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Jason Webb

Rescued toy converted into MIDI controller

March 2012

Some time ago, I acquired a really neat toy guitar from my local Salvation Army for a whopping $1.95, and couldn’t wait to turn it into something cool. In the past, I’ve had a lot of fun taking discarded toys and circuit bending them into funky musical instruments, but after a while I realized that I really wanted to learn how to use some of these goofy toys to trigger activity (like synthesizers) on my computer.

The first solution that popped into my mind was to turn the toy in a MIDI controller by hijacking all of the switches, buttons, knobs and whatever else with my own wiring and a microcontroller loaded with code to translate the various electrical signals into real MIDI messages. These days, this is actually quite a trivial process thanks to the Teensy series from PJRC, which is capable of native HID device functionality, meaning it can show up as a USB MIDI device on any operating system, without the need for any extra drivers or installation! Using some really simple built-in functions, you can easily send and receive any kind of MIDI message directly from the Teensy. And the best part is that you can program the Teensy directly from within the Arduino IDE using an add-on called Teensyduino, so if you have some experience with Arduino programming, you are already ready for this project!

Recently, I’ve been trying to make more of an effort of documenting my projects and making them as open as possible to really participate first-hand in the Maker’s Movement, rather than just being a consumer. Therefore, I’ve written up my entire build process (with plenty of pictures, discussion and planning advice) in the form of an Instructable, which I hope you take a minute to check out:

Visit this project on Instructables

Below you can find a video of the MIDI controller in action. I’ve simply connected it to my machine and created a Pure Data patch using instructions from Anthony Mattox called Creating a polyphonic synthesizer in Pure Data. Hopefully in the next week or so I can have a musician friend go the whole nine yards and interface the controller with Ableton Live and have a jam session – keep your fingers crossed!

Project demo on Adafruit’s Show-and-Tell

Just for fun, since I noticed that Adafruit just started selling Teensy++ boards in their shop, I thought I ought to drop by their weekly Show-and-Tell on Google Hangouts and give a little demo. Only problem was that my audio wasn’t working this week! Luckily, I had a feeling it might happen (Hangouts has done it to me before), so I made some cue cards :)

My demo starts at ~21:19 in, but check out the rest of the projects, there was a very eclectic and interesting mix this week!