The Arduino Piano, as photographed here by neonarcade aka Aaron Rutledge, serves as a jumping off point for imagining the mobile music hardware machines of the future.

Marc “Nostromo” Resibois, aka “m.-.n,” lives the digital life of computers. The Belgian musician and hacker [@MySpace] is renowned as a Game Boy musician, as the inventor of legendary Nintendo tracker LittleGPTracker, and even has a day job as a programmer for VJ software maker Arkaos. But lately, his thoughts have turned to more traditional synthesis hardware – hardware that acts as tiny computers. Nothing is going to shake me from my love of computers, but that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in having what he describes sitting next to mine. Here’s what he imagines – and it’s a variation on a theme I think we’ll see a lot in the coming weeks and months here on CDM. And without giving away the punchline, that Nintendo DS is going to make another appearance.

I’ve always loved small, self-contained units. Because I’m a software guy, I’ve been developing music software on handheld consoles for years. I love these little guys. They are tiny, fairly powerful, and their physical interface gives you a good amount of control, leading to a growing stack of interesting applications.

However, recently, a couple of interesting projects started to emerge from the hardware side of things. That makes it possible to start dreaming about building your own little synth, even for people like me who can’t even deal with sticky tape.

My first hands-on with hardware was when I started fiddling with the Arduino piano. You might argue that once it’s built, it’s still software platform, but I really enjoy working on this bit of kit. The interaction is even more straightforward than game consoles: press a button, turn a knob, and get sound. Although it might seem limited compared to software synths, it also has dimensions that a lot of virtual instruments lack. I’ll call these qualities depth and exclusivity.

Nintendo apps like Johan Kotlinki’s LSDJ (and LittleGPTracker, which it inspired) have earned love for its accessibility, and, ironically in this day and age, its limitations. The very compactness of the Nintendo Game Boy and the restrictions on sound and arrangement are part of its appeal. Here, The Hollow Organ performs with LSDJ in Tomakomai, Japan. Photo: notariety.

Depth: When you turn a pot on this hardware, you’re really in control. You may argue there’s a lot of controllers out there, but compared to the 1024-level resolution of the Arduino, standard MIDI Control Changes turn out to be bogus for smoothly controlling parameters. Just playing with the default FM patch of the Arduino piano makes it obvious. [Ed.: Of course, I will add there are ways around this – higher-resolution MIDI control messages, plug-in automation, OpenSoundControl, and audio-rate / audio-stream control, to mention a few, not to mention even simple interpolation of lower-resolution MIDI controll messages. But then, we’re talking a very, very cheap piece of hardware on the Arduino, so there’s a big point here. –PK]

Exclusivity: When you play with hardware like the Arduino piano, it’s the only thing you do. You can’t fire Google or start reading your mail, and I think it’s really valuable. Every music "tool" should be able to immerse you enough so that the rest of the world doesn’t exist. All computer-based synths have failed to do that for me.

Of course, the greatest thing of all is that this domain is only at its very beginning. It’s a small spore in your hands waiting to morph to the next level. You decide its fate. And that’s where it gets exciting. Playing with the Arduino piano and looking at it as a synth development platform, I started to think about what I could dream of making with it. What would make it "timeless" for me, using existing available technology?

Here’s what I ended up with:

1. The core: At this point, it doesn’t really matter if we’re talking Arduino, Propeller or any other chip. The point is that there are programmable chips out there that will support development of your very own personal synth. They might run at very low sample rate, they might have the tiniest memory for programs, but they have soul. In the 80s, when digital synths hit the mainstream market, they were likewise limited in resources. Still, they were powerful enough to be admired and loved.

2. The engine: Ideally, the processor should be fast enough to allow a fairly configurable synth engine — something that would allow switching between ‘presets’. You don’t want to have to flash the chip every time you want a new sound. It doesn’t take a major CPU to be able to do something decent. For proof of that, look at Korg’s DS-10 running 6 parameterized synths on a lowly Nintendo DS. Maybe the Arduino is too limited to be a good enough candidate for this, but there are plenty of other possible platforms.

3. Controllers: As I already mentioned, direct hardware control is a joy that can’t be overstated. Having high-resolution pots connected directly to the chip provides an easy and cheap way to tweak your sounds in real-time, in ways you’ve probably forgotten (assuming you haven’t recently used analog hardware and the like). Let’s call them generic controllers: we want them to act in the most expressive way depending on the ‘presets’ that were built for the synth engine.

Collin Cunningham demonstrates hands-on control of the Arduino piano.

4. The keyboard: It doesn’t take long playing with the Arduino piano to realize the keyboard is not going to take you very far. Not being a keyboard player myself, my idea is to ditch it and keep a few switches for direct action like switching patches, transposing, etc. I’m pretty sure there should be a way to integrate a decent keyboard in this setup, but how to do that is beyond my reach. One could trigger the sound with just a button. A few pots and a “push me” button – sound familiar? Ed.: See the Dave Smith Mopho, though generally people are hooking MIDI keyboards to it so they can easily input pitch. But then, why use a keyboard at all? Quite a few synth lovers regret the addition of keyboards to synths, because they don’t allow for expression between notes, as on instruments like violins or the human voice. I’m not sure a single button is an improvement, but then, you could create the architecture of the synth to easily allow analog input, thus enabling anything you want. -PK

5. The deep end: This is where it gets fun. So far, we’ve got something fairly basic — running a synth on a chip, triggering sound, and having patch-based control on expression parameters. What could make this synth totally self-contained would to some means for editing sounds from the unit itself. There was a recent post on Analog Industries wondering whether people preferred a simple interface or access to all parameters. In my view, an ideal synth should provide both: when editing a patch, you should get access to all the parameters. When playing it, you should get access to only those parameters that make sense for the sound. The first example I remember of this is the Nord Modular: it provides modes geared for a sound designer or a performer. That’s true with the wonderful morphing effect rack in Ableton Live or the generic parameters of the aforementioned Mopho. But how to do this in a small, self-contained unit? The pots give us a performance mode, but the challenge is how to navigate the deeper possibilities of editing a synth engine? I just don’t want to have to use a computer. I’d be checking Facebook or uploading moods to Twitter instead of making noise.

There happens to be a mobile, compact unit that could be perfect for the job, however: the Nintendo DS. It’s got a small form factor, a few additional hardware controlers, a very playable touchscreen, and a serial interface that could enable bi-directional communication with the synth engine. By throwing the NDS in the picture, we could gain:

  • A user interface to edit the synth’s parameters (why not implement a touchscreen based VCS3 type matrix, for example?)
  • The possibility of running a small sequencer
  • Some additional performance capabilities, a la Kaoss Pad, to control the synth.

Does the Nintendo DS get control exactly right? Photo: Matt Watts.

So in the end, we have a hardware/software hybrid that’s very powerful, yet fits in a very small form factor, and whose cost (beside the blood, sweat, and tears of building the whole thing) wouldn’t go past the USD 300 mark.

Anyone with too much time on their hands? I’d like one, please :)

Ed.: Some really interesting ideas here. I’m not sure I’m so crazy about the Nintendo DS as a closed platform, though. Reimagine this more broadly as hardware DSP / embedded microcontroller synth engine plus some sort of small mobile computer, and you’ve got lots and lots of possibilities. I’m not tossing my computer – I can close the Internet and focus on music for a while even on a computer – but even as a lover of sound design on a computer, I find all of this very tantalizing. I also know we have some other folks working in similar directions and on other mobile ideas, so stay tuned. -PK

  • http://gameboygenius.8bitcollective.com/wordpress/ nitro2k01

    A little correction: Marc is not the inventor of Little Ssound Dj (Johan Kotlinski is) but of LittleGPTracker, or "PigggyTracker" among friends of the program. Pigggy originally ran Gamepark GP2x, but there are now Windows, Linux and Mac versions too. The program aims to clone the functionality of LSDj, but uses sample playback instead of an internal sound chip.

  • jbrandt

    I'm working on adding more analog inputs to the critter and guitari pocket piano– turns out multiplexers are really easy to wire up, and there are free analog inputs on the pocket piano board. This will give me another 8 (or 16, when I get the second MUX hooked up) analog inputs, which should be enough to do some interesting things.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Ha. I completely lost my mind. It's the election, it's making me crazy. LGPT is fab, and of course I know Marc did that and not (also fab) LSDJ.

  • Chris

    Peter, how do you think the Micron stacks up to this wish list of yours? Seems like it's got a lot of the hardware functionality and expandability you're talking about in an all-in-one design that lets you leave your computer in the dust. Admittedly, it's a half-finished and unsupported machine now. But it does got some wild sort of alien soul, methinks.

  • http://tweakbench.com Tweakbench

    Thanks for using my photo! That arduino piano was a blast, altho pure square out of a piezo annoys the whole office rather quickly.

  • http://www.gorehole.org/nostromo/ M-.-n

    Hey Peter,

    Thanks for putting it up. Another link of interest might be

    http://www.gorehole.org/nostromo/

    where most of my current in progress / unfinished business (including quite a bit of aruino piano lately) ends up being rambled on.

  • http://snapshotintime.blogspot.com/ wi_ngo

    Funny – I thought the same thing as commenter Chris above as I was reading this. Nostromo sounds like he's essentially describing the Micron to a certain degree.

    I've had one for a few months, and it's really amazing how you can get lost in the sound, and how surprisingly hands-on it is for it's unimposing size. You can really dig deep when designing sounds, and if you set up the controls properly, it's got a nice simple performance interface that you can really interact with.

    Also, Nord Modular rules.

  • Darren Landrum

    Some kind of shield for the Arduino, perhaps? Use the Arduino for control and display and stuff like that, then have a DSP shield for the heavy lifting. There will be a couple of tricks here:

    1) The Arduino will have to provide in some fashion the code to the DSP that it needs to run. If you want patches and algorithms to be able to switch in and out on the fly, that might be a real trick. The good news: although DSP code tends to be cryptic, it is also usually quite terse.

    2) Finding a DSP chip that is adequate and breadboard-able.

    3) I'm talking out of my rear end for this entire post. I have no experience in making these things, just an interest in electronics and computers. I'm hoping to get my hands on an Arduino or two and maybe a prototyping shield so I can join the ranks of hardware hackers.

  • http://www.gorehole.org/nostromo/ M-.-n

    @Chris & win_go: What's the micron ? I've never heard about it. Sounds interesting, even tho "half-finished and unsupported machine" doesn't sound too good.

  • http://www.gorehole.org/nostromo/ M-.-n

    @Peter: is there any osc-based physical interface with pots ? Because AFAIK, 99% of the remotes are 127 bits and there's not much you can do. Interpolation is just hack to attempt to disguise the controller's limitation :^P

  • Moxie

    Re the DS being a closed platform and all: Wouldn't the Pandora (http://www.openpandora.org/) fit the bill perfectly? Extremely pocketable, open computer platform with touchscreen, keyboard and I/O ports?

  • Chris

    @M-.-n: the Micron is a portable hardware VA synthesizer manufactured by Alesis. It was released around 2005, and was reviewed by CDM (run a search here and you'll find the post). What's unique about it is that you can arrange complex setups that allow you to play beats, patterns and programs simultaneously. What's really cool are the weird, stylized hardware controls that are fully assignable, yet equally limiting, given that you only have 3 endless rotary knobs, 2 sliders and a pitchwheel. This is a creativity booster by forcing me to to make a few choice assignments in any given setup, which, I've noticed, has simplified my whole approach to computer music making as well.

    The "half-finished and unsupported machine" comment was in reference to the lack of a USB cable, and the lack of supported patch-programming software. Instead, you get 3 midi jacks and a slammin DIY Yahoo community that picks up Alesis' glaring slack, which is almost legendary at this point (and a true shame, given how much potential this little red and silver box *could* have if support was available). If you are willing to spend some quality time getting to know your way around this lovely $399 machine, it can be pretty rewarding.

  • http://www.gorehole.org/nostromo/ M-.-n

    Thanks for that Chris, I see what it is now. I probably failed to mention clearly that the number one feature of the setup I described was to be able to write any exotic synthesis myself.

  • http://makingsuond.free.fr Cyril

    Notice that the Alesis rotary encoder work at 12 bits, far more than the usual 7 bits.

    By the way, i need smaller intruments. Pocket one. I want to be able to record my environnement and play with urban sound. Record sound on the fly, edit them (start/end/pitch), cut, paste, and a 16 track sequencer. In my hand.

    I don't want to be a simple listener anymore, i want to compose easly everywere !

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  • jbrandt

    This link was just posted on the arduino forums:

    http://interface.khm.de/index.php/labor/experimen

    Whooo, ring buffers and everything! Have I got a weekend ahead of me! (I hope, barring other stuff eating my time.)

  • aaron

    The DS is closed on in the strictest terms of legal mumbojumbo or disguised platform hating. So I have a problem with that comment. There is a reason why the DS leads/dominates in the homebrew and audio app realm aside from it's large userbase and it's relation-in-name to past audio app dev love (GB, GB, etc). The DS has been torn WIDE-OPEN for development, easier than any other platform.. even the open-source handheld platforms have a hard time competing against the ease of development that the user developed libraries provide. Not to mention how easy it is to get homebrew onto a DS in the first place. They're cheap, affordable, have plenty of viewing space, and have a touch screen. Perfect.

  • http://osc1.wordpress.com/ osc1

    i agree with aaron.

    for the record.. i have a psp, ipod touch, and a ds. the ipod is fun but soley having touch for input limits it too much to compare to either of these other handhelds. the psp is fast but homebrew on it is a pain in ***, and theres no touch screen. these are facts my friends.

    more on the ipod dev. it was nice when apple find made the sdk public, but it is still mac only and not truly open, only some of the api is. too much of the hardware is restricted due to the nature of the platform unless you want to risk jailbreaking it. all the other platforms you could compare this to are open for development on all OS's. including the far superior but sadly underpopular gamepark wiz.

    it also looks possible that both sony and nintendo will soon create homebrew stores like the istore where users can submit and sell their own developments. xbox is launching such a service this month. google is launching their's as well. it's a new market place, don't expect the others to ignore it. the DSi will facilitate such a channel easily as well.

    anyways.. as always lets hope more for the future, but for now the DS pwns and the quality and expansiveness of the audio apps that are out for it now is proof in the pudding :)

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  • http://note.monoanimal.com Note! (Hollow Organ)

    Nice article and thanks for using my picture (two gameboys!) I am excited by the prospects of the iPod touch and do enjoy my DS for music production but I don't find myself getting as excited by them as I am do for the freedom and limitless beauty of the arduino (and the community growing around it).

    Oh, and one small gripe, my photo is labeled wrong! I performed that night using LSDJ as the artist Note! – not Hollow Organ. Maybe my fault in providing crappy flickr details.

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