface. You can plug in buttons and encoders and pots and other inputs and LEDs – but also add displays. You have tons of I/O – 32-64 ins, and 48 outs. But it’s all based on the familiar, friendly Arduino platform – and runs on Arduino and Teensy boards in addition to a custom OpenDeck board.

You get an easy platform that supports all the I/O you need and isn’t hard to code – leaving you to focus on hardware. And it runs on an existing platform rather than forcing you to learn something new.

I’ll take a look at it soon. Because it’s built around MIDI, OpenDeck looks ideal for controller applications, though other solutions now address audio, too.

But platform aside, look how many cool things people are starting to build. With so many stage rigs getting standardized (yawn), it’s nice to see this sort of weird variety … and people who have serious craft. (At least the rest of us can sigh and wish we were this handy, right?)


Bergamot is an all-custom touchscreen MIDI controller for DJing:

The very nice-looking OpenDeck custom board is US$149. But you can also load this on much cheaper Arduino boards if you want to give it a test drive or start prototyping before you spring for the full board – and you can even buy pre-configured Arduinos to save yourself some time. (Some of the other boards are also more form efficient if you’re willing to do some additional work designing a board around it.)

Sensimidia, for Croatian dub act “Homegrown Sound.”

Tannin and Ceylon, two MIDI controllers.

Morten Berthelsen built this Elektron Analog controller.

Elektron’s Octatrack gets a custom controller … and foot pedals, too. By Anthony Vogt.

OpenDeck also features open source firmware under a GPLv3 license.

GitHub project page including full feature set (lots of nice stuff)

Here’s the underlying platform itself:

OpenDeck’s own custom hardware – though if this is overkill, various Arduino/Teensy variants work, too.

Configuration via Web interface.

Project site:

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The guts of Tracktion are now open source for devs to make new stuff

Game developers have Unreal Engine and Unity Engine. Well, now it’s audio’s turn. Tracktion Engine is an open source engine based on the guts of a major DAW, but created as a building block developers can use for all sorts of new music and audio tools.

You can new music apps not only for Windows, Mac, and Linux (including embedded platforms like Raspberry Pi), but iOS and Android, too. And while developers might go create their own DAW, they might also build other creative tools for performance and production.

The tutorials section already includes examples for simple playback, independent manipulation of pitch and time (meaning you could conceivably turn this into your own DJ deck), and a step sequencer.

We’ve had an open source DAW for years – Ardour. But this is something different – it’s clear the developers have created this with the intention of producing a reusable engine for other things, rather than just dumping the whole codebase for an entire DAW.

Okay, my Unreal and Unity examples are a little optimistic – those are friendly to hobbyists and first-time game designers. Tracktion Engine definitely needs you to be a competent C++ programmer.

But the entire engine is delivered as a JUCE module, meaning you can drop it into an existing project. JUCE has rapidly become the go-to for reasonably painless C++ development of audio tools across plug-ins and operating systems and mobile devices. It’s huge that this is available in JUCE.

Even if you’re not a developer, you should still care about this news. It could be a sign that we’ll see more rapid development that allows music loving developers to try out new ideas, both in software and in hardware with JUCE-powered software under the hood. And I think with this idea out there, if it doesn’t deliver, it may spur someone else to try the same notion.

I’ll be really interested to hear if developers find this is practical in use, but here’s what they’re promising developers will be able to use from their engine:

A wide range of supported platforms (Windows, macOS, Linux, Raspberry Pi, iOS and Android)
Tempo, key and time-signature curves
Fast audio file playback via memory mapping
Audio editing including time-stretching and pitch shifting
MIDI with quantisation, groove, MPE and pattern generation
Built-in and external plugin support for all the major formats
Parameter adjustments with automation curves or algorithmic modifiers
Modular plugin patching Racks
Recording with punch, overdub and loop modes along with comp editing
External control surface support
Fully customizable rendering of arrangements

The licensing is also stunningly generous. The code is under a GPLv3 license – meaning if you’re making a GPLv3 project (including artists doing that), you can freely use the open source license.

But even commercial licensing is wide open. Educational projects get forum support and have no revenue limit whatsoever. (I hope that’s a cue to academic institutions to open up some of their licensing, too.)

Personal projects are free, too, with revenue up to US$50k. (Not to burst anyone’s bubble, but many small developers are below that threshold.)

For $35/mo, with a minimum 12 month commitment, “indie” developers can make up to $200k. Enterprise licensing requires getting in touch, and then offers premium support and the ability to remove branding. They promise paid licenses by next month.

Check out their code and the Tracktion Engine page:

I think a lot of people will be excited about this, enough so that … well, it’s been a long time. Let’s Ballmer this.

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Powerful SURGE synth for Mac and Windows is now free

Vember Audio’s Surge synth could be an ideal choice for an older machine or a tight budget – with deep modulation and loads of wavetables, now free and open source.

And that really means open source: Surge gets a GPL v3 license, which could also make this the basis of other projects.

People are asking for this a lot – “just open source it.” But that can be a lot of work, often prohibitively so. So it’s impressive to see source code dumped on GitHub.

And Surge is a deep synth, even if last updated in 2008. You get an intensive modulation architecture, nearly 200 wavetables, and a bunch of effects (including vocoder and rotary speaker). Plus it’s already 64-bit, so even though it’s a decade old, it’ll play reasonably nicely on newer machines.

Inside the modulation engine.



Synthesis method: Subtractive hybrid
Each patch contain two ‘scenes’ which are separate instances of the entire synthesis engine (except effects) that can be used for layering or split patches.
Quick category-based patch-browser
Future proof, comes as both a 32 & 64-bit VST plugin (Windows PC)
Universal Binary for both VST and AU (Mac)

Factory sounds

1010 patches
183 wavetables


3 oscillators/voice
8 versatile oscillator algorithms: Classic, Sine, Wavetable, Window, FM2, FM3, S/H Noise and Audio-input
The classic oscillator is a morphable pulse/saw/dualsaw oscillator with a sub-oscillator and self-sync.
The FM2/FM3 oscillators consists of a 1 carrier with 2/3 modulators and various options.
Most algorithms (except FM2, FM3, Sine and Audio-input) offer up to 16-voice unison at the oscillator level.
Oscillator FM/ringmodulation
Most oscillator algorithms (except FM2/FM3) are strictly band-limited yet still cover the entire audible spectrum, delivering a clear punchy yet clean sound.
Noise generator with variable spectrum.


Two filter-units with arrangeable in 8 different configurations
Feedback loop (number of variations inside the parenthesis)
Available filter-algorithms: LP12 (3), LP24 (3), LP24L (1-4 poles), HP12 (3), HP24 (3), BP (4), Notch (2), Comb (4), S&H
Filters can self-oscillate (with excitation) and respond amazingly fast to cutoff frequency changes.
Waveshaper (5 shapes)


12 LFO-units available to each voice (6 are running on each voice and 6 are shared for the scene)
DAHDSR envelope generators on every LFO-unit
7 deformable LFO-waveforms + 1 drawable/stepsequencer waveform
LFO1 allows envelope retriggering when used as stepsequencer
Extremely fast and flexible modulation routing. Almost every continuous parameter can be modulated.


8 effect units arranged as 2 inserts/scene, 2 sends and 2 master effects
10 top-quality algorithms: Delay, Reverb, Chorus, Phaser, EQ, Distortion, Conditioner (EQ, stereo-image control & limiter), Rotary speaker, Frequency shifter, Vocoder

Via Synthtopia.

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This software is like getting a modular inside your computer, for free

Modular synthesizers present some beautiful possibilities for sound design and composition. For constructing certain kinds of sounds, and certain automated rhythmic and melodic structures, they’re beautiful – and endure for a reason.

Now, that description could fit both software and hardware modulars. And of course, hardware has some inarguable, irreplaceable advantages. But the same things that make it great to work with can also be limiting. You can’t dynamically change patches without some plugging and replugging, you’re limited by what modules you’ve got bolted into a rack, and … oh yeah, apart from size and weight, these things cost money.

So let’s sing the praises of computers for a moment – because it’s great that we can choose either, or both.

Money alone is reason. I think anyone with a cheap-ass laptop and absolutely no cash should still get access to the joy of modular. Deeper pockets don’t mean more talent. And beyond that, there are advantages to working with environments that are dynamic, computerized, and even open and open source. That’s true enough whether you use them on their own or in conjunction with hardware.

Enter Automatonism, by Johan Eriksson.

It’s free, it’s open source, it’s a collection of modules built in Pure Data (Pd). That means you can run it on macOS, Windows, and Linux, on a laptop or on a Raspberry Pi, or even build patches you use in games and apps.

And while there are other free modular tools for computers, this one is uniquely hardware modular-like in its design — meaning it’s more approachable, and uses the signal flow and compositional conception from that gear. Commercial software from Native Instruments (REAKTOR Blocks) and Softube (Modular) have done that, and with great sound and prettier front panels, but this may be the most approachable free and open source solution. (And it runs everywhere Pd runs, including mobile platforms.)

Sure, you could build this yourself, but this saves loads of time.


You get 67 modules, covering all the basics (oscillators and filters and clocks and whatnot) and some nice advanced stuff (FM, granular delays, and so on).

The modules are coupled with easy-to-follow documentation for building your basic West Coast and East Coast synth patches, too. And the developer promises more modules are coming – or you can build your own, using Pd.

Crucially, you can also use all of this in real-time — whereas Pd normally is a glitchy mess while you’re patching. Johan proves that by doing weird, wonderful live patching performances:

If you know how to use Pd, this is all instantly useful – and even advanced users I’m sure will welcome it. But you really don’t need to know much about Pd.

The developer claims you don’t need to know anything, and includes easy instructions. But you’ll want to know something, as the first question on the video tells me. Let’s just solve this right now:

Q. I cannot get my cursor to change from the pointer finger to an arrow. I can drag modules and connect them but I can’t change any parameters. What am I missing?

A. That’s because Pure Data has two modes of operation: EDIT mode and PERFORMANCE mode. EDIT mode, the pointer finger, lets you drag stuff around and connect cables, while PERFORMANCE mode, the arrow, lets you interact with sliders and other GUI objects. Swap between the two easily under the EDIT menu in Pure Data or by shortcut cmd+e [ctrl-e Windows/Linux]

Now you’re ready!

This is also a bit like software-with-concept album, as the developer has also created a wild, ear-tickling IDM EP to go with it. This should give you an idea of the range of sounds possible with Automatonism; of course, your own musical idiom can be very different, if you like, using the same tools. I suspect some hardware lovers will listen to this and say “ah, that sounds like a computer, not warm analog gear.” To that, I say… first, I love Pd’s computer-ish character, and second, you can design sounds, process, mix, and master to make the end result sound like anything you want, anyway, if you know what you’re doing.

Johan took a pretty nerdy, Pd purist angle on this, and … I love it for what it is!

But this is truly one of the best things I’ve seen with Pd in a long time — and perhaps the best-documented project for the platform yet, full stop.

It’s definitely becoming part of my music toolkit. Have a look:

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MeeBlip couldn’t wait for Black Friday, so it’s Red November

The MeeBlip project reaches some important milestones this year – and we get to say thanks, and celebrate with a sale. And, really, why do that for one day called “Black Friday” or “Cyber Monday” or “Arbitrary Discount Saturday Dusk Hour”? Let’s just do it for the whole rest of the month.

MeeBlip quietly turned six years old this month. That’s special in that it marks a collaboration between CDM and creator James Grahame (Blipsonic). But it also means we’ve managed to build a line of end user synthesizers that are free and open source. This isn’t a kit, it isn’t a module, and you don’t have to know or care about code or circuits. It’s ready to play as an instrument. But you’re also investing in hardware whose designs are open and under open licenses.

Sharing knowledge is what built the world of electronic music. So we think you deserve at least some products you can learn from and adapt and make without having to ask permission.

Speaking of which, the other milestone this month is that we’ve posted all those design and code files to our GitHub site. There’s even an update with some tweaks to improve triode (and we’ll upgrade early adopters for the cost of a chip + postage):

But as I said, none of that has to matter. We want the MeeBlip to be for everybody – including people trying synth hardware for the first time.

And so we’ve also got everything on sale for the rest of the month. Red November means:

Free shipping to the USA and Canada. (Affordable shipping worldwide.)

The lowest pricing of the year for everything.

MeeBlip triode, the little synth with an analog filter and big bass sound (and new sub oscillator). $149.95 $129.95

BlipCase, the carrying and performance system for all your little music gear – MeeBlip, volcas, Roland Boutique, and more.
$79.95 $69.95
$229.95 $199.95 bundled with triode

And from our friends at independent Canadian maker iConnectivity, there’s the mio USB to MIDI interface, which adds MIDI to anything for just $29.95 on sale. (It’s an essential accessory for the MeeBlip, volcas, and loads of other synths.)

Shop now at, shipped direct

One friendly early adopter sent some shots of how much fits in the BlipCase - OP-1, volca, Roland Boutique TB-03, Kaossilator, Blue Mic, and oh yeah, MeeBlip, of course.

One friendly early adopter sent some shots of how much fits in the BlipCase – OP-1, volca, Roland Boutique TB-03, Kaossilator, Blue Mic, and oh yeah, MeeBlip, of course.

Now, if you do spot Cyber Monday / Black Friday deals, or if you’re collecting them, or offering them, do send them our way! Let’s spread synthesis.

Speaking of – here’s our friend Olivier with yet another wonderful jam:

Shop MeeBlip

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Free jazz – how to use Ableton Link sync with Pure Data patches

Effortless wireless sync everywhere has arrived with free software, too, thanks to Ableton’s new open source SDK. And it’s incredibly easy – enough so that anyone with even rudimentary patching skills will probably want to try this out.

Pure Data, the free and open source cousin of Max/MSP, looks ugly but does great stuff. And it’s worth checking out even if you use Max, because Pd is lightweight and runs on any platform – including Linux, Raspberry Pi, iOS, Android, and inside other software (like game engines). Now that it supports Link, you can make patches that run anywhere and then jam together with them.

Let’s walk you through it step by step and get you jamming.

1. Grab the latest copy of Pure Data.

Leave that dusty ancient aversion of Pd aside. Because the “vanilla” version of Pure Data is now up to date and lets you instantly install any external or library, it’s the only one you likely need. (Pd extended is no longer supported.)

You’ll find it direct from Pd (and Max) creator Miller Puckette:

2. Install the new Ableton Link external.

Here’s why you don’t need Pd extended any more – Deken is the awesome automatic external installer. (Think of it as a package manager for Pd.)

You’ll find the installer at Help > Find externals…

Type in abl_link~ in the search box.

Click the top choice (the one that isn’t grayed). A dialog box asks if you want to install to the Pd folder inside your library. Choose yes.

Now, you can use the abl_link~ external in any Pd patch. (It installed to a path Pd searches for the active user.)


3. Get some help

Create a new Object. Type abl_link~ into the Object box. If you don’t make any typos, you’ll see the Object box get a solid rectangular outline and inlet and outlets. Right-click (ctrl-click) on the Object and choose Help to bring up the external’s help file.

Read and look around. You’ll already see tempo and beat information and the like – that’s what Pd is generating internally and sending to any other Link-enabled apps on your network.

Now, this help file will be most interesting if something else on the wifi network supporting Link – like Ableton Live, or an iPad app, or Reason – is running. So go ahead and do that. Tick the Connect box, and now if you change tempo in one of those other apps, you’ll see the tempo and beat information change here, too.

Notice that you’ve got all the same information you have in, say, Ableton Live. You can see how many other apps are connected via Link. You can see the current tempo in bpm. You can see beats. And you get more precise data you can use in your own patches.


4. Use that tempo information

Now you’ll need something to do with this info. The “step” information out that first outlet is the easiest to use. So for instance, you could feed that into a step sequencer — connect the bang output so you send a bang every quarter note (in 4/4), for instance, or connect to a counter. That gives you beats, but for more precision you could do some maths on the “phase” information.

Here’s an incredibly stupid proof of concept, which creates a 4-step step sequencer synced to Link’s beats.


You can paste this into a text editor, save as “peterhasastupidexample.pd” or something like that, and open it in Pd.

#N canvas 0 22 486 396 10;
#X obj 63 22 abl_link~;
#X obj 63 81 sel 0 1 2 3;
#X obj 61 115 vsl 15 128 0 127 0 0 empty empty empty 0 -9 0 10 -262144
-1 -1 4500 1;
#X obj 84 115 vsl 15 128 0 127 0 0 empty empty empty 0 -9 0 10 -262144
-1 -1 6800 1;
#X obj 108 115 vsl 15 128 0 127 0 0 empty empty empty 0 -9 0 10 -262144
-1 -1 9200 1;
#X obj 131 115 vsl 15 128 0 127 0 0 empty empty empty 0 -9 0 10 -262144
-1 -1 6400 1;
#X obj 77 51 nbx 5 14 -1e+37 1e+37 0 0 empty empty empty 0 -8 0 10
-262144 -1 -1 2 256;
#X obj 69 298 osc~;
#X obj 68 271 mtof;
#X obj 69 318 *~ 0.5;
#X obj 59 348 dac~;
#X connect 0 0 1 0;
#X connect 0 0 6 0;
#X connect 1 0 2 0;
#X connect 1 1 3 0;
#X connect 1 2 4 0;
#X connect 1 3 5 0;
#X connect 2 0 8 0;
#X connect 3 0 8 0;
#X connect 4 0 8 0;
#X connect 5 0 8 0;
#X connect 7 0 9 0;
#X connect 8 0 7 0;
#X connect 9 0 10 0;
#X connect 9 0 10 1;

But obviously the idea will be to start thinking about sequencing and time in your patches. Wherever that’s relevant, jamming just got more interesting.

Plus, because Pd patches run on other devices, you could make a little jam chorus of phones or tablets or whatever.

Note that this is all under a GPL license. If you want to use this in a commercial app, you can – but you’ll have to request a license from Ableton. (I’m doing some more research into the full implications of that.)

5. Thank Peter Brinkmann.

Peter is the principle author of libpd and the creator of this external. (I was lucky enough to get to contribute to the libpd effort with him and … hope to continue contributing, somehow.)

You’ll find the code inside the libpd repository:

6. Reward yourself with a free reverb.

You read this whole article! You worked hard. Sit back, relax, and install a reverb external.

Type “freeverb” into that box, and you’ll find a lovely reverb you can use in your patches.

7. Let us know how you’re using this.

We’d love to know.

Now get jamming. You just need a nice, cozy set.

We got nothing to play. – I’ll tell you what we’re gonna do.

What? – Jazz Odyssey.

The post Free jazz – how to use Ableton Link sync with Pure Data patches appeared first on CDM Create Digital Music.

MeeBlip triode synth gets even bigger bass

Our MeeBlip synth is back. It’s still a tiny box you can add to a synth setup. It’s still just US$139.95. But now, it packs some improved features – and bigger-than-ever bass.

The most important thing I can tell you about this is, when you flip the “sub” switch on and enable its new third oscillator, its bass sound is simply enormous.

And that makes me really glad to share it with you, the latest fruits of CDM’s collaboration with engineer James Grahame — the brains behind MeeBlip.

James has selected some sounds I made with it. A few seconds into that first sound, I power up that sub oscillator. You’ll need something other than laptop speakers to hear.

We sold out of the Triode’s award-winning predecessor, the MeeBlip anode. So it’s been impossible to get a MeeBlip for a few months unless you were buying second-hand.

But if you missed out, you’ve got a second chance with Triode. And there are some improvements – apart from just the red color.

NEW sub oscillator
NEW red color
NEW 8 additional custom wavetables, for 28 in total
Tuned envelopes for more response
Front-panel glide
MIDI control of analog filter resonance

All of this digital grunge is combined with the same Twin-T analog filter from the anode. It’s a vintage filter design intended for things like guitar pedals, which adds aggressive resonance to your synth sound.

And you can now add Triode alongside other stuff you might find useful as a mobile musician – like our new BlipCase (which is designed to fit instruments like the Korg volca series), and an excellent driver-free USB MIDI interface.

When we started developing the MeeBlip project, there really weren’t compact MIDI synths you could get for this price. But every time I switch the MeeBlip on in my studio, I’m reminded of why I believe in this project. Apart from the fact that the MeeBlip remains open source hardware – every circuit, every line of code – it’s still an instrument with a personality all its own. There’s nothing dirty in quite the same way. And when you need a box to add something grimy and heavy on top of all the other wonderful toys we’ve got, it’s there for you.

In stock.

Shipping now, worldwide, direct from us – hand-tested by the engineer at his studio in Calgary, Canada.





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Jamming standard: Ableton is opening Link to everyone, starting today

Ableton Link is coming to desktops, and going completely open source. And that means the best tool for wireless sync and jamming is about to get a lot more popular.

On iOS and for Ableton Live users, Ableton Link is already a revelation. It allows any number of different apps to sync up with one another without fuss. That includes two more machines running Ableton Live, of course. But it could also be two apps on an iPad, or an iPhone and an iPad, or an iPad and a copy of Ableton Live. It completely changes live jamming: instead of needing tech and setup, you only need friends.

And this is what was unique about Ableton Link. Almost from day one, it was something that embraced developers outside Ableton’s own offices.

Well, that’s about to accelerate – a lot. Ableton Link goes from being a tool for Ableton Live that happens to have an iOS mobile SDK to a lot more. You can actually look at this as several things happening at once.

Ableton Link is desktop-ready. There’s now a complete desktop SDK available on GitHub, complete with example apps for Windows, macOS, and Linux.

Ableton Link is open source, free software. All the source code for Ableton Link is available on GitHub. (It’s written in C++.) It’s also liberally licensed, under a GPLv2 license – free as in freedom. And if you do want to build proprietary software, there’s a licensing option. (There’s more to discuss here for those of us in the free software community as far as license compatibility, but I’m also less worried about that precisely because I feel the team at Ableton are flexible enough to have a discussion if the legal license itself doesn’t answer a question.)

Meet "other platforms."

Meet “other platforms.”

There are desktop partners – Propellerhead, Cycling ’74, and Serato. Um, wow. Not only are these the developers of three flagship apps, but they each represent essential music making communities (the Reason, Max, and Serato DJ communities being some of the most passionate anywhere). And they mean the launch partnership covers three categories of tools (a music studio, a DIY music toolkit, and a DJ app).

And each has been involved in various kinds of innovation. Propellerhead have played a key role in the evolution of the ideas we have today about software as instruments, as well as how software could interoperate (with ReWire). Max/MSP has been an environment where new ideas in music software often emerge, and was even the playground used by the founders of Ableton before they founded Ableton. And Serato is notable because they helped contribute to how sync works in Live today. (The planned integration for The Bridge having failed is itself significant; I think these days, we’d be happy just to have simple sync and not worry about something so over-ambitious.)

Obviously, more will follow. I’m disappointed not to see Native Instruments here, for instance, as I think being involved is important to NI’s stated mission of pushing standards.

Serato joins Ableton. All photos courtesy Ableton.

Serato joins Ableton. All photos courtesy Ableton.

The iOS SDK has also been updated, and will continue to grow. There’s a 2.0 SDK, improved example apps, and of course Link is becoming a standard in iOS tools that use sync.

More platforms can follow. Now, here’s where things get interesting. Linux support means all kinds of unique platforms, like the Raspberry Pi. (The Link team has already tested a RasPi; I will, too, for sure.) That opens up sync-able hardware. And while there’s no official Android SDK or example apps, I’m certain we’ll see some intrepid Android developers make their own in a hurry – there’s already everything they need in the SDK.

Just making something open source doesn’t magically make stuff happen. (Trust me on this. Apart from using open source tools every single day, I’ve been involved in the management of both open source hardware and software.) So this isn’t a “build this and they will come” sort of deal. And that’s why I’m excited by the team at Ableton working on this. Not only did they create the best technology in the business for sync and jamming, but I trust them to manage this as an open source tool. Florian Goltz, with whom CDM spoke on background for this article, is now Link Open Source Project Owner, and Michaela Buergle remains Link Product Owner. (Michaela was I think one of the most eloquent speakers at Loop, which is important – making technology successful is not just an engineering problem, but a communication problem, as well.)


Now, having heaped that praise on Ableton, I think the next step is up to us. We have to build interesting apps with this tech, and find ways of playing with tools and with each other to make better music. I also hope those of us advocating open source software and education (cough, uh, like me) can find ways of helping people realize their own ideas for new tools with this platform.

For users:

For developers:

Find software:

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What it means that the MeeBlip synth is open source hardware


The MeeBlip synthesizer project is about to reach five years old. I feel this collaboration between me and engineer James Grahame has been one of the most important to me and to CDM. We haven’t talked so much about its open source side, though – and it’s time.

In five years, we’ve sold thousands of synths – most of them ready-to-play. The MeeBlip isn’t a board and some bag of parts, and it isn’t a kit. You don’t need a soldering iron; after our very first batch, you don’t even need a screwdriver. The MeeBlip is an instrument you can use right away, just like a lot of other instruments on the market.

But unlike those other instruments, the MeeBlip is open source hardware. Not just the firmware code, but the electronics design that makes it work are all available online and freely-licensed. We became, to my knowledge, the first ready-to-play musical hardware to be available in that form in any significant numbers.

That’s not to brag – we should actually consider whether we’re innovative, or whether we’re just plain crazy. Being end user open source hardware isn’t just unusual in music. It’s still a tough sell in hardware in general.

When we embraced the idea in 2010, we frankly didn’t know whether it would work. Now, I think we can have some new confidence – not just for us, but for anyone interested in the concept. So let’s talk about how open hardware works, why we think it will continue to work for the MeeBlip, and how people interested in making hardware can make it work for them.

There is a definition for open source hardware

The 2010 launch year for MeeBlip also saw the release of the Open Source Hardware Definition and the first big annual summit on the topic. I was lucky to get to know the two women who spear-headed making these things happen – Ayah Bdeir (founder of littleBits) and Alicia Gibb. You can read our interview with them from the time, which covers a lot of history.

The final definition is here:

And in fact, the Open Source Hardware Association has its annual summit tomorrow in Philadelphia. James is heads-down in Calgary, and me in Berlin, so we can’t make it – hope we can see a European satellite event soon:

There were a lot of significant folks contributing to that definition. Creative Commons, littleBits, MakerBot, SparkFun, Wired, Make, Arduino, Adafruit, the MIT Media Lab, NYU ITP, and Parallax are all onboard – and I see a lot of old NYC friends, the kinds of people (some of them now more famous, like Bre Pettis and Limor Fried). Like a lot of ideas, it helps to be in a scene; it made a big difference to me to get to know these people and talk to them about it.

What they did in the end was to closely follow a software definition, the Open Source Definition for Open Source Software built by Bruce Perens and the Debian.


MeeBlip has to do some work to be open source hardware

It’s been great to see the for-sale music technology field get more open. We’ve seen makers publishing schematics, releasing open source firmware, and more. But to be really open hardware, the standards are tougher.

Manufacturers who want to call themselves open source hardware have some work to do. The OSHW definition is a really tough definition, but we have done our best to understand and follow it. You should definitely read the whole definition if you’re interested, but here are the big points:
1. The design is public.
2. The source and documentation are public, and in a way that lets you modify it, using an all open source toolchain.
3. You can learn from that design, modify it, make the hardware yourself, and make and sell your own derivatives.
4. A license guarantees your rights to use the tool, without discriminating against how you use it or what you use it with. (That doesn’t come without obligations to the user, though; see below.)

We meet all those manufacturer obligations with the open source components of the MeeBlip, including the front panel. Enclosures are a separate problem, because you design an enclosure specific to the equipment used to manufacture it – yes, even a 3D printer doesn’t really solve that. (Think of it this way: you can’t make a recipe for cake without specifying what kind of cake.) So our enclosure is proprietary, as it’s specific to our manufacturer, but I’d actually love to see people make and share custom, fully open enclosure designs in the future.

There are two aspects to this. The one you probably know best is the license – for the MeeBlip, that includes the GPL v3 (for code) and Creative Commons BY-SA (for hardware designs and look). But the job of the manufacturer is to provide both the design/documentation and the license.

Think of it like building a public park: you need the actual park first, and then maybe a sign that explains to people how they are allowed to use it. As with that sign, just posting rules isn’t enough to make them magically happen. And as with a park, odds are other park-goers, not the police, will be the ones who are most effective at keeping each other to the rules.


Sharing is generous – but it has obligations, too

“Open source” is not a free-for-all, not an invitation to give away your work – not with software, and not with hardware. It’s a system that works when all the participants understand and act on their obligations.

For most people, this isn’t an issue. The whole point for us is to make the MeeBlip as accessible as possible. We hope you’ll poke around the code, even if you’re not a programmer. We hope you’ll look around the circuits and learn them.

Where your obligations come in are if you want to share something you’ve made.

The first and most important requirement is attribution. If you make something based on the MeeBlip, you have to tell people you’ve done so. And that should be a standard for anything we make, even before we get into licenses or legal obligations – this is what’s ethical. Folk singers will often introduce a song by saying who wrote it, or who taught it to them. In synthesis, we’re very often proud to be connected to those who came before.

The second obligation is to contribute to the open source process. This means that if you share something you’ve made with others, you need to make sure the license goes along with it. That way, derivative products give people the same freedoms the original does.

The licenses actually require you to do this, too. We use “copyleft” licenses for our code and our designs. This means that any derivative works have to have the same license. It doesn’t mean you can’t combine the MeeBlip with proprietary tools – the open source hardware definition actually says you’re free to use whatever you like! But if you make a new synth based on the MeeBlip, you need to share what you’ve changed. An easy way to do this is to simply “fork” the GitHub repository, as that also lets people see your changes versus the original, and makes it easy to link between versions.

We know a lot of this can be complicated. So, the easiest thing to do if you’re thinking of making something is simply to get in touch. We’d really enjoy the chance to talk to you about it, and we can probably help you through what might otherwise be a tricky process.

We will certainly enforce these rules. That doesn’t mean stopping anyone from making hardware – on the contrary, we want to help people make any derivatives correctly.

We recently encountered a synth builder who had made a copy of the MeeBlip anode hardware; the internal electronics had only minor modifications and the firmware and use were identical. In this case, we did point out that James’ engineering work wasn’t attributed, and we made ourselves available to help that builder follow the rules and follow these licensing requirements. That builder seems to have decided not to pursue that project, but we’re still available to them and anyone else who wants to do this. We are literally volunteering our time to help you do it, so it’s the very opposite of trying to stop anyone from modifying or producing derivatives of the MeeBlip.


How are we doin’?

I’m proud of the first five years of MeeBlip, but we’re only getting started exploring its open aspect. What we have seen is some immediate advantages to open source synthesizer hardware.

People are learning from the project. We’ve had many MeeBlip customers poke around in the code and schematics. We’ve been able to use those to answer questions, for the more technically minded. And people have used this exhaustive documentation to make some of their own projects.

People do fabricate their own synths. There are markets where we simply can’t afford to sell the MeeBlip. In those corners of the world, it can be cheaper and more efficient for people to make their own. Because the MeeBlip uses all standard parts and nothing unusual or proprietary, they’re free to do that, and a handful have. And meanwhile, in the rest of the world, we can usually provide a better value proposition than the DIY method – so this freedom doesn’t put us out of business.

Open source is peace of mind. In an age when so much is relegated to sales cycles and doomed to wind up in landfills, having open source hardware means you know a product becomes obsolete far less easily.

Openness can lead to modifications. We’ve even seen some firmware suggestions from users. We’ve people build their own, very often amazing, enclosures. Just having schematics available makes this easier.

But look beyond the box. Now, there’s a whole lot more to do. Giving musicians the freedom to modify their instruments is more than just providing documentation and licensing. They have to have the know-how to do this.

This has probably been our biggest failing, but also our greatest opportunity. The next stage is really applying that openness as a way of helping people learn more about electronics, code, and synthesis. Now that we’re smarter about the product side, I hope our next five years are more about the experience side – from the end user just learning to make sounds for the first time to those delving deeper into engineering and invention.

And don’t be afraid. Fear has I think been the greatest obstacle to open source hardware. It’s clearly not the right paradigm for every project. On the other hand, I think fears about clones and theft may overestimate the dangers – at least when it comes to music.

Ultimately, what allows an open project to be effective is a respect for sharing and originality. And that’s where I think the music community has something special. Provided we keep our brand clear, I’ve been struck by how willing musicians are to invest in buying direct from the maker, and recognizing designs that are original.

The reality is, no one is stopping clones with or without special licenses. Even many mid-sized manufacturers can’t afford intellectual property litigation; most can’t afford patent registration in the first place, which these days is often a vanity project.

But what we can do is build a community of people who care about music, about musical instrument design, and about sharing what they do. Those are the people who will value originality. They’re the ones who challenge us makers to be better.

The history of electronic musical instruments is rooted in sharing. Theremin’s designs inspired Bob Moog. How-to-build-your-own-Theremin articles inspired future synth builders – and engineers in many other fields, not just music. Learning from a filter design or a sound routing architecture became a 20th century analog to details of woodworking and drum heads in acoustic instruments from years before. Sharing how we make musical instruments is part of what makes culture.

You can get an anode right now. The limited edition white MeeBlip anode is still available – but we expect quantities are about to run out, now that summer is over.

Get yours from us direct:
Get MeeBlip anode Limited Edition

For a limited time, shipping is free (US/Canada) or reduced (US$9.95 worldwide with tracking info – customs may apply).

The post What it means that the MeeBlip synth is open source hardware appeared first on Create Digital Music.

ROLI, Makers of Seaboard Instrument, Just Bought The Leading C++ Audio Framework

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Here’s some important news that might impact you – even though you may never have heard of either the instrument maker or know anything about code libraries. Bear with us. But an experimental instrument builder and design shop just acquired the most popular framework used by audio developers, a set of free and open source gems.

The film explaining the announcement:

First, there’s ROLI. Now, to most of us in the music world, ROLI are the Dalston, London firm that make an alternative keyboard called the Seaboard – a sort of newer cousin to the Haken Continuum Fingerboard that uses foam that you press with your fingers to add expression and bend pitches. But ROLI wants you to think of them as a design shop focused on interaction. So they don’t just say “we’re going to go make weird instruments”; whether you buy the pitch or not, they say they want nothing less than to transform all human machine interaction.

And yes, there’s a film for that, too. (Those of you playing the startup drinking game, fair warning: the words “design” and “artisanal” appear in the opening moments, so you could wind up a bit unhealthy.)

ROLI isn’t a company forged in the mold of most music manufacturers. They’re most definitely a startup. They have an in-house chef and a Wellness Manager, even before they’re widely shipping their product. That’s in stark contrast to the steady growth rate of traditional music gear makers. (I’ve seen both Native Instruments and Ableton put up charts that show linear hiring over a period of many years. Many other makers were bootstrapped.) The difference: record US$12.8 million in round A funding. And as the Wall Street Journal noted at the time, that comes at a time when some big players (Roland) are seeing diminished sales.

With that additional funding, ROLI are being more aggressive. If it pays off, it could transform the industry. (And I’d say that’s true even – maybe especially if – they manage to use a musical instrument as a gateway to other non-musical markets.)

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So, they’re buying JUCE. JUCE is an enormous library that allows developers to easily build audio plug-ins (VST, VST3, AU, RTAS and AAX are supported), design user interfaces quickly with standard libraries, and handle audio tasks (MIDI, sound, and so on), networking, data, and other tasks with ease. A million lines of code and modular support for these features give those developers a robust toolkit of building blocks, saving them the chore of reinventing the wheel.

Just as importantly, the results can run across desktop and mobile platforms – OS X, Windows, Linux, iOS, and Android all work out of the box.

I couldn’t get solid stats in time for this story on how many people use JUCE, but it’s a lot. KORG, Pioneer, AKAI, and Arturia are just a few names associated with it. You almost certainly have used JUCE-powered software, whether you’re aware of it or not.

But ROLI aren’t just acquiring a nifty code toolkit for audio plug-in makers. JUCE’s capabilities cover a range of non-audio tasks, too, and include an innovative real-time C++ compiler. And they acquire not just the code, but its creator Julian Storer, who will become Head of Software Architecture for ROLI.

What does this mean for JUCE? Well, in the short term, it means more investment. Previously the work of Jules alone, a solitary genius of C++, JUCE will now have a team of people contributing, say ROLI. They will add staff to focus on developing the framework as Jules is named “Editor-in-Chief” of JUCE – a sort of project lead / curator for the tools. For that reason, it’s hard to see this as anything but good news for JUCE developers, for the time being. In fact, Jules is very clear about his ongoing role – and not much changes:

And for the foreseeable future, it’s still going to be me who either writes or approves every line of code that gets into the library. I’m hoping that within a couple of years we’ll have a team of brilliant coders who are all pumping out code that perfectly matches the quality and style of the JUCE codebase. But in the meantime, I’ll be guarding the repository with an iron fist, and nothing will be released until I’ve checked, cleaned and approved it myself. But even in the short-term, by having a team behind the scenes working on features, and with me acting as more of an “editor-in-chief” role to ensure that the code meets the required standard, we’ll be able to be a lot more productive without losing the consistency and style that is so important to JUCE’s success.

Read his full letter on the JUCE forum.

JUCE’s source is already open – most modules are covered by the GPL (v2 or v3, depending). You therefore pay only if you want to release closed-source code (or, given Apple’s restrictions, anything for iOS); commercial licenses are not expensive.

The murkier question is actually how this will evolve at ROLI. The word I heard was immediately “ecosystem.” In the Apple-centered tech world, it seems, everything needs to have an SDK – even new rubber keyboards – so ROLI may hope to please its investors with the move. And that makes some practical sense, too. In order to communicate with software instruments, the Seaboard needs to send high-resolution expression data; ROLI use System Exclusive MIDI. It’s now a no-brainer to wrap that directly into JUCE’s library in the hopes plug-in and software instrument makers bite and add support. What’s interesting about this is that it might skirt the usual chicken and egg problem – if adding compatibility is easy enough, instrument makers (always fans of curiosities anyway) may add compatibility before the Seaboard has a big installed base.

In fact, that in turn could be good for makers of other alternative instruments, too; ROLI are working on standardizing on methods for this kind of data.

Of course, that still depends on people liking the Seaboard instrument. And ROLI say their ambitions don’t stop at futuristic pianos. CEO/Founder Roland Lamb (that’s no relation to Roland the Japanese musical instrument company) paints a broader picture:

“At ROLI, our larger vision is to reshape interaction. To do that, we need to transform every technological link from where people create inputs, to where computers create outputs. That’s a tall order, but acquiring and investing in JUCE is our most significant step towards this challenging goal since we invented and developed the Seaboard.“

Now, I am frequently in public appearances making just this argument, that musical instrument interaction can lead to innovative design solutions in other areas. But in this case, I don’t know what it means. Whatever ROLI is working on beyond the Seaboard, we haven’t seen it. At least as far as JUCE, they’re building competency and assets that enable human/hardware communication in the software frameworks themselves. We’ll just have to see how that’s applied.

In coming weeks, I hope to look a little closer at how the Seaboard and other similar devices handle communication, and whether there’s a chance to make that area smarter for a variety of hardware. And I’ll also let you know what more we learn about ROLI and JUCE.

If you’re a developer, there are ongoing JUCE meetups planned, so you can check out the framework yourself or meet other existing users. These aren’t limited to London – Paris and Helsinki were recent tour stops, with Berlin (in Ableton HQ, no less) upcoming.

JUCE Meetup

JUCE site

JUCE Acquisition Press Release

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