Ready to jump in, feet first, and make your own custom controller — even if you have no previous experience? David from Sound Tribe Sector 9, the genre-busting, Ableton live-using “electronica jam band”, writes in to share his adventures in the world of DIY music gear. His oversized hardware grid controller is a one-off custom version of the Monome controller (as seen here previously on CDM). It’s an impressive project, but believe it or not, it’s David’s first venture into DIY controllers. Along the way, he picked up a whole lot of great tips, including where to get quotes on custom machining for your project, and how to set up his double-sized Megamonome with Ableton Live.
Result: thanks to open source, hardware, he got exactly the controller he wanted. (Try doubling your favorite commercial keyboard from 88 keys to 176, by comparison!)
I’ve always had a desire to build my own MIDI controller, lurking at the midibox.org forums and almost ordering the Doepfer kits several times. I’ve filled folders full of sketches — everything from touchscreen controllers to knob and fader boxes. I spent 5 years studying industrial design before joining a band 10 years ago and hitting the road. The itch to design and create on my own gear, coupled with a hopeless affection for collecting gear, left me looking for a perfect project that I would actually use. (No offense, midibox people, but it seems most of the midiboxes I read about live in a shoebox on the shelf.]
I was excited to see Brian Crabtree, in a nod to open source, put up a handful of monome 40h logic boards for sale on his website. At $86 each, I bought 2.
I immediately started searching for lighted push button switches. Eight weeks later, I had memorized whole sections of electronic parts catalogs, called corporate headquarters to get free samples “for prototyping” (it worked) — everything I could do to find my switch. Unfortunately, on a mass-market, Jameco/Digikey level of availability, I couldn’t find the perfect musical switch. I wanted one that wasn’t too clicky, too far to push down, too small, too big, or even worse, $4.50 a piece.
I settled on a switch made by MEC, at five for a buck from a surplus site. They didn’t come with keycaps, so I planned to make them out of acrylic rod. I had started storing all the samples and pieces next to the logic boards in a shoe box.
Meanwhile, Brian leaked on the forums that his button pad manufacturer accidentally overran his order. He had extra. I pleaded my case and scored eight sets of 4×4 button pads. He even sold me some spare PCBs for the buttons; otherwise I would have needed to have three made for $99 from an online PCB manufacturer.
Logic board, button pads, PCBs, and 128 LEDs in hand, and it was time to solder. Yeah, right. I chickened out and traded concert tickets in exchange for an engineer friend doing it for me. It took him two hours; it looks like a robot did it.
Ah, the faceplate. The original monome 40h faceplate is 1/4″-thick machined aluminum, hand-finished, and clear-anodized. In another open source gesture, Brian sent me the dimensional drawing for the part, which he has also posted to the monome website. (The entire monome product is available on the monome website for hacking and modification.
After getting either quoted or laughed at by local machine shops for a one-off job with laser cut and tapped holes, a designer friend pointed out the website MFG.com. It’s kind of like an eBay for buyers and suppliers, where shops all over the world bid on jobs. I restricted my search to North America, put a price tag of $100 on the part, and posted my quote request. 110 shops looked at the job and eight bid, mostly around $300. Then K&M from Colorado bid $137, plus $45 for anodizing. Less than $200 for a one-off, custom 8 x 16 button faceplate, out of .25″ anodized aluminum? Sold.
$35 on eBay bought me hand-milled 1/8″ walnut, each piece of my enclosure cut to order by a industrial saw somewhere in Ohio.
I had spent:
$166 logic boards (2)
$146 buttons and pcbs
$35 wood for enclosure (1/8″ walnut cut to order)
$10 machine screws, leds and ribbon cable from surplus site
And I hadn’t actually done anything besides spend hours and hours on the internet. No soldering, cutting, silicone molding, or faceplate carving. Just placing emails and dealing with PayPal.
In one evening I sanded, glued, and clamped up the enclosure. Glad I remember something from college.
A few machine screws, and it was done.
The finished project is unbelievably versatile. Each logic board has a USB cable coming out of the back of the enclosure. The free Monomeserial application from the website lets me assign cable orientation, row/column offset, and OSC [OpenSoundControl] prefix for each unit. Each half of my 8×16 can run independent applications, or function as part of an 8×16 grid. I use the free application ChucK, running user-submitted code, to interface the unit with Ableton Live. Using Ableton ‘follow actions’, I can slice a sample into a chasing led sequence, traveling vertically or horizontally. My favorite app of the moment is a ‘Game of Life’ simulator, which generates midi note messages in looping polyrhythmic morphing cascades. One half of my box is going nuts, while the other half I can arm and record clips of the chaos. There’s new apps almost every week, almost all user submitted, free of charge. With OSC AND MIDI support, I don’t think my box is going to see the shelf for a long while. At least until Brian releases his 16×16. Who knows: maybe he’ll release it as a DIY kit.
Ed.: If you haven’t yet had your fill, we’ll be meeting with the brains behind the Monome so they can talk a little about their project. And I hope to catch up with the members of STS9 soon.
Thanks, David! I swear, we’ll get you soldering soon. If I can do it, as a completely not-handy klutz, you can. It’s zen, like knitting. Or maybe that’s just inhaling the fumes. -PK