Meet the Meeblip!

Ok, time to take the wraps of the secret new addition to my setup. Meet the meeblip!

meeblip main board

Meeblip main board as delivered from Canada

The meeblip is a DIY monophonic 2-oscillator synth that you buy as a kit and assemble yourself. It doesn’t come with any form of keyboard or input device, and this is what the Yamaha QY10 and the Q25 are for.

There are three different kinds of kits, from the solder-and-build-everything-yourself to the all-you-need-is-a-screwdriver kit and I decided to get the simplest one. Cheating! you might say, but I’m not very confident in electrical engineering and I’m horrible at soldering so I figured this would be an excellent start for me.

no soldering required

Main board in place

So why did I decide to get this kit? First of all because it is capable of making some (not all) of those juicy old C64 Sid sounds that we love and cherish, but more importantly because after studying how this kit works, I’m hoping to learn more about synthesis and the HW involved.

To me this is first and foremost a learning tool, but I’m also confident that as I understand more about this instrument it will also find a natural place in actual recording.

almost done

Almost done...

So why did I need a multimeter? After assembling the kit according to the instructions and attempting to power on, the LED on the main board would not light up. This indicates that the MCU isn’t running so my first fear was a damaged board. Efter talking to James (the designer) I got some pointers as to how to check that the correct current was actually coming through to the main board (that’s where the multimeter comes into the picture). Unfortunately all tests on the IO daughter board showed green so we agreed that it might just be a dead main board.

Normally this is very very rare as James tests and programs all kits before he sends them out, but we agreed to do an exchange of just the main board. However, after closer examination by James, it turned out that one batch of the ribbon cables that connect the IO board to the main board had been wired backwards. The connector for the IO cable was slotted so it could only be fitted one way. No problem, with the help of a sharp knife I shaved off the notch on one end of the cable and flipped it.

ribbon cables

Ribbon cables in place (note, this is before the flip!)

Voila, the meeblip now shines and sparkles as expected!

It's alive!

It's alive!

I want to give a big thank you to James who responded super fast and was very helpful in diagnosing the problem. He offered to send a new IO cable but why wait?

Anyways, head on over to meeblip.com to learn more about this amazing little box!

Also, if you’re reading this because you’re having issues with your kit, please either contact Reflex audio through the meeblip website, or check out the meeblip forums at noisepages.com.

UPDATE: Here’s an example of what it can sound like:

Different kinds of Intstruments

I’ve never been a big electronics geek, but I’ve always wanted to learn more about the basics of how electrical engineering (is that the term?) works. My problem has been that I haven’t had a very good reason to actually get the gear and start to build something. There’s never been a ‘project’ interesting and necessary enough to warrant the investment in time and money.

MultimeterAs a person who learns best through a goal oriented combination of academic (theory) study and practical doing, that lack of a clear goal has always put me off. However (tada!) as I’ve started to learn more about how the synthesis process works in physical hardware it has become apparent to me that it would be very useful to understand better how the actual HW turns current and signals into sound. Also, with all the gear that I’m accumulating (yes, I’m a gear junkie…), some of which requires actual assembly, I found my self yesterday in the need of a multimeter. (The details of why I needed a multimeter will be revealed in a later post…)

What I would really like to do is spend some time to build a simple MIDI sequencer based on an Arduino board. As you know I’ve been looking for a solution that would allow me to play a MIDI note sequence on a keyboard into a small device that could record the sequence and then loop it back at variable speed. A friend suggested I build it myself based on some very simple schematics for MIDI on Arduino, and that would actually be a great starting point for a project. Perhaps that will be the entry point in the world of hardware hacking?

Do you agree that understanding the actual hardware and engineering foundations of sound synthesis is necessary to create good electronic music, or do software instruments and other virtual ‘interfaces’ abstract that away to a point where you can do without it?

What makes a sound?

Well, lots of things obviously, but I’ve realized that in order to better understand the tools I’m now trying to learn, I need to also understand the underlying principles of what Sound really is. Therefor I will start adding some posts here about the physics and theory of sound. Hopefully writing it down like this will reinforce my own learning and also benefit others out there wanting to learn about this things. Almost all of this information is available via wikipedia and other online sources (but there are also sprinkles of knowledge that is not so readily accessible so please stay tuned…).

As noted I am only just learning about this now so please feel free to point out any errors via the comments…

A definition of Sound

So what is sound? Sound can be defined as essentially two different things. 1. The ‘experience’ of sound, which is what we have when we hear a sound, and 2. the physical movement (vibrations) of air produced by a sound source, also known as sound waves. The former refers to the quality of sound while the latter is more concerned with how to make sounds with different characteristics.

Different types of instruments produce sound waves through different mechanics. The sound from a guitar for example is produced when the player hits a string, which by vibrating creates sound waves. With a flute you cause the air inside to vibrate by blowing into it. In either case, vibration is the key.

At a high level, the characteristics of a sound are determined by 3 factors; Pitch, Timbre and Loudness. Each of these qualities are in turn determined by a range of factors and I intend to write a more in depth post about each. For now, here’s a quick introduction to each.

Pitch

The pitch is what makes a sound appear ‘High’ or ‘Low’. It is determined by the number of vibrations created during a set period of time, which is also known as the frequency of the sound. The higher the frequency, the higher the pitch and the ‘higher’ you perceive the sound. There are a couple more things we need to cover about pitch such as Wavelength, Resonance and the relationship between the material properties of a sound source and its perceived pitch, but I will cover those in a deeper dive later.

Timbre

Timbre is a french word that means (loosely translated) ‘tone color’. It is the quality of a sound that allows us to tell the difference between two sound sources producing a sustained sound at the same pitch. Thus, even if to instruments are capable of producing a sound at with the same (theoretically stable) pitch and loudness, we can tell the difference between them because they will have different tone color properties. Timbre is a debated term that tries to describe and define an elusive property of sound. Important factors that make up distinct timbre include spectrum and envelope. As with pitch, the physical properties of a sound source such as material and size also influences its timbre. I have only begun to understand the properties of this quality, but I intend to write up a longer note on this soon.

Loudness

Loudness is often mistaken to simply mean the volume of sound, but there are plenty of other, more complex relationships between the character of a sound and it’s loudness. The perceived ‘strength’, or the relative position of a sound on a scale from ‘quiet’ to ‘loud’ is a common, formal definition of Loudness, but in order to fully understand why we experience different levels of loudness it is important to also understand how loudness is defined and how it relates to pitch and timbre. Factors that play an important role in determining loudness include frequency, bandwidth and duration. Together those factors help determine the loudness contour, or envelope of a sound, which in turn defines its Loudness. Again, more on this in a dedicated post.

Finaly

As is obvious from the above, the 3 qualities mentioned are deeply intertwined and all effect each other in many subtle ways. Hopefully by studying these relationships I can better understand how electronic synthesis of sound works and how to create the kind of sounds I want. I know this will be an important step in getting the music I hear in my head through the tools and into actual songs…