For all the hype around mobile music creation, here’s a story with an ending in the opposite direction. Independent developer Olivier Gillet is the reason a lot of people see handheld gadgets as potential music making devices; he’s the creator of the brilliant Bhajis Loops for Palm. But, as if to prove that hardware can be a digital platform, too, his latest creation, while it will fit in your palm, isn’t for a device like the overcrowded iPhone.

And as we take up the issue of platforms for sonic tech, Olivier’s timing is perfect. Amidst gloom and doom predictions of the sunset of tinkering, the tinkerers soldier on.

http://mutable-instruments.net/shruti1

“I did not continue writing mobile music software as I didn’t like the direction the iPhone (and to some extent Android) took, but I have recently started experimenting with minimal/DIY-friendly hardware,” says Gillet. “A couple of units of my first mono synth will be available as a kit in a few days ( http://mutable-instruments.net/shruti1/ ) and you might want to check it out – not that I’m looking for free press, almost all units of the first batch are already reserved :) It has some common points with Bhajis Loops – taking a limited hardware platform (in this case, the ATMega328p chip, also used in the [open source DIY hardware platform] Arduino boards) and squeezing the most out of it – with a no-nonsense interface. I’ll probably release a couple of other products (artisanal, small volumes, or kits) with similar design approaches (synths, FX, modules for modular synths).”

I’m personally tinkering with one of those somewhat absurdly powerful-and-cheap ARM cores this week, but talk about bucking trends. Consider the Shruti-1:

  • 16 Mhz, 2kb memory baby! As the self-effacing product description notes, “8You’re more likely to find this 8-bit wonder in vending machines than in synths… Yet, the Shruti-1’s firmware squeezes the most out of this tight processor to render classic waveforms, but also FM or weird digital sounds – all of them in their full 8-bit quirkiness.”
  • Vintage analog filtering. This isn’t just about harsh digital sound, though. The filter is decidedly retro – the CEM3379 VCF/VCA, similar to what you’d find in a Prophet VS, Ensoniq ESQ-1 or Waldorf Microwave. That warms up the resulting sound.
  • Make it yourself, open source: You can get on the list for a kit, but the full instructions and bill of materials are also on the site; check the maker/hacker section. And without getting into a tricky discussion of intellectual property and open source hardware, let’s put it this way – with Creative Commons specs and GPL3 firmware, I think the Shruti-1 is “good enough for jazz,” whatever your local lawyer may think.
  • Small, light, portable, 9V-battery powered, and as mobile as the Palm app.
  • MIDI support, so this is playable from a keyboard (strap one to an AX-09, perhaps) and sequence-able.

It’s also notable that you don’t have to be a fan of chip music to love this design: it’s an electronic instrument suitable to a wide range of tastes, including chip lovers but other folks, as well. It’s not a perfect design for everything: I’d like to see a fully-integrated board, its future is somewhat limited by availability of that filter, and I’d prefer more physical controls to the few controls and reliance on the LCD. But it’s cheap, sounds fantastic, and looks like great fun.

Put this alongside creations like the wonderful Ruin & Wesen devices, and we have a small, growing galaxy of open, open-ended, hackable music hardware that stands with or without a computer. That’s a subject for another article – nominees welcome.

Kits are priced 115€ + shipping – with the convenience of not having to worry about sourcing parts yourself.

More on the parts, and what the inclusion of the vintage filter means, from Olivier:

The project is 100% open (and well-documented), so there’s already enough information on the site to allow someone to source the parts, get the PCBs manufactured, build and flash the firmware, and assemble it.

I’ve decided to behave “responsibly” with the CEM3379s (http://mutable-instruments.net/node/91 ). While It could be possible for me to buy the last stocks from all the distributors that stock them, and to squeeze some other batches of kits, I am not doing it to leave room for the Ensoniq/Sequential repair/servicing market.
However, one of my contacts in the “vintage chips” world is confident that there are still pretty decent stocks of those waiting to be unearthed, so whenever new stocks are found, I could do more runs of the original design – though at the moment, I’m investing all my energy building a more modern analog section, even if it’ll mean
deviating a bit from the original Shruti-1 sound.

Speaking of that sound, here’s what the thing sounds like:
Sweet Shruti-1 dreams by mutable.instruments

FM Glass jam by mutable.instruments

Shruti-blipfest by mutable.instruments

(Lots, lots) more:
http://soundcloud.com/mutable-instruments/tracks

It’s terrific work. I could see a lot more like this. I’ll be curious what people do with them. Keep us posted – particularly if you get creative with the case, with musical uses, or other mods.

  • http://www.isle-of-avalon.co.uk gwenhwyfaer

    I'm impressed – it sounds lovely! If I had any confidence at all in my soldering skills I'd be on this immediately… :) as it is, I might have to buy myself a lifetime supply of breadboards – or see if I can locate some wirewrapping stuff, come to think of it.

    As far as filters go, if CEM stocks run low, there are other possibilities – not least assembling filters from discrete components. Since there's already a range of tone control inherent in the digital bit, the need for filtering is reduced a little, which means that it might be possible to get away with some of those so-simple-it-shouldn't-work designs – eg. the Synthacon, VCS3 or Polivoks filters. And of course, discrete filters are more amenable to insane experimentation – or just fucking up the circuit design in interesting ways :)

  • aienn

    the tinkerers solder on

  • salamanderanagram

    aienn damn i was going to say that!

  • A Different Jonathan

    As cool as this thing is – and it is cool – I must take issue with the "not that I’m looking for free press" disclaimer.

    The entire reason the first batch is already entirely spoken for is because for the past 2 months there have been quasi-daily updates circulating in the music/synth/gadget blogosphere. Between Palm Sound and Matrixsynth and everywhere else, I'm actually kind of sick of hearing about it.

    Don't be coy, Olivier. You're clearly a master of viral marketing via the blogosphere. :)

  • teej

    @aienn+salamanderanagram:

    haha glad I wasn't the only one that read that as "solder on". my brain put the pun before the horse.

  • http://www.eatyone.com EATYone

    I think i'm the first owner of this marvelous synth after Olivier Himself, and very proud of it! This synth rock, and take @ max 3 hours for the soldering…The UI and the OS are an exemple of perfect "ergonomie" (<i don't know how to say that in English sorry). And naturally the best part is the sound!!!! No dac on the board…

    Here is my first jam after the soldering to test it:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UvaNRuLK-cU

    One more time thanks to Olivier

  • http://www.eatyone.com EATYone

    @A Different Jonathan: I know Olivier himself, and i can say that he'snt responsable of how you say "i'm looking for free press", that's not his goal, and for exemple in this case (i don't know if that's it) i write a PM to Peter to alert him on this synth…Do u think that Olivier want a lot of ad, and after sold his "baby" without any $$$benefict? I meet 3 person wich have the luck tto buy the kit, and all said to me that Olivier is mad to sell @ this price….Brief i think ur wrong in your message….

    Peace

    Guillaume

  • http://the-palm-sound.blogspot.com/ Palm Sounds

    It has been great to watch Shruti-1 go from Olivier's secret project (we all thought it was Bhajis on the iPhone) to him now talking about his next project.

    Great to have him back making music tech

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

    @A Different Jonathan: Maybe I should have taken that comment out; I decided to leave it precisely so that it WAS clear what his intentions were.

    That's not to say he isn't good at "viral marketing," as you say — only that I do believe it really *wasn't* intentional! (And, hey, that tends to be what makes viral marketing work — it's only when you *aren't* trying to do it.)

  • JonYo

    I lke this thing. Easy enough to put together and figure out for a novice DIY'er such as myself, but it makes sounds that are a bit more traditionally musical than some of the bleepbloop boxes I've come across lately on the interwebs. The simplicity of the relatively low-end digital source coupled with the choice of analog filter circuit makes for a very attractive little thingamabob. I signed up for the pre-order, but I don't know if I'll be able to swing the cash when it becomes available. 115 euro comes out to about 155 US bucks right now, and then I'm assuming I'd have to add on some shipping, and possibly a foreign currency transaction fee from my lame bank. Hmm, oh well, we'll see.

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  • A Different Jonathan

    @EATYone Not only does humor translate poorly over the Internet, I am sure it translates even more poorly over the Internet and then into French. What I intended to be a tongue-in-cheek compliment to Olivier has clearly not been taken that way. My apologies to you and him – no offense was intended, and I congratulate him on his achievement.

    @Peter Well, there are a lot of guys out there making short-run DIY devices like this who don't get any viral attention. He must be doing something right – maybe it's as simple as taking time out from the tinkering to answer a few questions now and then. I know from experience how easy it is to lose yourself in a project and shout out the outside world.

    My suggestion that it was some kind of intentional effort on his part was intended to be playful, but I do truly think there are lessons for the DIY community in how the enthusiasm for his product has grown. Whatever he did right, more people should try to emulate it so we'll be aware of the cool things they're cooking up in their basements.

  • http://ruinwesen.com Ruin

    so this is what you were talking about, peter.

    looks nice, although the addition of the CEM is maybe a little questionable for me, it is easy to build a vcf out of, but limit the life of the synth as a product. sallen key filters are pretty easy, and sound pretty good.

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

    @A Different Jonathan: well, two things happened in this case. One, he contacted me (only this week, unless it's one of those things that slipped through my inbox). Two, I was really blown away by the sound, particularly thanks to that filter. ;)

    I'll be honest, there are probably good stories that I miss sometimes because I just get behind. But generally, you don't need any secret viral marketing chops – you just need to do a good job documenting your project. There are also a lot of fantastic projects that aren't well-documented. Or to look at it on the glass-half-full side, part of why we're able to be much more aware of what people are doing isn't only because of the power of the Internet, but because people are doing a better job, motivated by that technology, of making records of what they're making.

  • http://truechip.org Peter

    Also having something like Bhajis Loops in your resume probaly helps you cut the line for blog posting. Where is the iPad version?

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  • http://musicsynth.tumblr.com Fabrizio Lugli

    The sounds and flexibility are incredible it could easily become the most popular music hardware open source project. I am planning to buy one as soon as it is available

  • Derrick Whibley

    Olivier may be a good designer, but he is

    a hypocrite and not a very nice person.

  • trent reznor

    derrick- the fact that you a) either front sum 41 or b) name yourself after that gimp gives me everything required to ignore your comment and file it under the "internet gimp cant afford synth kit" pile