Percussa micro super signal processor

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 ke
yboards 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