If you’re dreaming of creating your own controller from scratch, there are certain basic elements you’ll need – and a strong case for reusing, not reinventing, the wheel. There are a range of products out there that cater to you DIYers; Livid’s Builder line is certainly one of the most comprehensive. It’s a line of hardware accessories that help you piece together MIDI controllers with all the requisite knobs and buttons and sensors you might like, and its brain just got an upgrade.

The soul of any controller is the electronics and microcontroller that read all of those inputs and let them talk to a computer. And it’s that “brain” that Livid recently upgraded, with their Builder Brain v2. Messages from controls go in, messages to devices like lights go out, all via a connection to your computer that’s USB powered, class-compliant MIDI. (That means you won’t need any drivers – not on Mac, not on Windows, and not on Linux. You could even plug this into one of those Raspberry Pi devices, if you’re lucky enough to have one!) They also operate standalone with a 5V power supply.

The Brain v2 is for some seriously large and complex controllers, with support for up to 64 analog inputs, 128 Buttons, and 192 LEDs. (Fortunately, a companion board called the Omni, and connections via ribbon cables, mean that you won’t create complete spaghetti trying to do that.) In fact, it’s so powerful I’d recommend considering something simpler for less-ambitious projects, but if you’re planning a big controller, it’s tough to beat Livid’s offerings.

New in v2:

  • A Bus Board for easier control connections
  • LED support up from 48 to 192, extra circuitry for ultra-brights.
  • Encoders now work with LED encoder ring support, so you can make a big circle of ultra-bright lights to go around your encoder.
  • RGB LED support.
  • 5V standalone power is new.

Add those features to cool extras from the original, like accelerometer and velocity-sensitive surface support and programmable MIDI settings.

CDM asks Livid’ Jay Smith to tell us what this is all about.

CDM: Who is this for?

Jay: That’s kind of a loaded question! It’s really for anyone wanting to create a class-complaint MIDI device of their own. An artist, a maker of commercial products, a musician, a visualist? With Brain version 1 we’ve seen a MIDI controlled electric mandolin, Moldover’s Mojo, and The Choppertone to name a few. We’ve also powered some other pretty sophisticated commercial devices for other companies with it, so it’s not just a DIY solution.

With v2 we’ve really expanded the functionality by adding almost any kind of control you’d want to hook up to it, and made the process of doing that much easier. If you are talking about standard MIDI controller type controls, our Omni board support thousands of configurations with just one circuit board. This isn’t just for building “controllers” in terms of software controllers either. We’ve added external power so you can use it to control analog gear and other MIDI controlled devices.

Apart from those examples, what can you build with Builder and the Brain?

Anything that has a button, LEDs, potentiometer, encoder, FSRs, accelerometers, sensors, and more. Single LEDs, RGB LEDs, and “groups” of LEDs of 6,12, or 24 can be created and controlled with one MIDI note or CC or locally controlled with an encoder or pot. As a result, inventive, designs with interesting lighting feedback are possible. VU meters driven by CCs, or a clever array of LEDS that make glyphs or patterns can be arranged with your controls to provide novel, custom feedback that would never make it on Guitar Center’s shelves, but mean something special to you. The omni board provides enough physical limitation that you can think about a “chunk” of a controller and isolates parts of your project into digestible parts, and allows you to sensibly expand and modify your control surface with only 1 brain.

Why would you choose this over another platform?

Frankly there is no other platform for controller building that is this packed with features, well documented and supported, and easy to use. Since the release of Brain v1 three years ago we’ve spent a lot of time listening to our user’s requests, thinking about the features we’d like for our own use, and developing them into a platform for others to use. We didn’t spend much time looking at what else was out there, we looked for what wasn’t and tried to fill in those gaps. When it comes to building your own device, whether for creating music, controlling lights, or something else completely, there are really only other “solutions”, not platforms, which is what we intended to create.

Who is this not for?

If you are looking for an all-in-one solution for your dream controller but don’t want to do any of the labor, this is definitely not for you. We’ve really set out to create the most comprehensive platform that has the smallest learning curve. There are some other great solutions out there, but some of them either have a big learning curve or require programming to achieve results. If you have a smaller project and don’t care about MIDI, the ability to edit, expand, and have a long terms solution, there are certainly cheaper solutions out there. We tried to make the process more streamlined, feature packed, and have taken a lot of the guesswork out of it with Brain v2. With the addition of the Bus Board we’ve added things like resistors, transistors, and chips that make the building process much easier.

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