PAiA 2 Transistor “Ribbon” Kit from Create Digital Media on Vimeo.

PAiA, the electronics kit creator beloved by music DIYers, has a fantastic, simple kit that’s likely to appeal to beginners and kit lovers alike. The kit is a “2-Transistor Ribbon Kit,” and it’s the basic circuit for ribbon controllers for music, of the sort found in commercial products like Kurzweil keyboards and invented by Paul Tanner as the “Tanner-in” — the same instrument used in the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.”

Having a kit that gives you a fundamental circuit, adaptable to a variety of projects, is cool already. But PAiA went further: they took the entire circuit, printed it on a business card, and used basic punch holes so you don’t eve have to solder. Just twist together connections, and you can make the “ribbon” itself using a pencil. (4B-8B softness gives you enough graphite for it to work really well; check your local art supply store.)

Best of all, the cost to you is nothing. Write “Free kit for CDM readers” on the back of a self-addressed & stamped envelope, send it to PAiA Corporation, and our friends there will send you a free kit:

PAiA Corporation
2201 North Lamar Boulevard, Suite 200
Austin, Texas 78705 USA

They’ll even send it internationally, minus parts (see complete details). You can include some spare change if you want to help them out.

What I really love about the kit is that it’s super portable and easy to use with people who have no electronics experience whatsoever. Soldering irons can scare people, and that means extra room for assembly and equipment that’s tough to access. With this kit, you can bring a little bag of parts and rock out with just about anyone. So if you’ve read about crazy projects on this site and never tried one yourself, this is a great way to start. And likewise, if you’re one of those people making crazy projects, you can use this kit in schools, clubs, parties, whatever. I took them along to our most recent Handmade Music night in New York, and the results were terrific. (People picked it up with almost no instruction; see the video at top. That’s my partner Jennifer as hand model and assistant instructor.) We hope to repeat that again in NYC, Chicago, and LA; if you do an event of your own, let us know.

Simple Electronic Kit #1: 2-Transistor Ribbon Kit [PAiA Corporation]
Assembly Instructions

All good fun, but what if you want to make a more serious ribbon controller? Good news:

  • You can plug the whole setup into a microcontroller like the Arduino and use it to do control stuff on a computer (including visuals as well as sound)
  • You can build a more robust ribbon by substituting magnetic tape (like a VHS tape); see this and other cool extra projects from PAiA
  • You can make the same circuit more robust by adding solder, of course.

And generally, you can use what you learn to experiment with other designs, or check out various experiments other folks have done on the Web with a better grounding in how the whole thing works. (The documentation from PAiA is terrific.) Stay tuned, a I hope to post some results of the ideas above, along with other variations, soon — send in any interesting projects.

The other good news is that PAiA Corporation is working very hard to recover from the loss of their founder, John Simonton. He was a real innovator and visionary, and it’s comforting to know his vision is living on in PAiA. One of the projects PAiA says they’re working on reviving is his “higher-end” ribbon controller project; PAiA’s Brad Martin tells us he’s working on getting the fabrication of the ribbon itself just right. (Once you get into the realm of real, reproducible quality, this stuff gets harder fast!) Stay tuned for more.

More construction photos and details:

Brad Martin writes with some more reflections on the project:

One of the neat things about the business card project is that it shows how a number of seminal applications can be reduced to impossibly basic means. In addition to the projects on the website, I’ve used exactly the same parts to build a three-channel color organ and a really effective control voltage generator. If you add a CdS photocell, you get light-sensitive CVs for theremin-like control of VCO, VCF, VCA, etc. Same two-transistor amplification stage. Goofy fun.

I think circuit bending is important. It allows artists to explore issues about the structure of music and its creation. It does agitate me to see people struggling with the limitations of bending: there is some poverty in making art with found articles. The /de minimis/ business card kits provide an elemental experience in taking control of the techniques of sound generation. That is also an important message, I think.