If you say “home-made synthesizer” to someone, the mental image is probably a rat’s nest of wires making cranky mad-scientist noises then breaking down in a puff of smoke. Whilst this is cool in itself, it’s not a fair reflection of what the music DIY scene is today. A synth from a kit can sound as good as- and cost far less than- the equivalent ready-made unit, and you don’t need any serious electronic knowledge to have a go. So far in 2015 I’ve managed to make two units which not only worked first time but have proved to be musically useful; proper synthesizers rather than novelty noise-makers.
A bit of background: In 2013 I bought my first kit- a drum machine from Standuino in the Czech Republic, now operating as Bastl Instruments.
It was a bit of a problematic build for me (for the sake of brevity I won’t go into detail about it) and with hindsight it was probably a case of me trying to run before I could walk. So I went right back to basics and built the fuzzbox you see next to it. (this time from Pedal Parts UK). Something easy like a guitar pedal is definitely recommended as a starting point; if you make mistakes, they’re generally easy and cheap to fix! Despite some wonky wiring, the fuzz continues to work, and is in regular use.
I wanted a bigger challenge for the next project and decided my “skills” had improved enough to try a synth. I was already familiar with the French company Mutable Instruments through owning a Shruthi-1, however I’d bought mine pre-built, and had always felt a bit guilty that I hadn’t soldered one myself. At the time, the company were scaling back their DIY line (although the classic Shruthi kit is still available today) and had a sale on unpopulated boards. This would mean sourcing all the remaining components, a further step into full electronic geek-dom. In actual fact, I found the self-sourcing quite fun, mainly due to the fact that it meant multiple parcels turning up (let’s face it, getting a parcel is always exciting). There were certain small inconsistencies, like the fact that I am still waiting for a knob cap to arrive 4 months after finishing the project – this sort of thing is par for the course, and a good argument for ordering a full kit wherever possible. The only moment of doubt came when I powered on the finished device and the screen was blank- simple solution: turn down the contrast trimmer.
So with the Shruthi complete and sounding great, I started looking into new projects which I wouldn’t have dared to attempt previously. I ended up getting the boards and parts for the Sonic Potions LXR Digital Drum Synth. I took more photographs of the build this time around, so you can see the progress below.
I finished the whole build in a single day, which was much faster than the previous kit: the extra soldering experience probably had a lot to do with it (not to mention longer daylight hours!). No contrast difficulties this time around, as it uses a fancy OLED screen, but I did have an awful moment when I first connected it to a mixer and it produced a horrible static-interference type noise. Turned out the power supply wasn’t giving it enough amperage – when I located the right supply the digital noise instantly became pristine digital drums!
Julian Schmidt from Sonic Potions says “A machine you’ve built is a machine you love!” I agree- and would add that building kits helps to de-mystify what’s going on under the hood, so “a machine you’ve built is a machine you have more chance of fixing if it goes wrong!” There’s also the fact that both Sonic Potions and Mutable Instruments designs are Open Source, which means if you want to hack the source code or check out the schematics, everything is freely available. I think this concept is extremely forward-thinking, not to mention generous. Having said that, I’ve got work to do before I can hack any firmware myself!
Finally I should add that my success in building these kits has everything to do with the clear step-by-step instructions provided by the manufacturers. It’s basically grown-up Airfix, but with the distinct advantage of not having to wait for the glue to dry.
Next time: CASES.