Ed.: Resident hardware hacker and sound artist Michael Una chatted via phone with the creator of ThinkGeek’s $50 Bliptronic instrument. We’ve already got some early tips on how you might hack this design into custom creations, which could make the Bliptronic 5000 an ideal hardware hacker choice. (And, because it is cheap, you may be a little more adventurous with the thing.) Designer Ty Liotta also talks about prototyping, the design process, and reveals an entirely toggle-switch prototype that I wish they had actually shipped. It’s a must-read for hardware geeks. -PK

I just spoke to Ty Liotta, the head of ThinkGeek’s custom product group. They’re responsible for the playable guitar/drum kit t-shirts, and a number of other fun geeky things.

The development team started working on a grid-button synth back in April, inspired by the Monome and the Tenori-on. Their goal was to make it as low-cost as possible while retaining a sense of fun and playability. Cost was a big factor in their design process; the Thinkgeek team is well aware of the exisiting devices in the marketplace and didn’t want to directly compete with the APC or the Launchpad’s price points.

The first prototype was inspired by the grid layout but had a set of 64 switches instead of membrane buttons and LEDs:

DSCN6229

The switches were intended to be a cost-saving measure, but the engineers figured out that it was actually a little bit cheaper to use LEDs and the plastic buttons. The sounds come from a standard Casio-type FM synth chip, which is controlled by the onboard sequencer/logic chip. The Bliptronic can be chained together with other units to form longer sequences via the sync jack on the side, which operates via voltage pulses.

The team made sure that the operating BPMs (60 to 180 in 20BPM increments) are accurate, so you can play it side-by-side with another device until they drift apart (check out the end of the demo video with the Kaoss Pad).

The intended audience here is music/synth geeks firstly, but Ty hopes the device’s low cost and intuitive playability will appeal to kids and a more mainstream audience as well. If the Bliptronic does well, the team hopes to offer a slightly higher-priced version with MIDI (exactly how they’ll implement MIDI control is still being discussed). Ty’s first idea is that the Bliptronic could send MIDI notes as a visual step sequencer, but he talked about the possibility of external clock synching as well.

We also discussed possible hacks and modifications to the Bliptronic, and Ty offered a few suggestions and hints. Firstly, he suggested that anyone looking to build a Monome-type controller with visual feedback would find that the button-and-LED matrix can be easily repurposed. Since this is usually the most expensive/time-consuming step, people might find this a cost-effective part.

Another angle of attack may be to get at the tempo adjustment and sync controls, if you’re looking to hack in your own external MIDI clocking- I myself plan to pursue this angle as soon as the unit I ordered arrives.

Also, Ty mentioned that the synth chip is external to the logic controller, so I assume that one could circuit-bend that chip independently of the logic controls. There may also be some unimplemented sounds waiting on the chip, and it may be possible to modify the scales played. I’m fairly familiar with some of these chips used in the casio-clone keyboards found at thrift stores- makes me wonder if there are some drum sounds hiding in there as well.

I’ll keep everyone here updated on my modifications and discoveries once I get my hands on one of these little guys, but early indications are that the Bliptronic 5000 might be on par with the Gakken SX-150 in terms of both price and bendability.

  • http://www.max4live.info Michael Chenetz

    Just bought one of these to see how i can hack it. Should be interesting. I have to see how big the DIY board that Livid Instruments is sending me is and maybe i can use them together. hmmm, should be interesting.

  • http://www.document02.com Document 02

    MIDI & glitch….. MMMmmmm sounds much better already.

  • http://stretta.com Matthew Davidson

    Right, so bliptronic (case, buttons, leds)+monome logic kit = …

  • http://dust.unrecnow.com mapmap

    matthew, my thoughts exactly.

  • http://www.flightofharmony.com flight

    I ordered one of these for my daughter, but I'll probably get a couple more later. Is there any information available about the synth chip?

  • http://plogue.com David Viens

    Nice baby (we just got it today).. cant beat the price, but i just want to make a slight precision here.

    Casio never made FM synths, only PD, and this 5000 unit is no FM synth, its obviously a PCM playback device.

  • http://www.e-lectronica.com/luthierlab/ Mudo

    It could be possible (and easy) attach an arduino…

  • http://www.chromedecay.org Joshua Schnable

    I was a little "I dunno" after seeing and hearing the bliptronic the other day, but after reading this, I've done a 180.

    I love that the mfgr recognises the market potential here amongst hardware hackers. It seems to have been put together in a way to encourage it, really.

    I don't expect to see people like Roland or Yamaha doing stuff like this (here's our new product – please hack it!), but one can dream.

  • http://www.wiretotheear.com/ Oliver Chesler

    I want that one with the switches!

  • http://dust.unrecnow.com mapmap

    also, what's this about a Bliptronic 10000?!? i want to know more.

  • Aaron

    Good stuff had to buy one.. hadnt got a music toy in awhile and this seemed like a perfect excuse ;)

  • Mckenic

    If only ThinkGeek shipped overseas :(

    PLEASE – keep us posted Peter! Interested in how the synth chip could be bent!

  • http://www.keatshandwriting.com Keats' Handwrit

    I'd definitely buy one if it had midi… I agree with some earlier posts on the previous CDM entry- it's a little too lo-fi for my tastes… but I'll be interested to see how much a MIDI version costs.

    I'm having a hard time understanding the key/scale part of the bliptronic. If it only has one 8 note scale, are you stuck playing one scale unless you hack it in some way? What about the key? Is there any way to transpose it or are you stuck playing in one key?

  • mattyg

    I'd be really interested to know what the "special in/out is actually sending. Is it 5+v gate? if so that would rock my world. Who cares about MIDI if i've got a CV

  • CLombardo

    If they pull out MIDI control in this thing.

    :O

    Even better is if the scale modifiable, i wouldnt even care if it had an internal synth.

    I could just see using it as a controller

    GI saw this today in class and had a total geek gasm

  • http://www.prospectmusic.com Jonathan F

    Is there an iPhone app yet with this LED/Grid controller type?

  • http://www.scarkord.com ScarKord

    @ Jonathan F… There are loads of grid style sequencers for the iphone / ipod. The ones I've used are Sound Grid (which has some simple drum sounds too), Melodica (which has some nice 'mood based' instrument scaling) and Tone Board (which is the most limited of the three).

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  • Keats handwriting

    @Clombardo-

    If it's got midi you can modify the key/scale however you want in Ableton or through using toby bear microtuner (or some other free plugin) in another DAW.

    BTW, for non-Abletoners, Toby has some sweet midi plugins: http://www.tobybear.de/p_midibag.html

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  • Aaron

    So it's confirmed that the link outputs use CV? I take it that it's a reset sig (aka repeated once perpattern repeat)? Anyone know what the actual output of the voltage is?

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  • http://nomeist.com JP

    http://nomeist.com/bliptronic/209

    Mine arrived and I took it to pieces, the above blog post includes some of the initial findings and links to some other info including a wave where I'm posting more info. Great product. I wish they'd release some hardware hacking specific information, like what all the chips on the button board are and what they're passing through the header to the logic board.

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  • s

    Thank you JP!

  • creekree

    @aaron: at the end of the pattern a pulse of approx 10 msec with an amplitude of what seems to be 2v is sent to the "link out" socket. (my measurements are not that accurate because my old russian oscope is not properly calibrated).

    i had success triggering the blip5000 with my tr707 (the pattern will play once and can not be retriggered while playing).

  • mclaren

    Without MIDI or USB out this thing's useless. Might as well throw it in the garbage. You have got to have MIDI or USB output from something like this to make it useful as a music controller.

  • http://ruinwesen.com Ruin

    @mclaren you should keep in mind that this is a new product with an extremely low pricepoint. $50 is the price of a kids toy, but with pretty damn good hackability. this is for the hackers and tinkerers. sorry its not your dream machine.

  • infradead

    @Keats handwriting

    Thanks for that link!

  • aaron

    @creekree : thanks for the info! have you tried experimenting with splitting the cv/trig out and routing it back into the same bliptronic? it seems as though the way the chained devices work this might be nessicary for a 1:1 pattern repeat trig instead of 2:1? anyways.. will find out tomorrow when mine arrives ;)

  • http://www.helpwantedproductions.com/daed.htm LegionDAED

    I started a thread on these at the muff wiggler forum. Would be good to follow up there with pics and such as well as here.
    http://www.muffwiggler.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=

    So far no joy in bending the sounds themselves. The chip is labeled quite extensively however so perhaps there is way…

  • Vlad

    @Mckenic

    ThinkGeek does ship overseas — at least they did ship mine to Russia. The shipping fare turns to be rather mindblowing though (more than the actual unit price in my case)

  • mattyg

    @ mclaren

    ,

    if your looking for a midi controller perhaps you should check out the several thousand that are already out there, but if you want a monome-style, casio-sounding sequencer with CV in the key of C maj/A min, then your have found your machine.

  • Vlad

    @David Viens

    Sure, Casio's name for the technology was PD, but afaik it was very much the same as Yamaha's FM. Also, to my ears the Bliptronic sounds not much unlike some 90's FM-capable PC soundchip (TB Tropez comes to my memory as I used to have one of those). Might be 8-bit PCM too, but still the sounds are quite FM-ish to my ears.

  • aaron

    vlad: it's pcm based..the piano preset should be enough to convince you of that, plus listen to the way it pitches/scales.

    PD was reviewed as being similar to FM, or improperly called a "poor-man's FM" (in the same improper fashion that DCO's were labeled as Digital by stupid mag reviewers), which we nowadays know is bunk. The CZ-line of instruments is very unique. PD can sound like FM, but the (sometimes) tonal similarity is where it stops.

    Gimme a CZ-1 over a DX-7 any day ;)

  • aaron

    btw.. still waitin to see someone sucessfully mod this thing!

  • http://una-love.com Michael Una

    I got mine last week and got it to sync with Ableton Live over the weekend. Gotta make a video…

  • sylvie

    Hey Guys;…

    Does anybody has a clue where the clock crystal is on this thing?

    I saw this silver long cilinder thingy next to where all the caps are ….but I'm not sure ….. it's marked X1 on the board…

    If i find the crystal I'll replace it by a precision oscillator so the thing can be tuned very low and high….

    Thanx

    x

    Sylvie

  • Michael Una

    Hey Sylvie, that's the crystal. The notation is usually "Xtal," or "X" for short.

    I haven't opened mine up yet, but that was going to be my first hack as well.

    For anyone looking to sync these to an external source, the "Sync" jack accepts 5V pulses to trigger the sequence.

  • Jazzdoktorn

    I got my bliptronic few days ago and I was hoping I could find hacks for it in the near future. I have no interest to sync it but when I see the "sync jack" i really want to see if it is somehow possible to rewire stuff to control a Gakken sx-150 with CV. It would be nice to have them in the same box…. :-)

  • http://www.julienbayle.net/diy/protodeck/ protofuse

    I want one !!!!

  • Nathaniel

    Hello from Australia,

    My GF bought me 3 of these for christmas and one of the speakers does not work on one, easy fix or send it back?

  • http://electri-fire.com electri-fire

    NO FM SYNTHESISER HACKING POSSIBLE!

    In fact: NO FM SYNTHESISER AVAILABLE!

    There are reasons to believe the sound chip plays sampled FM sounds.

    Circuitbending the bliptronic thread:

    http://electro-music.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=39

  • http://electri-fire.com electri-fire

    @ mattyg, mclaren

    NO CV OUT's

    Like creekree said: at the end of the pattern a pulse of approx 10 msec with an amplitude of what seems to be 2v is sent to the “link out” socket.

    That's all it sends.

  • Aaron

    @ electri-fire: old news, and theres much better info already in this comments section than @ that page.

    re: 2v, what do you think cv is? cv can be generated by anything, audio, electricity, pencil sharpener, contacts. it serves its purpose and is easily amplified up. if you plug an output jack into any synth's cv out, you'll hear the voltage sigs.

  • Michael Una

    Yeah, I also discovered that it's sample playback rather than FM synthesis.

    I was able to use a Getlofi Precision Clock kit to modify the master clock rate, and I found some bend points on the baord that create a pleasing harmonious drone.

    The Sync in/out is a standard 5v pulse from what I can tell, and I've been synching it with my other gear by sending it "start" signals via the HighlyLiquid MD24 kit.

    I need to make some video and document it, but overall I'm very pleased with how it turned out. For such a simple toy, it had just the right amount of bendability.

  • Aaron

    Perhaps electri-fire meant to link to this thread (much more useful info): http://electro-music.com/forum/post-280162.html

    Also Will Lindsay posted the pin-out with images at his site here: http://www.straytechnologies.com/bliptronic-5000-

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  • Elijah

    I was wondering if it's possible to substitute a chip with drums on it for the stock and what would the best way to do that?

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  • A Brainfreeze Retrospective

    Dude I bought one from EBAY and it worked for about 6 hours and now won’t turn on. . . any ideas on what’s wrong with it?