Immer mal wieder tauchen interessante Projekte auf, die aber klar nur Selbstbau sind oder sie werden als voll aufgebautes Gerät angeboten, sind dann aber geschlossen und geheim. Hansy, kurz für Hybrid Analog Numeric Synth, stammt aus Frankreich und wird in beiden Varianten angeboten. Der Kopf hinter dem Projekt ist Gilles Lacaud aus Grenoble.
Das Konzept ist Open Source und somit offen und für jeden frei zugänglich. Damit sind dem künftigen Erbauer des Atmel-basierten Synthesizers sämtliche Hackversuche nicht nur streng erlaubt, man kann sich auch selbst versuchen, in den Bau von Synthesizern einzuarbeiten und selbst etwas ändern oder beitragen. Durch das verbaute OLED-Display erinnert Hansy mich an Korgs Minilogue, der auch die Schwingungsformen wie in einem Oszilloskop darin anzeigt. Letztere werden digital erzeugt und sind dadurch ziemlich vielfältig generierbar.
Hybrid im Namen deutet auf die digitalen und analogen Elemente hin: Zwei Oszillatoren, ein Filter und zwei LFOs sind an Bord. Dazu kommen drei ADSR-Hüllkuren und ein Arpeggiator. Gesteuert wird der Synthesizer komplett über drei MIDI-Buchsen.
Insgesamt kann Hansy duophon gespielt werden, also beide Oszillatoren getrennt. Fans des ARP Odyssey oder dem neueren Moog Sub 37 sollten hier mal einen Blick drauf werfen. Im Inneren arbeitet ein Atmel-Prozessor, wie sie auch Soulsby für ihre Geräte und Module verwendet, z. B. beim Oscitron.
Wer mal reinhören möchte, kann jetzt unten das Video starten. Wer noch mehr braucht, kann sich eine ganze Reihe von Demos und Songs mit Hansy auf YouTube ansehen.
Detaillierte Infos für potenzielle Hacker, wie die genaue Funktionsweise, den Source Code und Anleitungen findet ihr auf der Projektseite.
Synths: they’re fun to tweak and play. Modulars: they’re fun to patch. Arduinos: they’re fun to hack. Small things: they’re fun to carry around.
Now, what if you got all of those things at the same time?
That’s the thought behind the NS1nanosynth analog synthesizer. It’s either vying for the prize of tiniest modular synth ever, or most hackable tiny synth ever.
If you saw one from across the room, you might just assume this was just another little project synth. And lately, that category, while generating lots of decent oddities, hasn’t had something that could stick as a hit. But creator Davide Mancini of soundmachines really has a nifty idea with this one, and I do want to try it.
First, there’s the synth itself. Davide shows his Eurorack background with an analog synth with some decent specs. The components are all analog. There’s a VCO (saw core, thermally stabilized), 12 dB lowpass and bandpass filter, two LFOs, one loopable ADSR envelope, and a standard VCA, too. That means it’s already a decent synth to begin with.
It’s playable, too: there’s an onboard ribbon controller and loads of knobs.
And from there, you get an impressive number of modules crammed onto the board. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say this is the equivalent of a starter Eurorack. (Hmmm, we’re squeezing modulars everywhere. Earlier this week, you got it as $200 software that takes up no physical space; now you get similarly inexpensive modular hardware in the size of one 5U panel.)
There’s mixing, multiplying, adding, logic (AND / OR / NAND / NOT), analog division. There’s a sample and hold block. You’re not plugging jack cables into this, obviously: instead, you patch with jumper wires and header. With these, though, you have a very flexible modular synth rig with lots of sound design possibilities.
I’d be sold at that point, but Davide also put an Arduino Leonardo-compatible control board on here, too. The Leonardo, a higher-end Arduino variant, delivers USB connectivity, with features like HID (for emulating devices like keyboards, mice, and joysticks), and, via an additional software library, MIDI over USB. So while there aren’t MIDI jacks on this, you can use it with MIDI provided you’ve got a USB host.
And then you can do anything an Arduino can: you can do digital sound generation and processing, connect to other bits and bobs via wireless or wired connections, and so on.
Basically, you get analog synthesis combined with Arduino-compatible digital interfacing. And soundmachines promises more modules of their own to extend the system.
It’s all really cool. We’ll get to see more when we get our own unit in for testing. Pricing and availability TBA.
More wonderful and wacky stuff from this inventor:
In the last couple of weeks, we’ve gotten not just one, but two new synthesizers that piggy-back on the Arduino electronics platform. The result, then, is instruments that you can modify via Arduino code.
You’ll need an Arduino for each of these to work, so figure on adding some bucks to the purchase price. (I also recommend only using a real Arduino or Genuino; the clones I’ve found are often unreliable, and it’s better to support the developers of the platform.)
The miniATMEGATRON from Soulsby Synthesizers is especially appealing. It uses the same grungy, nicely lo-fi sound engine of the Atmegatron, but it’s in kit form. It’s a pretty easy kit to put together – I watched folks assembling them in Brno earlier this summer, and they’ll be accessible to anyone with some soldering experience (or some supervision).
Just built as-is, the miniATMEGATRON is fun, but not terribly useful – it just plays back some sequences. Where it gets interesting is if you either write your own code or, more likely, add the MIDI “hack.” This involves adding a MIDI port to the Arduino. Once you do that, this is a playable MIDI synth, complete with clock sync. And then there are some fun features – 16 PWM waveforms, an LFO with 16 waveforms of its own, modulation extras, and a digital filter with 15 algorithms. There’s also a “wavecrusher” and phaser and distortion effects. Basically, you get a lot of grungy digital fun in one package.
The code is open source, though this isn’t strictly speaking open source hardware (only the firmware is open).
If you want a ready-to-play instrument, the original Atmegatron is really your best bet, and comes in a beautiful case. It’s also still possible to modify using the friendly Arduino development environment. But the miniATMEGATRON is a steal for DIYers, and I suspect for them, the soldering and hacking will in fact be a selling point.
Tasty Chips, who made the analog Sawbench before, are back with an Arduino Piggyback Synthesizer. The concept as far as Arduino is the same as Soulsby’s: you use this board as an add-on to Arduino, and then use Arduino coding to hack your own custom functions. But the Tasty Chips route is analog, like the Sawbench. You get a fully-analog oscillator, an analog VCA, and low-pass resonant filter.
You can also do frequency modulation with sine or saw, controlled via mod wheel or MIDI. That’s a good thing, as otherwise I find a single oscillator setup can get a bit bland – analog or not.
What Tasty Chip have done that frankly I wish Soulsby had is add MIDI right on the board. In fact, you get both in and thru built in. As with the Soulsby, MIDI functionality leans on the Arduino. It’s 59€ without the Arduino, or bundled for 79€.
Both boards also rely on USB power, but with a proper adapter, you can plug into a wall socket, so these will stand on their own.
What I’m interested to see is if users find clever uses for the Arduino hacking aspect. You could certainly build novel applications into firmware by modifying the code. On the other hand, these shields block the ports on the Arduino, which means you can’t easily take advantage of Arduino’s ability to hook up knobs and switches and drive motors and the like. (Here, too, there’s an edge to Tasty Chip – they’ve added header to the top, and they haven’t used up all the connections on the Arduino, so if you keep the boards side by side, you can still, for instance, add your own knob.)
That said, at these prices, both boards provide some great musical fun and some easy hackability.
And both makers could provide some added stimulation with promised tutorials.
I’m curious what readers think and what you do with them if you pick them up. Do let us know.
Full disclosure: we of course make the MeeBlip, which means we’re thinking about these very questions a lot. (The MeeBlip isn’t Arduino-based, but it is hackable and open and built on the AVR platform with our own Assembly code, as you can check out on GitHub.)
Novation’s Launchpad Pro is here. It shares the same compact footprint as earlier Launchpads, but adds full color, pressure-sensitive pads, and MIDI inputs and outputs, plus the ability to operate without a computer. So, with other grids to choose from, where does this one fit?
The Launchpad line of controllers has always been about simplicity. Even when the original Launchpad was introduced, it did less than its nearest rival, the AKAI APC. But it was popular partly thanks to being simple, light, small, and affordable. That fits many users’ needs, and can be nicely combined with other hardware.
The Launchpad Pro keeps to that approach, but with more features to round it out as a production tool and performance controller. And it isn’t just for Ableton Live, either – it has a respectable feature set when used with other MIDI software and hardware. I’ve got one of the first units and have been carrying around using it. Let’s have a look.
First, here’s the amazing Thavius Beck performing with the instrument live:
Meet the Family
The Launchpad, drawing on a tradition established by the monome community, is all about triggering clips, making patterns, and playing melodic and drum instruments from a grid. Ableton Live support is standard, which makes setup easy – make sure you’ve updated Live 9, plug in, and go. But integration with other music and live visual software is possible, too. That includes Novation’s own iOS apps, FL Studio, Bitwig Studio, and Renoise, to name a few.
Novation’s current Launchpad lineup includes three models. All the latest models are driverless over USB, so they work with any OS (including iOS, with the proper adapters). The new models also all feature a bright orange rubber base mat to prevent slipping. Beyond that, the models:
Launchpad mini – the portable one. The ultra-compact model offers a basic 8×8 grid with yellow/red/green lighting and trigger keys. Those triggers are labeled A-G and 1-8 on the hardware, but included stickers let you mark up whatever assignments you want for your software of choice.
Launchpad – now RGB. The current Launchpad keeps the original basic Launchpad design – USB, grid, row of triggers on top, column of triggers on the side. But it adds RGB color for more visual feedback on what you’re controlling.
The current color “Launchpad” replaces the first two Launchpads. I still have original Launchpad serial number 7, and it holds up, but it’s not driverless like the other models. The Launchpad S is more compact and has some aesthetic and functional improvements, but you might now opt for the mini instead.
Compatibility/power on the different models is as follows:
Original Launchpad: Bus powered. OS X, Windows drivers. Not USB class-compliant, so you can’t use it with iOS – but there is actually a Linux driver contributed by the community, so you can use it with a Raspberry Pi.
Launchpad S, Launchpad mini: Bus powered. Driverless.
Current, color Launchpad and Launchpad Pro: Bus powered, but iOS doesn’t provide enough power, so you’ll need a hub. Driverless.
Launchpad Pro Form Factor
Remarkably, the Launchpad Pro isn’t much bigger than the original Launchpad – and it’s much smaller than Ableton’s Push. But it still does a lot.
The most important change is the pads. Unlike the rest of the Launchpad line, the Pro is the first and only model (so far) with velocity and pressure sensitivity for more expressive performances.
For 4×4 grids with larger pads, I’m partial to what Native Instruments has done with Maschine and Akai with Renaissance. On 8×8 grids, though, the nearest rival is certainly Ableton’s Push.
What’s impressive about the Launchpad Pro is consistency – both in the velocity range of each pad, and in getting the same results across the grid. That is, there’s a very solid range from minimum pressure to maximum pressure, and each pad performs similarly to each adjacent pad. As a keyboardist, I find this really satisfying – that is, once I switch the Launchpad Pro’s sensitivity to high. In its default setting, it will require more pressure – better if you just want consistent one-shots and don’t care as much about expressive melodic parts. For those of you who want to bang the Launchpad really hard, you can turn sensitivity down to low. At each of these three settings, you’ll still get a range of different velocities. ‘High’ is certainly comfortable to keyboardists and finger drummers with a lighter touch; ‘Medium’ is a more typical finger drumming setting, and ‘Low’ is exclusively for those who like to attack their hardware. (More on that below.)
Color feedback is bright and clear; I actually prefer the colors here to Maschine and Push. And now you do have additional triggers, which means a functions previously doubled on the right-hand side now have their own, dedicated controls.
The best part of the Launchpad Pro is its form factor. As on other recent Launchpads, the rubber mat keeps the controller in place when on a surface. You can really wail on the pads, and it won’t budge. Contrast that to Ableton’s solution on Push, which is adding a lot of weight to the device – something that’s nice when you’re in the studio, but not so nice when you put a device in your bag. The Launchpad Pro has some added weight, too, but not enough to give mobility a second thought.
Round the back, you’ll find a jack for a power adapter (for standalone operation, instead of powering via USB), USB, plus minijack breakouts for MIDI input and MIDI output to hardware.
There’s a new Setup button, depressed so you won’t accidentally hit it. It brings up a color-coded menu page for adjusting more settings:
Standalone layouts for MIDI operation
Aftertouch – polyphonic or channel aftertouch, pressure sensitivity
Pad lighting (internal or via MIDI)
There are five ways to use the Launchpad Pro with Ableton Live, and they’re clearly marked on the top with the mode buttons.
Session: This is the clip launching mode. It now benefits a lot from RGB feedback. Not only are the clips color-coded, but the new dedicated shortcuts on the bottom are, too. Those are now more convenient to access – no Shift needed. You can still trigger scenes with triggers on the right, but on the left you get new shortcuts for Undo/Redo, Delete, Quantise/Record Quantize, Duplicate, Double, and recording and click. (You can thank Push for adding this functionality to Ableton’s software.)
Session Mode also has stepped faders as on previous models. However, Novation has added the ability to use velocity to make transitions between values gradually. Switch to Volume, for instance, and hit the bottom pad hard to make a fader drop quickly, or gently to make it smoothly transition. (Sadly, you don’t get any software control of that, yet – Lemur-style physics, anyone?)
Note (Melodic): On melodic parts, you get a grid of notes. It’s spaced chromatically (half step) in rows, and by fourths in columns. You’ll see a C major scale marked in blue, with octaves in pink, so you could use this as a visual reference to stay in key. Now, that means there’s some overlap — to make a chromatic scale, you would actually use the 5×8 section on the right-hand side of the grid. You can’t change scale mappings as on Push – that’s the problem with lacking a display. But you can use Ableton’s MIDI Devices to do the same job (Pitch, Scale to transpose or restrict pitches).
Note (Drum): On Drum Racks, instead of the blue/pink display, the grid maps to loaded samples. As Ableton added with Push and Live 9.2, the entire 8×8 grid is usable. Unlike Push, though, there’s no step sequencing mode.
Device: Device mode maps to the active parameter controls for instruments, effects, and the like. As on the Session faders, you can use velocity to transition through values at different rates. Here, the Launchpad Pro is decidedly at a disadvantage versus Push, though: without a display, you don’t know what you’re controlling, and you’re likely to miss turning encoders. On the other hand, with the right performance setup, this could still be useful.
User: Novation introduced the idea of a ‘User’ page for easy mapping with Max for Live and the like, and it’s back here. (You will need to do your own patching to add velocity transitions between steps, but that’s possible.) I like it for another reason, too: here, notes are mapped chromatically by row in groups of four, then by major third vertically.
So, how does it compare? The upshot of all of this is a controller that’s much more limited than Push – and more like a traditional Launchpad.
Now, I tend to shift between doing quick improvisation on a controller and fine-tuned editing on the display with the mouse, so for me, this is fine.
But, then, if the Launchpad is all about performance, I miss some performance-oriented features even more. The absence of a step sequencer for melodic and drum tracks is frustrating. And I really miss having a Note Repeat feature, as found on Akai gear (old and new), Maschine, and with dedicated controls on Push. On melodic parts, that single grid I’m sure won’t work for everyone, either.
All of this calls out desperately for some Max for Live hacks (or other custom tools in other software), which I expect we’ll see coming soon. The affordability and simplicity of the Launchpad line seem to motivate hackers even more.
Real Controllers Have Curves
One side note, relevant to using the Launchpad Pro as a controller instrument. Making a pad expressive requires a combination of hardware sensing and firmware. In my ongoing tests, I’ve been impressed both anecdotally – and when measuring MIDI values as I play – by the hardware. There’s a large velocity range, you can hit different parts of the range accurately, and sensing from pad to pad is consistent.
The other adjustment is in software. I like setting everything to HIGH, but I got some more clarification from Novation about how the curves actually work – not just for velocity, but aftertouch, as well. (And note that you do get polyphonic aftertouch out of the Launchpad Pro – you just need hardware or software capable of receiving it.)
We designed the velocity curves first by identifying the smallest amount of pressure to trigger a pad and then selecting how hard we wanted to be hitting a pad without hurting fingers to get the max value (127). By
setting the top and bottom points in this way we created the maximum playable dynamic range.
Next we figured out where the main playable area of the curve lies and flattened out the curve in this range to make the majority of playing more controllable.
Finally we created a high curve and a low curve to suit different styles of playing and lighter or heavier handed players. These two curves were created by adjusting the main playable area upwards (HIGH – output is greater for the same velocity input) and downwards (LOW – output is lower for the same velocity input) while keeping the maximum and minimum points the same to maintain the full dynamic range.
The curves are remembered per layout so you can select the MEDIUM curve for use with a chromatic instrument and the HIGH curve for playing drums, for example.
For aftertouch we have three settings described by a threshold of LOW, MEDIUM or HIGH. To get the full range of control the user can choose the LOW setting which means the aftertouch can be triggered easily and has
the maximum range. Medium and high settings raise the threshold making it easier to play the pads without triggering aftertouch with a reduced range.
Custom MIDI and Standalone Operation
Here’s where things get interesting. Connected to your computer, the Launchpad has three MIDI ports in software: “Live” (when Live is running), “standalone,” and the physical MIDI DIN. So, you can easily intercept MIDI messages.
If you aren’t running Ableton Live, the Launchpad automatically switches to one of the default layouts. That makes it convenient for use with other software.
For instance, here’s a video with Logic Pro X:
Even better, connect the Launchpad Pro to power, and you can use these modes without even attaching a computer – just connect MIDI gear via the included minijack-to-DIN breakouts for the in and out ports.
There are four modes:
Note: This is the melodic layout. You can use the arrow buttons to move around the pitch grid; the other trigger shortcuts dim (though they’re still MIDI assignable if you choose). As it is in Live, pitch is mapped chromatically along the horizontal axis and in fourths along the vertical axis.
Drum: This is a little different than what you get in Live – and actually a little cooler. Each page is grouped into four 4×4 grids and color-coded, perfect for triggering drums and one-shot samples. You can navigate multiple pages, too.
Fader: Here, you get eight faders with velocity triggering. Unfortunately, this is the one mode without pages, which is disappointing. You can actually control 16 banks of 8 faders, one for each MIDI channel, but that requires swapping the active MIDI channel in the Setup page. This seems a missed opportunity, especially with color feedback for each page.
Programmer: This is an “advanced” mode for programming your own functionality.
You can watch them in action in Novation’s video:
Even in the default modes, though, there is room for hackability. All of the trigger buttons still send MIDI messages and respond to LED color messages, so even though they’re disabled by default, you could set up some custom mapping.
Again, it’s the step sequencer I’m sorry to see missing.
Most of what you’d probably want out of the Launchpad Pro can be accomplished using only MIDI. For instance, here they are using the Launchpad’s MIDI-addressable LEDs to make a custom light show:
But for more advanced interactions in standalone mode, you need access to the firmware. And there’s some good news. In a story we broke last week, the Launchpad Pro is set to be the most hackable commercial MIDI controller to date. A custom firmware API will let you use simple C code to produce your own functionality.
The current modes are already great, but the Launchpad Pro for me would become invaluable once it has a usable Note Repeat mode, a step sequencer, and perhaps an arpeggiator or chord generator. All of these are possible in the custom firmware, so now either I can build that myself the way I want or hope someone else does it.
The Launchpad Pro and Ableton’s flagship Push aren’t so much direct rivals as two devices that each serve a particular niche.
If you want a device that is so deeply integrated with Ableton Live that you don’t even have to look at the computer screen, Ableton Push has no match. Push is by far the most powerful studio device, and has the broadest feature set. And odds are, you’ll miss some of that on the Launchpad Pro. Push’s display, encoders, Note Repeat, touch strip, step sequencing, and flexible pitch layouts mean there’s no trouble differentiating it from the Launchpad Pro. Push is also a good choice for newcomers to Live, because unlike long-time users, they probably don’t already have a workflow with faderboxes and the like.
On the other hand, for all the same reasons, it’s possible Push is too much. It’s heavier. It’s bigger. And its street price is twice as expensive as the Launchpad Pro, with Push at $600 street (or a little less if you catch a sale), versus $300 street for the Novation. The fact that it does less also means it may fit a modular setup better – combining with your favorite fader box, for instance.
And on top of that, while the Push costs twice as much, it’s useless when disconnected from a computer. The Launchpad Pro is at home with Ableton Live, but it’s also a nice add-on to standalone synths and drum machines.
All of this gets still more interesting, potentially, as hackers get their hands on the hardware and the custom firmware API.
If you’re looking for a single piece of hardware that integrates all your workflows in Ableton Live, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Push. But if you’re mainly interested in a playable grid, in something that’s mobile, and something that works with other hardware, Launchpad Pro is easy purchase at half the price.
The only real downside is that some of the Launchpad Pro’s potential remains in the future. Filling in the gaps in sequencing, giving it more functionality with MIDI hardware, and adding deeper integration with Ableton Live and other hosts will all rely on the community of hackers giving it more to do. But for now, it’s the most mobile and playable grid on the market, and if past experience is a guide, that community will make it more valuable as it ages, not less.
What if there were a hacky, hackable handheld game platform – just for making noises?
That’s what the Arduino-powered, Lo-Fi SES is all about. It’s basically a little 8-bit music toy, with a control layout borrowed from Nintendo of the past, but expandable, hackable, and open. The sound is very grungy and digital, but it all appears easy to play.
The cutest touch: you expand the board with “cartridges,” add-ons that connect to the top to add functionality. “One”Final Sound Adventure” adds more sounds. “USB: A Link to the Hack” lets you program the board from your computer, using Arduino (since it’s built on that platform). “Smasher Bros” is basically adjustable analog distortion circuitry to add to the output.
Of course, as an instrument, there’s not a whole lot you can play here – it’s limited to the game-style controllers. And you’ll get more compositional use out of a Game Boy combined with nanoloop or LSDJ, or another other mobile chip music platform, as there isn’t onboard sequencing. But that said, this does look to be a really fun all-in-one, standalone device for people to play with – if you just want to plug in headphones. And for people looking for a chippy platform to hack, it could be a dream. (The creator suggests making a rumble pack, for instance!) Hope to get my hands on one; in the meantime, we can watch the video and catch some pics and sounds.
On Kickstarter, with basic support starting at US$5 and hardware at US$65. And while I wouldn’t count on a crowd-funded campaign to ship on time to get under the tree, they are saying they’ll ship in December as quickly as possible. Crowd funding ends on December 10.
If the album business model is collapsing, the frantic rush to everything else is at least interesting.
Hip hop as a genre, of course, came from a deconstruction and reconstruction of the album, from the early evolution of DJ techniques and sampling. So, the fact that Wu Tang is skipping the conventional release altogether is new, but it’s also connected to history.
Sure, plenty of artists have gone for remix contests and the like. What’s different in Wu Tang’s case is that this time, the debut track “So Many Detailz” from their Parent Advisory will head straight to Blend as raw session files.
Instead of downloading stems, Blend provides would-be remixers with Avid Pro Tools, Ableton Live, and Apple Logic Pro session formats, the exposed ingredients of the tracks.
Blend is a site and collaboration platform, backed by funding from NYC VC/startup seed Betaworks. (Tumblr, Airbnb, Groupon, and Twitter all saw Betaworks funding – this is one hot Silicon Alley property.) Blend uses Dropbox as the back end in order to manage multiple people manipulating session files in a variety of popular DAWs. Pro Tools, Live, and Logic are your three choices here, but FL Studio, Maschine, and GarageBand are supported, too, with more promised. We looked at GitHub earlier today for notation, but that tool was built for code (and text) first. Blend applies a similar approach to the more-complex DAW project format. As with GitHub, individual users “pull” projects and contribute them back again with changes – ideal for the solo workflow.
The site has so far been popular with nerdy electronic music producers – not so much hip hop. Think Moby and Prefuse73; Mad Zach even released an entire EP as a collaborative project.
But it seems Wu Tang is hopeful that this is a new direction – both for opening up hip hop to new audiences, and reshaping the industry.
Oliver Grant, aka Power, tells Blend that he hopes that their work will find new life: “you guys take it and spit it back on us,” he says. “We’re looking to be shocked, whether it’s EDM, or whatever version it is. It may be Switzerland, a guy who wouldn’t be on the hip hop sites, but he’s going to be on Blend, checking out what’s new.”
Here’s that track:
Harsh words for the industry from Grant find their way straight into the press release: “Fools got stuck, the industry got caught up with Napster and iTunes, fighting that shit. It’s like yo, ya dummy, y’all should’ve embraced them,” he says. “Cause that’s what they did eventually ending up doing, after they cried and all that bullshit. And then you would have been making dollars from day one.”
Eschewing a conventional interface, you interact with Shnth using this wooden case and sensors. But note the USB port: from there, Shnth can use a deceptively-powerful programming language to make an array of sounds. Images courtesy the developer.
Shnth is a digital synth in a wooden box with a surprisingly open-ended programming language. It’s like a lo-fi sonic computer, touched with your fingers via a handmade interface, and with sonic capabilities that can be re-programmed over USB.
And there’s a coloring book to go with it, too, with pictures of Max Mathews and microsound for you to sketch in. The drawings there, like the sounds that come out of its outputs, full of rough, digital edges and unexpected swoops and swirls of timbre, seem to encourage coloring outside the lines.
Peter Blasser of Baltimore is the synth’s creator and eccentric spokesperson. When he visited England earlier this year, the event was captured in a documentary. Those 25 minutes or so are just published, brimming with personality and wacky sounds.
Instrument designer Peter Blasser, of Ciat-Lonbarde and Shbobo,came England in March 2013. He delivered a workshop at the University of Huddersfield on his latest instrument, the Shnth, along with its programming language, SHLISP. The Shnth is an embedded, ARM-based, digital synth, with built-in analog control.
Peter Blasser shbobo.net — Peter’s digital side, and where you can get your own Shnth instrument. ciat-lonbarde.net — Peter’s analog side, and where you can get a multitude of his other instruments.
Event organized by Rodrigo Constanzo and supported by The University of Huddersfield. rodrigoconstanzo.com hud.ac.uk
Filmed by Angela Guyton angelaguyton.com
Underneath the hood, Shnth is an ARM-based digital synth with analog controls, an unpredictable, reprogrammable hybrid. As the creator puts it:
The Shnth, by Shbobo, is a computer music device that features the ARM Cortex M3 32 bit processor. It connects to host computer via USB, wherein the host computer (windows, linux, or macintosh) may read its “squish data” and create graphics and sound. Or, the Shnth itself is a standalone synthesizer, which may be programmed by host in the new language, “Shlisp”, by Shbobo. It is potentially self powered, by batteries, which are charged, again, via USB. A switch turns it on, and 16 bit sound comes out a standard stereo 3.5mm jack. Like a laptop; it is “handtop”. Four bars on top feel your fingers and two woven antennae below sense flesh, complimented by a battery of buttons. There are red lights.
The code documentation, like the synth, seem to embrace dada-like indeterminacy, but don’t be fooled: Mr. Blasser has actually built a pretty powerful DSP language and shoehorned it onto the low-cost ARM chip. The programming language is called shLISP, but has nothing to do with LISP – it’s really just a general purpose, atomic DSP language with lots of sound superpowers. You even get Csound- or SuperCollider-style opcodes – only with funny names. (Salsa? Horse? Slew? Swamp? Smoke? Sauce?)
Type in your code using free tools for Mac, Windows, or Linux, and then the synth inside runs the results on the ARM CORTEX M3 as Assembly code. That coaxes every last ounce of processing power out of the chip.
Exploiting the ARM, the resulting sounds can be quite beautiful, as if someone is stroking and plucking the digital chip itself. And past the funny names (butts and nuts?), I imagine some sound hackers could actually rather enjoy the code. Everyone else may simply load up some code and see what happens.
Light-up grids of buttons are nearly commonplace, but the BlipBox is something different: its array of lights is also a sensor, making it both X/Y controller and light-up grid. And it’s designed to be completely open — firmware, hardware, schematics and documentation are all fully GPL-licensed and open source.
For those of us who aren’t ninja coders, it’s also easy to customize, thanks to friendly software (pictured below) .k for making nifty interactive animations on its display and support for the artist-friendly Processing code environment. As the creators describe it, it’s three (three!) pieces of hardware in one:
a creative tool and musical instrument
a large, high definition x/y controller with visual feedback
a uniquely versatile MIDI and OSC controller
Lest you assume such oddities as this come only from non-musician hackers, these are designed by musicians. The project, built right in London, is available in fits and starts and stock becomes available, but a recent run was “Prices are GBP 140 for a complete ‘box with USB and MIDI interface, and 9v external power connection, in a black aluminium case with perspex side panels.” (To the team: apologies for giving you splashy publicity right as you have precisely none in stock. Readers, follow @cdmblogs on Twitter for updates. Or just follow their site:
What happens when you unleash a $140 or less, open source, monophonic, hackable synth with a funny name into the world? We’ve found out, and thanks to inventive users, it’s quite nice. Photo by Iain Browne, who also has a hilarious Tumblr.
We introduced the MeeBlip, an open source, hackable synthesizer, back in early November. Designed by James Grahame of Reflex Audio (and blog Retro Thing) and co-produced with CDM, we placed the hardware and software of the MeeBlip under an open source hardware license, and it was something of an experiment for us. Affordability was paramount – you can get everything you need for $140 US; less if you’re willing to do a little DIY work. Now, the MeeBlip has made its way out into the world and into hands other than just our own, and we’re thrilled to see what people are doing with it.
Here’s a full update on how the MeeBlip project has evolved, the lessons we’ve learned, and how people are assembling, modifying, and – most importantly – playing music with the instrument.
First, I think one of the lovelier things anyone has done is SineSquareSaw’s MeeBlip timelapse construction video – especially with that terrific soundtrack. (He tries the more ambitious route, soldering the DIY kit; we also offer Quick Build versions that require little more than some screws.)
See the really beautiful site, too, http://sinesquaresaw.com/. (We really had nothing to do with this site, so, wow — thanks!)
People Making MeeBlips
Folks building their own MeeBlips did some terrific timelapse video footage of their work as they went. First up, the DIY Kit – the one that actually requires soldering:
Marcos has a great timelapse up of the MeeBlip DIY, too, and writes, “Me he hecho un sinte de meeblip con los componentes pre-programados y una placa que he pedido por internet a canadá y la verdad es que el resultado es cojonudo.” I’ve now learned the word cojonudo.
Cane Creek, above, has a terrific soundtrack and video in his build, which demonstrates the Quick Build kit – no soldering. Since that process is quicker, it leaves him time to fiddle around with making some nice noises!
Michael Roebbeling, embarking on what he describes as his first electronics project ever, managed nonetheless to build a breathtakingly-pretty case for his MeeBlip. (To my mind, this is the best-looking MeeBlip on Earth, presently. Kudos, Michael!) He describes the whole process on his blog.
Because it’s open source, some people are making, not buying, their MeeBlips. It’s definitely the hard way to go (and not necessarily cheaper), but it’s nonetheless gratifying to see people braving it! Oh, and it makes for some really pretty circuit boards.
Charlie X rolled his own board, thanks to open source specs.
I think when people see kits and hear the words “open source” or “hackable,” they may imagine that this is just a project for tinkerers, not musicians. On the contrary, I think part of why James and I were enthusiastic about trying this at all was that we wanted to make something we could play, and that others could pick up and play — better.
Early videos, naturally, are generally of the “fiddling about” variety, but we have even had some genuine performances. Either way, you get to hear some noises.
gex0008 makes some deliciously raunchy, lo-fi videos with the Yamaha QY10, itself a quite-nice mobile Yamaha sequencer workstation. (Ever get the feeling that some of the most useful music gear is now discontinued?)
James Veeder does some extensive experimentation with the MeeBlip. He intentionally pushes it to some noisy places, but for the record, yes, the noise you hear when there aren’t any notes is USB power. (And James has what has to be the noisiest USB source I’ve ever heard! If you like this sort of thing, you can still hook up USB on the DIY kit; we’ve since switched to 9V and now offer that both on all currently-shipping MeeBlips and as a retrofit if you have a USB MeeBlip Quick Build and want to switch. See below…)
Johan Larsby got a MeeBlip and a Rock Band 3 “keytar” controller, so naturally put them together; see below. (As it happens, the Rock band keyboard has been a favorite for both James and myself working with the MeeBlip; the scale relates nicely.)
The one person I’ve seen really incorporate the MeeBlip into a performance is Chris Randall of Analog Industries / micronaut / Audio Damage. Here’s a first test of a MeeBlip and RE-201. Micronaut v MeeBlip by Chris Randall
(The noise issue heard in the sample we’ve resolved.)
Aside from writing a (fair, I think) review, he’s got the MeeBlip as part of a hardware rig that includes some much pricier gear. In this video, he creates a really gorgeous jam soloing on the MeeBlip via a Manta touch controller. Oh, and there’s an Apple II. Seriously.
As with the previous video, the Apple //e with Roland CMU-800R is in the driver’s seat. It is providing the drums with its internal sounds, and is controlling the modular synth, the Korg MS-20, and the Yamaha CS-5 (out of frame underneath the MS-20) via CV/Gate.
The main melody line that comes in after a bit is coming from a Reflex MeeBlip, which you can just see sitting on the desk. I’m controlling it with a Snyderphonics Manta controller.
Effects used: Roland RE-201 Space Echo, Eventide TimeFactor delay, Realistic Electronic Reverb delay, Audio Damage Eos reverb, Lexicon 300 reverb.
Chris incorporates this into a very nice and tidy performance rig, which in turn he used live in LA for a live PA set. Documentation:
The MeeBlip is somewhere on the resulting live set, which Chris has released. I’m not really concerned about where it is, though; at that point, I’m more interested in the music, which in this case I find terrific. I wish I could’ve seen it live.
This has honestly been what’s been most exciting to me, is the bigger picture beyond the MeeBlip. We’re seeing people embrace all sorts of affordable hardware. The MeeBlip has already been found alongside the Shruthi-1 from Mutable instruments, another open-leaning project. (While not open source hardware, the Shruthi does include open source firmware.)
However they happen to do it – MeeBlip or otherwise – the idea of more people using affordable synths, exploring synthesis, and getting a taste of customizing hardware and software or building their own makes me very happy indeed.
Of course, I’m also really happy to have a MeeBlip to play with in my own home. One recent example, for which I shared a patch via our “hipster preset storage” (i.e., writing with a pen): MeeBlip Landscape by peterkirn
Hint: adding effects is a good idea with this kind of synth. (It’s true of many vintage synths, as well.)
With any new launch, there will be some bumps and improvements. I told James early on that one goal I had was sharing everything we learned, knowing that there are CDM readers also working on making their own hardware and other creations. (And yes, we still want to support you, too.)
We’ve made some adjustments as we go, and – as planned – kept a steady diet of firmware updates:
Manufacturing start-up and shipping initially lagged sales, but MeeBlips are now shipping more quickly. James wrote a detailed post on the MeeBlip blog that’s a must-read if you’re mulling open-source hardware, but the short version is this: unanticipated high demand for the MeeBlip, case-machining delays, and slow, by-hand, micro-manufacturing meant we didn’t ship the MeeBlip as quickly as we would have liked. As the project is growing, though, we’re gradually improving the production workflow. It’s a good read if you’re making – well, anything, not just synths. See also Michael Una, Beep-It’s maker, and drum machine and guitar effect legend Roger Linn on DIY manufacture and its risks. It’s important to me to see the MeeBlip continue to grow, because it means we can do more with the project.
USB power sucks. USB power is too noisy in most of the ways you’d normally get it. Long story short: we’re switching to 9V power. Existing Quick Build MeeBlips can be easily retrofitted, DIY MeeBlips already have 9V power (as well as USB), and all currently-shipping MeeBlips now have 9V power.
But the next big improvement could come from you. Next on our plate is making it easier to use the open source software part of the MeeBlip, by providing tutorials for how to make firmware modifications yourself.
Of course, modding the MeeBlip isn’t at all essential to enjoying the thing. I’m equally excited about those features as I am the way in which people use the MeeBlip in their music.
And naturally, if you’re doing interesting things with synths – any synths – we’d love to hear about it.