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the wondrous tales of a software guy in hardwareland

So It Has Come To This

This first post is long. Too long. Obscenely long. I’m very sorry about it, but this is the first time I write something in a blog. Furthermore, I didn’t have time to make it shorter :-)

The TL;DR version is: got Arduino, gonna build stuff, gotta be fun.

If you feel brave enough, instead, read on…

Since last Friday,  I’m the proud owner of two little cute Arduino boards. Funny how it sounds like I’m talking about pets, uh? In a sense, that’s how it feels. Even now that they are safely stored in their bubble wrap, I can hear them in my head asking for care, wanting to be fed with code, wanting to interface with the world… Like they were some kind of weird Tamagotchi :-)

But I’m digressing. In fact, I love to digress. I probably spent one third of my life digressing. The other two thirds are less interesting.

Back to the Arduinos. I originally wanted this to be my birthday+Christmas present to myself. (Yes, I was born on 21st December, so this actually makes sense, in case you’re wondering). But I got really disappointed by online resellers (did I mention that I hate online electronics components resellers? No? Well, I probably will at some point) and eventually decided to give up.

On the other hand, I always had positive experience with eBay. So I thought, hey, maybe I can buy an Arduino there! I searched around a bit and finally could grab me a nice kit composed of:

1 x Arduino Duemilanove
1 x Arduino Nano 3.0
1 x MidiVox shield
1 x small breadboard

All this for 50€, postage included. Not terribly cheap, but fair. Plus, the MidiVox shield is not so common to find. Sure, you can still build it, but I think that’s way beyond my skill at this point.

This is worth mentioning: I have more or less zero experience in electronics. If you don’t count the many electronic appliances (toys, cassette recorders, even my venerable Sinclair ZX Spectrum!) that I torn to pieces, investigated in their inner gory details and never been able to remount properly, back when I was a kid. I went as far as trying to solder something, at some point, but the outcome was… not very professional :-)

I’m really starting from scratch here, so I will eventually say, and do, a lot of stupid things. Outside of this blog, I’m just a software engineer, mainly a Perl developer. But I also do have experience with C/C++, Java, .NET, even some Lisp and a pinch of Assembler.

What really drove me towards the Arduino platform is, actually, music. In particular, it’s all fault of a Korg monotron. I got it (used, for 30€) last summer, and really love its raw analog sound and its crampled, bare-to-the-bone feature set.

Lovely as it is, I couldn’t help but thinking that getting rid of the pesky mini-ribbon and being able to control the oscillator and filter through MIDI, or a sequencer, would be great. In a few words, hacking the monotron! And we all know the little critters are born to be hacked :-)

But let me talk about music, I mean, my relation to music and musical instruments. I listen to, and enjoy, too many different things and styles to be mentioned here. Among the many things, however, I definitely love electronic music. Not (with some notable exceptions) the dance/techno/trance/ambient/whatever that usually gets associated with the name nowadays, no Sir. Being the old fart I am, I mean what electronic music used to mean, like, 30 years ago. Berlin School! Krautrock! Space music! You know, the likes of Wendy Carlos, Tangerine Dream, Jarre, Kraftwerk, and many others.

Needless to say, I have always been totally fascinated by synthesizers. Those big badasses with lots of knobs and blinking lights, those messed up modulars with cables everywhere and then some more, I love them all! I play music myself – bad music, as I never learned how to play keyboards (or anything else, for that matters) properly. But I do enjoy it, and that’s enough for me. However, music is nothing more than a hobby, I’m really mostly a family guy. That’s why it never gets high priority on my list, both timewise and moneywise. As with the monotron, I always tend to stay on the cheap side when it comes to musical instruments :-)

So, to summarize, I decided to combine my infatuation for electronic music with my strict low-budget requirements and with a sane curiousity for electronics, and went down the Arduino way.

The point is that, even if Arduino is nice per se, and you learn a lot with it, and it’s radical-chic, the new black and everything… it’s not something I would have approached without a project, without something very definite in mind to realize with it. My main project is going to be a CV/Gate type sequencer for the monotron. But that’s not necessarily all :-)

The MidiVox shield, for example, it’s undoubtedly a nice tool to experiment with. Sure, you can do pretty much the same (and more) using SynthEdit or building VST instruments from scratch. It’s software, after all. One thing I plan to investigate, in fact, is the feasibility of building some form of hybrid, if not analog at all, machine (eg. for example, feeding an analog oscillator with it, things like that).

Another (the last!) argument I will throw in: I believe Arduino has a big potential as a learning platform. A software learning platform, mind you. I think it’s easier (and more fun) to grasp concepts like variables, conditions and loops if you see them “incarnated” in blinking LEDs, squealing sounds or rotating servomotors, than just by looking at the output of your program on a computer screen. I mean, simply seeing the output of something on a screen has been fun and “a kind of magic” for me, when I learned programming on home computers back in the ’80s. But nowadays, kids have smartphones, they use YouTube, the latest console games are so shiny and vibrant that something like a LOGO turtle, or Hello, world printed in green on black, would probably just make them go “meh”.

Ok, I’m probably exaggerating a bit here, but I think you get the point. For this reason, I really look forward to share my experiments with my 11 year old son. Don’t worry however, as soon as I hear a “meh”, I’ll let him free to go and play the Wii instead :-)

And that’s pretty much the start of this story. To recap, my goals are (in no particular order):

  • Build a CV/gate sequencer for my (to be hacked) monotron
  • See how far I can push the MidiVox
  • Learn something about analog audio synthesis
  • Verify how much I can teach my kid (and myself) about electronics, programming and getting awesome things done
  • Have fun

The timeline is obviously totally relaxed. It could take me days, weeks or months, even years, before coming up with something useful. I don’t really care. I’m blogging about this because it’s fun, and because I hope it’s going to be useful to someone else. At the very least, I will post Arduino code and schematics that someone may want to use.

That said, I hereby solemnly promise to try and keep the next posts on this blog shorter :-)


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