Once the domain of the few, creating and customizing sophisticated DIY controllers is now more accessible than ever. That means, if you can’t find what you want, and you’re ambitious and knowledgeable enough, you go make your own. Josh Boughey was impressed by the Monome enough to buy one — but the Monome, a grid of on/off buttons, doesn’t provide any kind of variable control. So Josh built his own, combining a series of parallel touch strips with LED indicators. (The lights are the tricky part, requiring an obscene number of connections.)

The creation, dubbed “Stribe” by Josh, could have been a one-off. But instead, he’s working on making it into a tool for others, with completely open source hardware and software. The whole system is built on the popular Arduino platform, making it uncommonly easy to modify. It’s a work in progress, as you can see lacking an enclosure. But ten have made it out into the wild, people are already programming custom software, and more are coming.

I got to hang out with Josh while he was in town this weekend. Luckily, he’s a fan of early music, meaning we met at a concert of a viol consort that was playing my music — an unusual collision of 15th and 21st Century music technology.

Josh gave a demo of the Stribe, for myself plus Phil Torrone of Make and Limor Fried (aka lady ada), creator of the x0xb0x open-source 303 clone. It’s still a project in process– there’s more to be done in firmware and support software and documentation — but it already shows some real promise. I snapped some shots, studied the Max patches, and mostly listened to Limor and Josh talk about the challenges of starting a DIY hardware business. (I hope that DIY builders start to share experiences, even informally, as they work to make the business end work so they can keep building.)

Just what can happen when you let your baby go? Someone else can do stuff with it you didn’t expect. Here’s musician Stretta developing music ideas-in-progress with the Stribe (see blog post, Stribe forum thread):

A Brief Conversation Resulting in One Less Child from stretta on Vimeo.

Some tidbits from the hands-on session:

  • There’s so much header on it that the whole thing fits together like some insane Lego creation I made as a kid. You just pop it apart for service – neat.
  • The unit is surprisingly light and easy to hold; in an enclosure, it’s not hard to imagine a wireless version. (Tilt sensor, perhaps?)
  • The Stribe is “multi-touch” in the sense that there are multiple, parallel touch strips on the surface — a bit like you could say a mixer is multi-touch. But using various hacks, it’s actually possible to get multiple touches out of each individual strip, as pictured in the Max patch. Gestural control, by pinching your fingers, could be possible if someone is clever enough with a patch.

I got a chance to talk to Josh a bit more about the background of the project.

PK: How open source is Stribe?

JB: The PCB designs, the firmware, and the Max patches are made available on the website. The current version of the firmware is based on an open source library called SimpleMessageSystem, and other open source code from the Arduino “Playground” website. The Stribe firmware is under the GNU General Public License, and the documentation and design is under Creative Commons.

Since the Stribe was inspired by the monome, and based on open source tools, I tried to follow a similar licensing model as the folks at monome.org.

How were you inspired by the Monome in this project?

I really love my monome 40h. The LED display has this wonderful, mesmerizing property. The lights seem to accompany the music as you play, like watching someone play a more conventional instrument. Before the monome, alternative controllers often left you wondering what exactly was making the sounds, but with a monome the cause and effect are beautifully obvious. Brilliant!

However, with the 40h I felt like I didn’t have the full gestural palette available to me. I started poking around to see how to add some faders to the monome. The 40h design is expandable (it provides ports to add 4 potentiometers), so I looked at the circuit design and logic design and firmware and serial protocol, and realized it wasn’t really so mysterious. I knew how to program, I knew some basic electronics, and suddenly it seemed possible to design and build my own blinky device to sit next to the monome and provide the missing gestures. I imagined the monome under the left hand, like fretting a guitar, and the Stribe under the right hand, for strumming, bowing, e.g. fluid, speed-sensitive lateral gestures.

In addition to being inspired by the 40h, I was also very inspired by the people at monome. I admire the approach they’ve taken in creating and distributing their device. The fact that they’ve been able to be so successful, while also keeping the design open and their business practices ethical, is very inspiring. Maybe it’s actually possible to have a successful business AND be a nice person – all at the same time. monome.org founder Brian Crabtree has sent me some very encouraging and helpful e-mails, and has subtly and respectfully helped me during my admittedly amateurish design process. I do my best to return the respect.

Here’s Josh playing the Stribe alongside the Monome, demonstrating the combination of continuous control on the touchstrips with the on/off button capabilities of the Monome. Sounds provided by a Dave Smith Instruments monosynth.

You described Stribe as a platform – what other sorts of projects might you hope people could build with this?

Well, just the Driver board of the Stribe could be handy for a lot of different projects. It holds 16 LED driver circuits to individually control 1024 LEDs using just 3 digital inputs. Add the Arduino stamps and now it also accepts input from 8 analog sensors, has extra digital pins available, provides serial communication via the USB port, and is also powered by the USB. I like to think that the Stribe in current form is just one possible configuration of these elements.

It’s really a platform of convenience. I initially built the board to save myself a LOT of hand-wiring, so I imagine it would save someone else making a similar project a lot of work, too. Also, I provide a small prototyping area on the Driver board to encourage people to experiment with potential add-on circuits, such as direct MIDI, Control Voltage (CV) outputs, maybe even a wireless USB interface and battery power. And since the firmware is written for the Arduino, people can write updates or write their own firmware, using the Arduino IDE. The IDE allows you to re-program the ATMEGA168 chip directly through the USB port. You don’t even need a chip programmer.

Can you talk a bit about where this is going – when people might expect to be able to get one of their own, what modifications you’re working on?

It will all depend on demand, and my ability to meet it. I did a run of 10 Stribe Prototype kits in January, and they sold out quite quickly. I was amazed at how much work it was just to make those 10 kits. In the end I lost money, but it was an incredible learning experience. And I achieved the “real” goal, which was to get 10 Stribe prototypes into the hands of developers. People have been really excited to participate. They are already helping improve the firmware, building Max applications, providing moral support… Whether this all translates into a marketable product, I’m still not sure. I think it’s a pretty small niche that’s interested in a prototype slash development platform like the Stribe, but the world may surprise me.

What are some of the projects you worked on in the past that led you to this?

In the early 90’s, in art school, a friend and I built a light harp that used infrared beams in a grid configuration to trigger sound samples via MIDI. It was 8 feet tall, and it was called the Sound Square. There were some interesting performances and much interest. I planned to develop Max applications to process the MIDI data before sending it to the sampler, but life pressures led me to dismantle the device and I set it aside for many years. Then about a year ago I came across the leftover pieces in my basement, and this re-started my investigation into gesture control, which led me to the monome. In the intervening years, technologies like the Adafruit MIDISense and the Arduino/Wiring boards had cropped up, along with incredible online communities to support the projects and ideas. Initially I had planned to resurrect the light harp – now I fear I’ve been led astray by this new project. But the world hasn’t seen the last of the Sound Square, yet…

For more of the Sound Square, see the videos on YouTube.


Beyond the videos, any interesting musical applications so far?

Some happy sounds have emerged, including an accidental step sequencer that varies the time depending on how many sensors are activated. But beyond stretta’s “Brief conversation…” video, nothing terribly musical has been recorded. I’ve had many sublime and unfortunately undocumented moments when everything seemed to come together and I actually made some music with the Stribe. Eventually the hardware and the applications will be more mature, and I’ll be able to focus more deliberately on making music. Right now I’m just letting the Stribe teach me what it can do. It has yet to be tamed.

Josh, who is connected with much earlier instruments through a musicologist father, also had this to share about the connection with early music — since we did start out the day listening to instruments whose design originated in the 15th Century:

I spent some time thinking about the connection between my early immersion in Early Music and period instrument-building and so-on. I think it all connects to my deep feeling that musical instruments are fluid, dynamic responses to a desire to expand our musical language and reach. Each instrument is developed using the available technologies and materials of the period. A new kind of catgut string is invented, and suddenly a screechy hurdygurdy becomes one of the world’s most expressive instruments. Anyways, the connection really hadn’t resonated before, so that was cool.

Thanks, Josh. We’ll keep readers posted on the Stribe Project’s progress … after all, I think it took them a while to work out how to design a viola da gamba. -Ed.