Open and DIY doesn’t have to mean you don’t get a finished product. It just means the product can continue to change once you’ve got it – which is the beauty of three new tools coming to the music tech world. Photo: Bug Labs.

You buy a box. You unwrap the box. You plug it in. You read the manual to learn what it does. Or you bring a box home, and meanwhile a community of people – possibly including you – works to imagine new possibilities for what the box can do and share them with each other. It’s clear that the idea of open hardware (free hardware?) has a lot of potential. But it’s a matter of finding products that realize that vision. And today alone, I’ve got a lot of good news on that front.

There’s some wonderfully good news for fans of DIY music tech. And the homebrewed, open, hackable tools often outshine commercially-available options. For developers, they’re a change to hack on something, but they serve as end-user products, too. The GorF step sequencer and minicommand — the latter tough to describe but a sort of do-everything magical box o’ MIDI — are each nearing shipment, complete with preorders. And the folks at BUG Labs have added sound capabilities, which is already turning into some interesting prototypes of alternative mobile music devices.

Back-to-Basics, DIY Step Sequencer Kit

The GorF step sequencer appeared in a video demo a few weeks ago. But if you were intrigued by the YouTube rendition of GorF, the time to get your own is nearing. PCBs have arrived and, in a DIY Valentine’s Day present, there’s a poll about interest.

Black Box Performer

GorF is impressive, and I like its elegant, simple step interface. But the tool that’s been really blowing my mind is the minicommand. At first, it looks like just a simple, compact controller – nice knobs, and a screen you can customize. That’s all well and good. But the minicommand is better understood as a do-everything, magical black box. Programmable with the Arduino environment, the minicommand can become a controller, an arpeggiator, a Euclidian polyrhythm maker… out of the box, it’ll already have a ton of firmware tools, alone. Maker wesen writes:

– standard midi controller firmware
– machinedrum notes (hook up a keyboard to the machinedrum). The device has an additional MIDI IN for that kind of purposes
– monomachine firmware (revert to kit, etc…)
– supatrigga for the machinedrum
– genetic patch mutation firmware for machiinedrum and monomachine
– polyrhythmic sequencer (with MIDI CLOCK slave or master function)
– arpeggiator
– much more…

It’s like what a lot of people do with Max or AudioMulch patches, but in a hardware box, with tight timing, that you can either plug into your computer or into hardware synths. It’s like MIDI hardware for the year 2009. You might wind up just using it as a reliable clock source for your software with hardware controls, or you might drive hardware with it, or you might control visuals – it’ll become whatever you like.

Oh, and by the way, while the Akai APC is cool, I’d love to see an ultra-compact setup with one of the minicommands and perhaps a Faderfox or two. Time to dust off your 5-pin MIDI cables, huh?

If you’re interested in preordering yourself, you can get on the (limited) first production run by placing an order at:

US$275/EUR220 including shipping.

Hack-a-Pod: BUGsound

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the folks at BUG Labs have added a sound input/output module to their hot-swappable, LEGO-esque modular mobile gadgets. The BUG is basically a modular computer that runs an open source OS and Java stack and is pretty intelligent about talking to sensors and the Web. As readers have noted, it’s not cheap, but I think it’s best understood as a prototyping device. As such, it has some competition from even devices like Google’s Android, but with a key difference: you have total control over the OS and the hardware you plug in. So, Android may also have GPS, but it doesn’t have audio input, or the ability to connect sensors or servos via bare wires, and you probably don’t want to take your 2-year-contract phone and strap it to a mobile robot.

Why prototype mobile devices? Because it becomes possible to imagine just how interesting mobile gadgets in the future could be. Instead of passive devices for consuming approved content (cough, iTunes), they become open-ended, handheld computers that do whatever you like.

And that could mean you could also prototype musical instruments with the flexibility of computers, instead of the closed-box, commercial options we have now.

BUGsound Available Today

BUGsound isn’t quite high-fidelity: the internal speaker is a simple mono speaker, though at least it makes noise, and there’s a simple, built-in electret condenser mic. But it can drive headphones, it has stereo input and output, controllable gain, and even automatic gain control. Where it gets interesting is that you can combine these features with other modules, like the accelerometer or GPS, for mashed-up gadgets. And there are some simple DSP-based sound functions on the board, too.

I’m finally blocking aside some time to work with BUGsound myself, but there’s already a cool demo app from the community called Phunky. It mixes three sound files using accelerometer data. This also demonstrates why we need to get more robust sound-crunching capabilities going (Pd, perhaps) so the applications can get more interesting.

I’m really excited about all three projects. You know where to stay tuned for more. And by the way, we might just have some new ways of covering these kinds of projects and helping folks collaborate … soon.