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.

Two Monome brains, ready for DIY controller action.

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.

Like dumping open your Lego bucket: all the parts, ready to go.

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.

It helps to have solder-handy friends.

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.

Custom-machined faceplate, bought on the cheap thanks to competitive Internet bidding.

$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
$182 faceplate
$35 wood for enclosure (1/8″ walnut cut to order)
$10 machine screws, leds and ribbon cable from surplus site
$536 TOTAL.

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 doublemonome belly.

Done it Yourself: twice the Monomic goodness!

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

  • http://myspace.com/boeoeskaelstigen Leo

    Wow, really looks amazing! Good work.

  • bliss

    Very cool, man!

  • http://www.protoolerblog.com stiff

    Very nice man! I've been looking to build a controller myself but haven't really had the guts to do it yet. This inspires me.

  • Michael Una

    Awesome. That's a labor of love. How long did it take to complete this project, from beginning to end? I'm guessing at least 3 months, at the minimum.

    I'd also like to hear about the false starts and problematic aspects. There's no way this thing went smoothly from start to finish.

  • Joel

    Very inspiring.

    It looks great aswell!

  • http://www.corporation.tk corporation

    very very nice!

    didn't realize it was done by a member of sts9…

    i have a monome 40h coming to me in late april – i can't wait!

    that one is sooo rocking!

  • http://sts9.com dp

    -How long did it take to complete this project, from beginning to end? I’m guessing at least 3 months, at the minimum.

    91 days from buying the logic boards to posting pictures on the internet.

    -I’d also like to hear about the false starts and problematic aspects. There’s no way this thing went smoothly from start to finish.

    I went through an 'ordering samples' phase, buying 1-4 switches here and there to try them out. I called up the chain at snaptron and got boxes of 8 different kinds of membrane switches…not so musical. Once Brian sent the real-deal monome parts, all that digikey stuff paled in comparison.

    The faceplate was a big run-around as well…mfg.com was the big breakthrough there. emachineshop.com is a pretty straightforward alternative, but it uses pc-only software. i used the free google sketchup 6 to draw and render the enclosure and assembly. Measure three times, cut once, right?

    i guess i just loved the process so much, and had a good time putting on my make-believe designer cape late at night, that i didn't mind the time and the dead-ends. also, i think the professional -looking results are because i left the big tasks up to professionals…if i tried to hack that faceplate with a hole-punch i'm sure it wouldn't look as nice, ha!

  • http://tribe13.com DJ Maca Roots Tribe1

    Seen so many of your shows I can't count any more. Roman Villagrana and I have a DJ sound now called Tribe 13 Harmonic Iration Sound.

    I will try to build some thing like this for my DJ sampler thanks for the good vibes all these years. It has helped so many of us get where we are today.

    I can't wait to try this out as a VJ sampler too!

    myspace.com/macaroots

  • poopoo

    You can get some of the parts here….

    http://www.sparkfun.com/commerce/categories.php?c

    kinda expensive though.

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  • dp

    "You can get some of the parts here….

    http://www.sparkfun.com/commerce/categories.php?c

    kinda expensive though."

    actually, those button pads are about twice the size of the monome buttons. based on the same design, but much larger. see a comparison here:

    <a href="http://wiki.monome.org/view/PictureOfMonome_vs_sparkfunJpg

    ">

    the pcbs they sell also lack diodes which make sure each button press is discreet. see an explanation here:

  • dp

    whoops that didn't work…

    picture of button pads:
    http://wiki.monome.org/view/PictureOfMonome_vs_sp

    why to use a diode:
    http://www.dribin.org/dave/keyboard/one_html/

  • http://rooreynolds.com/ Roo Reynolds

    Wow. That is simply beautiful. As a proud and pleased 40h owner I'm looking at that going slightly green. Thank you for writing this process up, and congratulations on an amazing job well done.

  • http://www.podcomplex.com dan

    Great Work! Do you have any videos of you performing with your new controller?

  • voom

    Can't wait to see it on stage next tour (northwest!!)

  • http://www.myspace.com/thisisart this is art

    "i guess i just loved the process so much, and had a good time putting on my make-believe designer cape late at night, that i didn’t mind the time and the dead-ends." -david phipps

    awesome quote!! i just finished a book about deliberately creating [reality] that said "it is extremely beneficial for you to focus primarily on the way you feel while giving scant attention to the manifestations as they are unfolding"

    your quote hits pretty close to home on that one right there!

    -art

    ps thanks for signing my book again last week in nashville!

  • Toby

    Wow this is cool!!! I am looking for some company to help me program LED controller for my bedroom project. I don't have big budget so, I have not found the suitable company yet. I went through

    http://www.lunaraccents.com/applications-LED-auto

    http://www.lunaraccents.com/nav-custom-LED-lighti

    But it wasn't the right place for me.

  • Ted

    Cool! Can you assign a 3- or 4-note chord to each button, to duplicate the left-hand section of a Hammond S6 Chord organ?

    If this is possible, let me know. The 40h's are all gone, but maybe I will pick up a 100h when they come out.

    Awesome job!!

    Ted

  • http://www.myspace.com/jeffrey_collins Jeffrey Collins

    I was just checking out their website and it looks as if they are no longer going to be making or selling the controller. They only wanted to make so many. Which to me sucks…as I just find out about this today and have been wanting to make my own MIDI controller for a while…but I need bigger buttons as I want it to be percussion based.

  • david phipps

    hey jeffrey,

    brian just announced a 40h kit for probably less than $50! he's replacing the surface mount components with easily soldered ones…you could be breadboarding a 40h very soon!

    cheers dp

  • Anthony

    I would love to give this a try. Could you post the dimensional drwaings for the aluminum plate and box? I can be reached at the email below.

    Thanks,

    Anthony Palomba

    apalomba @ austin . rr . com

  • Max

    It looks like you didn't put a finish on the wood… am I wrong?

  • http://sts9.com dp

    hey anthony,

    when i get back into town i'll post my faceplate drawing. the original cad drawing for the 4oh is on the monome.org resource page.

    max,

    the photo was taken before i put a finish on the wood…i used an all natural sealant, left over from painting my daughter's crib. kelli from monome remarked that walnut is a good choice of wood, as the grain is tight and won't expand and contract too much around the faceplate.

    cheers

    dp

  • Paul Jacobs

    This project brings home some memories. My Dad had a few patents and one he had a dispute with was a game he called "Reverse-Eye". It was basically a much neater version of the well known game we now know as Othello. His prototype looked similar to your machined aluminum panel. He tediously milled each square. Then used polarized sliders in each square opening to represent black/white. Later he made an electronic one…

    So how did I land here? I play the Hammond s6. I've made a few thousand tape loops in my day and for the life of me I can't figure out why someone has never developed digitally controlled analog 'vibrating' tape heads with regenerative electrolytic-playdoe zooming across them at intense speeds…okay,i'll SI)

    …ffo 3Z

    … the answers iNside the 8-track to cassette converter

  • Jonny

    Hi dp… an amazing article, I just picked up an Akai MPD24, but if I knew that the monome existed I would've waited and got one. However, My question is, it looks really hard to assemble, isn't there anywhere I could pick up a built one?

    and also, can the monome be used like an akai MPD24 .. basically like a drum pad?

    Im also using live 6.0.7

    would love to know some info .

  • bb

    Do you have any video of it in action?

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  • MidiMan

    Wow! Is there a diagram of how to sotter it, or is it simple enough to figure out?

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  • Haley Bergstrom

    All of this looks great, you really know what your doing! How you deliver it on stage blows my mind. Come back to STL soon or I'll be back in Santa Cruz March and summer so maybe come play? oh and a little advice, next time you should keep your eyes on the keys rather than my eyes, you might mess up one of these days :)

  • http://www.mfgquote.com/pl/mfgquote/supplier/supplier_profile_public.cfm?j_id=0 KandMMachining

    Here is the updated link to K & M Machining's contact information.

    K&M

    We are running production lots of 20 parts in 8×8 and 8×16. $75 for an 8×8 and $115 for the 8×16. As soon as 20 orders are made I can get started on these.

  • James Y

    I'm trying to find K&M on mfg.com so I can link up for one of these orders…and am having a bad job…any help would be very much appreciated..

    James

  • http://www.virb.com/melt Sterling C

    the. shit.

  • Trevor

    Hey I was wondering what website you got your switches on?

  • marro

    nice piece!

    anyway, can someone give me a hint what kind of PCB should I buy and where I can get it? (international shipping only)

    oh, and guide to solder the PCB with the logicboard if you don't mind…

  • http://www.smokingbunny.co.uk Lewis G. Edwards

    i think with some more searching you could make the price much cheaper. i built the diy version of the model 64 monome. which is great and do have a nice case.

    But i do think that a little more searching and doing a lot of the work yourself would sav you around $150.

    I plan to finally do my own controller, so will see how my pricing goes.

    great job on the 128 monome though, love the faceplate…

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  • John

    I want a Monome where can i buy one please??