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Guest Blog: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Arduino

16 Apr

Maker of all trades, Chuck Stephens, shares his insights on learning to love the Arduino.


I have an admission to make- I was an Arduino resistor. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate what could be done with microcontrollers; I saw many awesome projects at maker fairs and online that proved the Arduino was more than a toy. Part of my disdain was because I wanted to design circuits, not write programs. Arduino and similar microcontrollers seemed like cheating. To really understand what was going on, I reasoned, you would need to build physical circuits. Also the process of learning a programming language seemed daunting to someone who’s last programming experience was writing BASIC 25 years ago. Finally, I was somewhat of an analog purist. My main interest is in synthesizers and sound devices. I thought that analog synths were the best way to get the sounds I wanted and that digital sound synthesis was not nearly as versatile.

Well boy, was I wrong!

An Expensive Way to Blink an LED

arduino blinky lightWe’ve all seen it- Someone posts a project that uses a $30 microcontroller to do something that I could do with a couple of dollars worth of components. What a cheater! I’ve spent the last four years learning electronics and breathing solder fumes while this guy just waltzes in here and makes an LED blink like he’s Tesla or something. He probably doesn’t even know who Forrest Mims is. What nerve!

Of course this kind of thinking assumes that the person using the Arduino to do something simple is interested in learning electronics in the first place. Maybe they’re an artist who just wants to add some simple interactivity to a sculpture without having to earn an electrical engineering degree. Maybe they’re a programmer wanting to add some peripheral input to a bit of code they’re writing. Maybe they just want a blinky LED and this was the easiest way to get it. Ultimately, who cares?

While microcontrollers do make electronics more accessible to noobs and folks outside the field, that’s hardly the point for experienced users. The important thing about microcontrollers is the incredible power and versatility they offer the active hobbyist and inventor. In the hands of someone with a good grasp of electronics, the Arduino can save a lot of time and space and get you from the design phase to a working prototype very quickly. Just because you can build a circuit from components doesn’t mean you have to. What do you have to prove? Victory comes from a successful project, not the number of steps involved.

Root, Hog, or Die!

I was required to take two years of a foreign language in high school and, being very stubborn, I refused to take Spanish and opted for French instead. The fact that I had no one to practice with besides my classmates meant that very little of what I ‘learned’ was actually retained. Years later I visited Paris, and within days I was amazed by how much of my French came back. While I was far from fluent, I could ask directions, make purchases and order food with ease. The key was to be totally immersed in the language. It’s amazing how easily you learn when you have no other choice. As they used to say in the south when they turned the pigs out to forage- root, hog, or die!
Learning a computer language seems quite a bit harder then learning my broken tourist French. At least a foreign language will have recognizable syntax and grammar. Even if you don’t understand the words, you will have some understanding of how they go together. When I looked at some Arduino code nothing was familiar at all. It looked alien. I checked out some tutorials and the code samples they used seemed just as confusing. My Arduino sat on the shelf for months while I thought about ‘setting aside some time’ to learn how to use it.

intel gallileoFast forward to the recent Make/Intel Galileo Hacks Session on Google Hangouts. The folks at Make sent me a nice package with an Arduino starter kit, an Intel Galileo microcontroller board and a few more goodies. We were given three weeks to develop a project and present it in an online hangout. Usually when I participate in these kinds of programs I do the physical build and have a partner do the programming. I started building a prototype of a 4 axis laser spirograph confident that the programming would be taken care of. As the last week of the session got closer and other responsibilities piled up I began to panic- There was little time to try to schedule a session with a programmer before the big show and tell.

With the final hangout scheduled for Thursday night, I woke up on Saturday morning determined to do something. I had no choice- I was under the gun and I could not fail. I would cram and buckle down and try to learn some basic functionality to turn into a project for Thursday evening. I opened Lady Ada’s tutorial and resigned myself to the task at hand. I had no one to rely on but myself, so I plugged the Arduino into the computer, opened the IDE and loaded the Blink sketch. I realized that each step of the program was explained in plain English throughout the sketch. Maybe this wasn’t quite as bad as I’d imagined…

Success! The LED was blinking.

I followed Adafruit’s tutorial and determined what the variables were. I tried shorter blinks with longer gaps and long flashes that blinked off and back on quickly. I copied the main part of the sketch and pasted it onto the end to make a long flash followed by a short flash, over and over again. I added a new sketch that allowed me to control the speed of the flashes with a potentiometer. I doubled the sketch and changed the pin assignment and was able to control two separate LEDs.

I felt kind of foolish. This was easy! Why haven’t I been doing this for years? I soon realized that learning to use the Arduino wasn’t like learning an entire new language at all- it was more like being a tourist learning some key phrases and how to combine them. By using them they began to make sense and I spent the rest of the day adding new phrases and seeing how they worked together.

I needed to assemble a motor shield that plugged into the Arduino and allowed me to control multiple motors or servos simultaneously. This meant downloading a new library. The library contains new commands and code for accomplishing specific tasks as well as examples of how to use these new commands. I found an example sketch that read the value of a potentiometer and used it to control the speed of a motor. This formed the backbone of my project’s code.

The great thing about the Arduino IDE is that it comes with its own built-in phrase book. By opening examples in the file menu of the IDE you will find a selection of very arduino idebasic sketches with plain English explanations. You can alter and combine these small bits of code to create a more complex sketch quite easily. By Tuesday evening I had a sketch capable of using four potentiometers to precisely control the speed of four motors with mirrors mounted on them slightly off center. By bouncing a small laser pointer between the four spinning mirrors and onto a wall you get complex swirling patterns and shapes. Since I still had two days until the show and tell and I love noisy projects, I decided to add another bit of code to create sweeping sounds to go with the light show. I used the input from the pots to control the pitch and other parameters of the sound from a speaker so the light and sound would sync up.

One problem I ran into was that the Galileo, being new, wouldn’t recognize several of the libraries that I needed to make my project to do what I wanted. The project ran perfectly with the Arduino but the Galileo just would not work. Since the Galileo was the focus of the hack session, I was determined to incorporate it in some way. The Arduino has six analog pins which are perfect for reading variable voltages from a potentiometer. The motor shield uses two of the analog pins to communicate with the Arduino, so after connecting the four speed/sound control pots, all of my analog pins were used. I decided that having the laser blink at a variable rate would add another facet to the potential patterns created by my projector. I loaded the basic blinking LED sketch onto the Galileo with a pot on one of the analog pins and the power to the laser connected to one of the digital pins. Yep- I used Intel’s feature-packed new microcontroller to blink a single LED.

Don’t you hate it when someone uses a $70 microcontroller to do something that you could easily do with a couple of dollars worth of components? What a cheater! What nerve!

When Thusday rolled around I was given a few minutes to explain my project and demonstrate it during the hangout. I was amazed that I had gone from a basic blinking LED to an impressive and interactive project in less than a week. My mistake was trying to understand the Arduino before I actually plugged it in. That’s like trying to learn to swim by reading a description of swimming. The only way to learn how to use the Arduino is to plug it in and follow the tutorials. Go step by step and it will all make sense. All of my assumptions about learning to use the Arduino IDE were wrong. Much like on my Paris trip, when I immersed myself in the language it quickly began to make sense.

Confessions of a Hipster Music Snob

I grew up with a fascination for electronic music. From the fat synthesizer bass lines of disco and early hiphop to the futuristic sounds of new wave, keyboards, sequencers synth boxand drum machines offered an exciting musical palette. For me, the ideal electronic instrument is designed to create unique new sounds rather than simulate other instruments. Since most digital keyboards were loaded with samples designed to recreate existing instruments they tend to sound fake and inauthentic. Analog instruments, on the other hand, can produce a wide variety of sounds, from familiar organ and horn sounds to far out sound effects and noises with no real-world comparison. Analog synthesizers and drum machines are coveted by music producers for their warmth and versatility.

This preference is one of the main reasons I wasn’t in a hurry to experiment with the Arduino. While it might be great for controlling a robot or other mechanical device, I didn’t have high hopes for the board’s musical potential. When I loaded the basic synthesizer code into the projector it created interesting sounds but a grounding problem caused motor noise to bleed through. Since I had another Arduino, I decided to build a stand alone synthesizer. I used a sketch called Auduino that used five pots to control the filter and cutoff of a stepped tone synthesizer. The pitch was controlled by a pot and was divided into steps in the key of E major. Turning the knob automatically created a musical scale, from deep, throbbing basses to piercing clear high notes. By controlling the pitch with one hand and the filter and cutoff with the other you can create very impressive and dynamic sounds with a unit that costs less than $50.


Chuck and his sound machines at Gulf Coast MakerCon 2014

The real test came when I got to demo the synth for my friend who is a vinyl DJ and analog synth player. He hates digital gear even more than I do and I knew he would be a tough critic. I started off with some clean mid-range melodies and rhythms. I adjusted the cutoff and raised the pitch for some gritty brassy leads and my buddy seemed to be enjoying it. Then I went for the jugular and dropped the pitch down way low while tweaking the filter for some funky bass lines and dubstep-style filter wobbles. When I stopped he was quite impressed and asked what circuit I used. I just grinned, opened the enclosure and showed him the Arduino.
So much for hating digital synths.

Hallelujah! I’ve Seen the Light

So now I’m an Arduino convert. Microcontrollers are another useful tool for making the things I make. While the Arduino and other boards are very useful, to get the most out of them you need a general knowledge of electronics. You could choose to learn circuit design first and then move on to microcontrollers or you can start out with an Arduino and a handful of components and learn the electronics as you go. The important part is that you are learning and creating. Learning what you need when you need it is what ‘making’ is all about.

I no longer see the Arduino as cheating but as a way to do complex projects quickly and with a small footprint. I also found that the language is easy to get started with and the only thing standing in the way of getting started is actually getting started. The most important thing I learned about the Arduino is that it’s a flexible platform for building sensor projects, robots, interactive devices and even, gasp, musical projects. The only real limitations are the specs of your particular board and your imagination.

Go wild!

Meet the Maker: Erik Heidt, of Drummerleash

4 Apr

drumerleash graphic

We’ve got a few more Makers for you to meet – here’s Erik Heidt, inventor of the Drummersleash – and also a drummer! We asked him to tell us something about his product, that he’ll be demoing at GulfCoastMakerCon.  Erik’s short on words, but big on ideas and we imagine you’ll like his sound this weekend!

GCMC: What do you do?

EH: I am a Industrial product designer and drummer.

GCMC: Why do you do it?

EH: Cause I have a passion to design cool stuff.
GCMC: What’s unique about what you’ve made?

EH: There’s no other product like the drummersleash on the market.

GCMC: What do you love about it?

EH: It solves the problem for drummers dropped drumsticks.

GCMC: Why might others be interested?

EH: This is a problem most drummers face due to hot or cold weather

GCMC: What inspired you to create DrummersLeash?

EH: Drummers wrapping tape around fingers to solve the problem.

GCMC: What are you bringing to Gulf Coast MakerCon?

EH: Possibly an electric drum kit

GCMC: What do you hope to take from Gulf Coast MakerCon?

EH:Talking to other inventors and networking

GCMC: Why do you think an event like GCMC is important to the community?

EH: It inspires others to create things.

Come meet Erik, try out the Drummersleash – and get inspired!

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Meet the Maker: Cameron Eckelberry, The Digital Berrybot

24 Mar

Cameron Eckelberry

We’ve got some Music Makers this year, at Gulf Coast Maker Con, including eclectic electric musician Cameron Eckelberry, performing under the name The Digital Berrybot.  We asked him to tell us a bit about himself and his work.

GCMC: What do you do?
CE: I write Electronic Music, I self-produce it and self-distribute it.

GCMC: Why do you do it? Why do you think it’s important?
CE: It makes me happy. Being lost an entire day in a sonic, creative adventure is what I live for. Not to mention, the possibility of giving someone a boost with an aesthetic, aural Cameron Eckelberrywaveband. Sometimes life can push someone down so hard that the only way to reach and bring up the person is the arts.

GCMC: How long have you been doing it?
CE: I started playing in Punk/Alt. Rock bands about 10 years ago, I started making electronic music though, about 7 years ago.

GCMC: What do like best about it?
CE: The freedom, making electronic music has empowered me to do whatever I want. Working in a band, you can be a bit restricted in regard to full artistic control, as it is generally run as a democracy. Don’t get me wrong though, that can lead to some fantastic outcomes.

GCMC: What are you bringing for folks to see or do at Gulf Coast MakerCon?
CE: I’m going to performing a live mix of my latest album . Every performance is different and I look forward to everyone getting their funk on!

GCMC: What do you hope to get out of your Makercon experience?
Technology always interests me, so I am really stoked to see all the cool gadgets people are building! Maybe we can get some cool collabs going?

Come get your funk on at Gulf Coast MakerCon 2014!

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Guest Blog: The Soundtrack of Tomorrow is Being Made Today

2 Mar

chuckChuck Stephen is a maker, musician and self described, “very lazy writer” living in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa, Florida.  He’s also an awesome LI4E volunteer, sharing his many and varied DIY inventive skills at a events and programs throughout Tampa Bay, most recently at the USF Engineering EXPO, where he showcased some of his own personal musical aesthetic.    Here he shares a nuanced look at the influence of makers in music.


Planning for the Gulf Coast MakerCon got us thinking about music and more specifically, what constitutes ‘maker music’. Of course we’ve seen talented instrument makers, circuit benders and guys playing the Mario Bros. theme on floppy drives at various maker events, but what else is there? Is there a maker sound or musical aesthetic? Do makers approach music differently?

With the traditional music industry losing ground to digital music distribution and the explosion of innovation and openness fostered by the internet and demonstrated by the maker scene, we are at a crossroads of musical possibilities. This trend has roots going back to the sixties and earlier as musicians began to explore the intersection of technology and sound. With technological innovations and new ideas about the role of musicians and producers, this exploration quickly grew into many varied forms of electronic music and new, intuitive interfaces for the creation of music. The basic concepts of the new musical forms, that music can be created from snippets of other audio sources and arranged like a collage, that technology once frowned on by ‘real musicians’ could open a whole new sonic pallette and that existing, accepted technologies could be re-imagined in new ways, initiated changes that are still being felt in music today. These new forms of electronic music and unique musical interfaces and controls go hand in hand with the ideals of the maker movement.

Modulating with Electricity

The idea of creating music with electricity was popularized in the twenties by Leon Theremin’s eponymous invention. Not only wastheramin the Theremin‘s sound unique, it was controlled by waving the performers hands in the air above the instrument to affect the electrical field it generated. It was a finicky machine that took a long time to master, but it’s eerie ‘WoooWoooo’ sound became the go-to spooky sound effect for Hollywood for years to come.

The shift toward new musical forms and interfaces really got under way in the sixties with early pioneers like the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and American psychedelic rock band Silver Apples. Both used industrial test equipment and oscillators to create sounds that where impossible to create with traditional instruments. Suddenly music was being created by turning knobs, pushing buttons and flipping switches. These sounds became popular for scifi movie soundtracks and influenced the prog rock movement of the late sixties and the new wave of the late seventies.

Enter the Disc Jockey

Herc_on_the_Wheels_of_SteelThe seventies saw the emergence of disco and the popularity of the DJ. In the night clubs the songs themselves became less important than how the DJ presented them. This culminated with a young DJ from Jamaica named Kool Herc developing the basics of what became hip hop and break beat music in a basement in the Bronx. When he noticed how people on the dance floor got excited during the accents called breaks on certain records, he started using two turntables with two copies of the same song to juggle the break in a loop over and over again making the dance floor go wild. This is the origin of the term break dancing. By using records and turntables in a new way to remix and customize music, a new generation of musical creativity was born and attitudes toward intellectual property and copyright law began to change, foreshadowing the open source movement and creative commons movements.


Another important development in the seventies was the emergence of punk rock, with it’s reliance on a DIY approach and its 800px-Roland_TR-505_drum_machinestripped down musical aesthetic. Punk, in direct reaction to the excesses of the sixties rock scene, put message and attitude ahead of musicality to create a new, accessible music that spoke to the disillusioned youth of the time. Punk dissolved the psychological barriers between the bands and the fans, insisting that any kid with a cheap pawn shop guitar and something to be angry about could start a band and be a part of the scene. Punk democratized music and paved the way for many new genres to come.

At this time people began to look at music technologies in a new way. Roland’s 808 drum machine and 303 bass line synthesizer were popular with the Holiday Inn lounge singer set. Used as directed they had a distinctively cheesy sound that serious musicians laughed at. Soon some enterprising producers realized that if you purposely adjusted these units to not sound like traditional instruments at all some really cool sounds could be produced. Soon these producers teamed up with DJs to create the game changing sounds of hip hop and house music.

Get Your Groove On

The next big evolution in how we think of music came with 1985’s must-have music toy the Casio SK1. Besides having some cool sounds and beats programmed in, it also had the ability to record a short sample of audio from a built in microphone and play it back through the keyboard as separate notes. What had been an expensive studio technology was now available to anyone. Soon every ten year old was burping their way through Mary Had a Little Lamb to a disco beat. As William Gibson wrote ‘The street will find it’s own uses for things’. Soon hip hop artists were adding this technology to their arsenals with the wall of sound noise carpets of Public Enemy, the snarky pop culture references of the Beastie Boys or the poppy bounce of De La Soul. Taken to the extreme, one six second drum solo sample from an obscure 1968 funk single, dubbed ‘the Amen Break’, became the basis of the entire genre of drum and bass music.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs the nineties rolled around we saw an influx of multifunction production boxes like Roland’s Groovebox or Korg’s Electribe. These devices allowed the user to program both rhythm and melody parts on multiple tracks with multiple parts and various effects. Aspiring musicians, producers and performers could create professional sounding, complex back up tracks with very little formal musical experience. Along with advances in computer software this removed the economic barriers to music production. The growth of the internet provided a fertile ground to distribute self produced music all over the world. Suddenly a kid in his bedroom in London could collaborate with a singer in New York to have a club hit in Ibiza without ever performing live or even leaving the house.

Multi-axis Control

The late nineties brought us another innovative bit of equipment- Korg’s Kaoss pad. This new effects processor allowed musicians to control two different effects simultaneously by tapping or dragging their finger across a touch sensitive pad. Instead of setting the levels on a traditional effect pedal and playing your instrument, the Kaoss pad allowed you to dynamically change multiple settings in real time as you played. This was soon followed by the Kaossilator which removed the instrument from the equation all together and allowed you to control the pitch and effect level of built in instrument samples and sound effects. Users could easily set a scale and key for the chosen instrument so that any notes played will sound ‘in tune’. This allows even non-musicians to create basic melodies, bass lines and rhythms. This device also allowed you to record loops and layer multiple sounds on top of each other, creating beats and grooves. Soon many other companies, as well as the DIY community, latched onto the idea. The advent of touch screen tablet devices in the 2000’s gave rise to many apps using multi-axis touch to control sounds and musical events.

2010 brought Korg’s next big step- the Monotron series. These simple, pocket sized analog synthesizers had ribbon controllers monotron_duorather than keyboards, keeping the production cost low and lending to cool, bendy sounds. Not only did Korg make a fun little analog sound effects machine that was very affordable, they also marked the outputs for pitch, cutoff, control voltage and other settings on the circuit board of the device and released the full schematics online with a reminder that, while modifications would void the warranty, you were free to do whatever you want to your Monotron with their blessings. This created a cult following of hackers and modders who fell in love with the simple machine and made it the center of many cool projects.

Mixing it up with Makers

The early years of the twentieth century also saw the full emergence of the maker movement. Fueled by the internet, geeks and makers all over the world were suddenly sharing tips on everything from circuit bending to DIY synthesizers and noise circuits. From simple circuits like the Atari Punk Console or short circuited Speak and Spell toys to more complex sound generators like Lunetta synths or DIY digital interfaces like the Monome, the DIY electronic music scene has exploded. This has lead to musical devices using all kinds of physical interfaces, from light sensitive circuits to Kinect enabled full body dance controllers.

All of these musical innovations have lead, not just to new forms of musical expression, but to a new democratization of music production. Punk’s ‘come as you are’ inclusiveness has melded with hip hop’s embracing and re-imagining of technology to create a new way of thinking about music’s role in our lives. Music no longer requires years of practice, rote memorization and training. Anyone who can turn a knob, press a button, click a mouse or drag a finger can create music. Any kid with a laptop and an internet connection can distribute and promote their music worldwide.

With a handful of components from Ebay, some schematics from various hobby sites and a little soldering experience anyone can build their own analog synthesizers, sequencers, drum machines and experimental musical devices. Like revolutionaries of the past we have stormed the ramparts, seized the means of production and thrown the money changers from the temple. Artists can now make and share whatever their creative drive dictates, free of economic concerns. Music fans no longer have to rely on the accountants at the record labels for their listening material- everything is available right now. While the music industry produces more derivative, sterile ‘product’, the bedroom studios and laptops of the world are creating the soundtrack of tomorrow.

The Sound of the Future

making musicThe exciting thing is that this time of great musical innovation and possibility coincides with a major cultural shift. The youth of today are the first generation to grow up without preconceived notions of traditional interfaces. Today’s young people control video games with gestures or full body movements. They have grown up with any number of physical devices replaced with phone or tablet apps. They drive RC cars and fly quadcopters via Bluetooth connections with their smart phones. They have had access to Arduino, Raspberry Pi, 3D printing and robots their entire lives. They spend large amounts of time in virtual environments like Minecraft. They have grown up with a level of technological integration only dreamed of by the futurists of the past and it’s still changing. These kids seem far less likely to gravitate towards the limitations and learning curve of traditional instruments outside of a retro affectation or nostalgia.

What kind of music will they be making in ten years and how will they be making it? One thing’s for certain- it’s being incubated in the open source, DIY world of the maker scene.

Come on out to the Gulf Coast MakerCon to see some of the Bay Area’s music makers in action. In the meantime, take a look at – and have a listen to – some of these unique sounds:

  • Silver Apples consisted of drummer Danny Taylor and Simeon, who played an unconventional homemade synthesizer. Their work was groundbreaking-
  • The BBC Radiophonic Workshop, best known for creating the Dr. Who theme, made sound effects and theme music for BBC affiliates around the world using very innovative sounds and techniques
  • Grimes is a one-woman musical force from Vancouver who uses production boxes, samplers, and keyboards layered with ethereal vocals to create dreamy, haunting pop
  • The Petebox uses his voice and a Kaoss Pad sampler to arrange loops like legos to build complex songs-
  • Brett Domino is a geek superstar who uses odd electronic instruments to cover pop songs in a unique way-
  • Lunetta synths are DIY sound generating devices that use CMOS logic chips in simple circuits connected by patch cords to create complex, self generating musical patterns

And here’s the project that got many people started in sound circuits- the Atari Punk Console from Forrest M. Mims-

And of course- circuit bending. This gets real weird around the 3:00 mark.

Have fun, and keep your ears open for some awesome sounds at Gulf Coast MakerCon!

-Chuck Stephens

Beating the Drum for Gulf Coast MakerCon

28 Jan

LI4E Volunteer and Maker Extraordinaire, Chuck Stephens, is making some noise for Gulf Coast MakerCon 2014. Check it out!


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