Sunday, June 24, 2018

Pentasynth: A homebuilt pentatonic keyboard and synth (part 1)

I’ve been working on another music project: it’s a custom-built Arduino-based synthesizer and keyboard called “Pentasynth”. Pentasynth uses a keyboard based on a five note pentatonic scale, so it’s easy to play for people with limited background in music (such as young kids) and encourages experimentation and improvisation. Pentasynth creates a user-selectable accompaniment including different drum patterns, bass lines and chord progressions and allows the user to play a pentatonic melody line over the top. Under the hood, the audio generation is performed using a four channel, 10kHz playback of wavetables (sine, pulse, sawtooth, triangle and random noise) using a micro-controller generated PWM that is then passed through a low-pass filter and into a small amplifier and speaker. The microcontroller is programmed in Arduino, with code based on “The Synth”, a wavetable synth library by DZL/Illustron. Pentasynth has controls for volume, tempo and selection of different accompaniment patterns. The keys and case components are 3D printed, with the main case panelling carved from clear acrylic using Carvey. Custom PCBs containing switches for detection of key presses were also carved on Carvey.

My local makerspace (Thinkspace) got in some carvable PCB blanks for Carvey last year, and I had been thinking about trying them out. A while ago, I had picked up a broken kids toy electric guitar from the side of the road (I like picking up random electronics junk I find :) ). I ripped it apart just out of curiosity to see how it worked. The guitar was controlled by little buttons: the buttons were basically bits of plastic that held a little piece of clear rubber with a little bit of conductive material in it. When the button is pressed, it would push the conductive material across a PCB with a criss-cross of conductive tracks that close a switch, that is then detected by a little microcontroller to produce a sound:

I salvaged out the little clear rubber bits and decided to try and carve my own PCB “criss-crosses” for the keys on my own keyboard. The advantage of designing it this way, instead of using some off-the-shelf buttons (the usual “clicky” kind) is that the keys then have a nice, soft tactile feel to them and don’t make a horrible “clicky” sound, that interferes with the music (I had regretted using clicky switches in a previous handheld video game project I made).

For carving the PCBs, I used these 2-by-3 inch PCB blanks and designed the circuit as an SVG with paths to cut out the ground and positive voltage paths for each of the ten switches (ten keyboard keys). I had to split the pads across three separate PCBs. I used a V-shaped milling bit (20 degrees) to mill the cuts into the PCB at a cutting depth of approximately 0.2mm. I found that in practice the height wasn't super accurate on Carvey, so had to experiment with different height each and every time I setup a new board to mill. Once the tracks were milled, I used a 1/16in to drill holes for screws and through holes for soldering connections to the PCB pads, and a 1/8in flat milling bit to cut out the final board.

I 3D printed banks of keys in different colours: I designed the “neck” of each key to be a 1mm height layer which produced the flex that allowed the key to swivel when pressed (printed in PLA). The keys were coloured in lots of three and two per octave, to give the feeling of the black keys on a normal piano (which also follow a major pentatonic scale). Originally I intended to design the entire case as a single 3D print, but found it was going to be fairly big (and hence take forever to print), so I ended up changing the design. I created one big baseplate out of clear acrylic (which I carved on carvey, with drill holes) and connected everything to this with screws and a screwdriver. I 3D printed an array of standoffs and other knick knacks to hold the assembly together. I also carved from clear acrylic a top panel which held two dials (one for volume, one for accompaniment tempo) and four control buttons for the accompaniment. This panel also had the small speaker mounted to it.

For the electronics, I used a Adafruit Metro Mini 328 (running at 5V/16MHz), an Arduino compatible board that uses the same ATmega328 chip as the Ardunio Uno. Each of the ten keys is connected to separate digital-in pins, and the remaining GPIO pins are connected to buttons and pots for the controls. The digital PWM output from the micro is then connected to an RC/low-pass filter (to create the waveforms from the PWM pulses) and the output sent to a 4-ohm, 3W speaker after amplification. Originally I had a small D-class audio amplifier I had left over from another project, but I accidentally broke it while desoldering an existing header off it, and so had to put together a simple, single stage transistor amp (which is very soft, and a temporary fix until I get another amp).

Instead of hard-soldering everything into the arduino, I got a bit lazy and decided to glue a small breadboard in and connect everything up via the breadboard. The advantage with this is that I can plug and swap-in a different microcontroller/synths/amplifiers in the future (which I am intending to do).

I'm pretty happy with the look and feel of the keyboard (it's a bit raw looking, but kind of cool), but not super happy with the sound at the moment: I need to get a proper amp for a bit of amplification, and I've found that the audio from the arduino synth library I'm using is not super nice sounding (it sounds a bit like a bad/cheap kids toy piano at the moment). I'm going to do some brainstorming for updating the audio, hence a probable part two post on the project: stay tuned!

The 3D models of printed parts and carvey SVG design files can be found here:

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