Musical Electronics Library

Auckland, New Zealand


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Handmade Electronic Music

The book that inspired the Musical Electronics Library: “Handmade Electronic Music” by Nicolas Collins.

This book is SO GREAT. It assumes no technical knowledge whatsoever. It starts out with a lot of fun projects that don’t even require soldering, such as playing the insides of a transistor radio with your fingers. There are so many good ideas here, like the Matrix Mixer, which doesn’t require power, and is perfect for turning a pile of innocuous guitar pedals into a complex, chaotic feedback oscillator. Most of the things in the book are analogue sound generators, but there are also ideas for computer controllers, eg. using hacked joysticks, and some video circuits. The emphasis is on adventurous, bold hacking and circuit bending, with a generous helping of from-scratch DIY electronics as well. The tone is always encouraging, which makes it a pleasure to read. There is a minimum of theory.

The second edition includes a DVD, which has video tutorials:

audio examples, and, best of all, a long series of 1-minute video clips submitted by hardware hackers around the world, showing off their amazing creations:

Nicolas Collins has generously shared the pdf file of his original workshop manual Hardware Hacking, upon which Handmade Electronic Music is based.

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MEL prehistory 2

So after having the idea for the library I had to think about how to go about it. Initially my rough plan was to build things myself, using my own money, and store the collection at my house. I spent April and May 2013 building the first dozen circuits for the collection. These were mostly housed in VHS tape boxes, because of these reasons that I wrote about here.

Having a limited budget and wanting to build things as quickly as possible I focused on relatively cheap, simple circuits. The average cost of parts for each box was about $20. I built mainly sound-processing rather than sound-generating stuff, because it’s easier. I built a phaser, a ring modulator, a pitch shifter, some distortions, an oscillator, two noise makers, and a matrix mixer. I did most of the work on a chaotic drum machine, then I got burned out and didn’t make anything for the rest of the year. But I still thought the library was a good idea, and so did everyone I talked to. At the start of this year I met Rob Carter and Brett Ryan, who were both very supportive and wanted to help build stuff for the library. Which brings us up to date. End of prehistory period.


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Why VHS tape boxes make good electronics enclosures

A library of electronics could potentially take up a lot of space. If the circuits were built like guitar pedals, ie. hardware on top and sides, they wouldn’t store very compactly. Again inspired by the Nic Collins book “Handmade Electronic Music”, I decided to use VHS tape boxes to house most of the library circuits. There are a lot of good reasons to use these boxes. They are cheap, widely available, lightweight, fairly robust, and easy to drill. They have a clear-plastic outer pocket to hold artwork and labels, and they’re easy to open for battery change. The spines are wide enough that controls can be mounted there, so the majority of boxes can be stored spine-out on a shelf — like books — saving space. They have heavy kitsch/nostalgia value:

ringwald

The main problem with VHS cases is that they aren’t super strong. You can’t really use them as guitar stomp-boxes, which require expensive, heavy-duty aluminium boxes with rugged footswitches. If you stomp on a video case it will squash. So, most of the MEL collection will be suitable for table-top use, rather than on the floor for guitarists. A library with lots of money and storage space could build things in metal enclosures, but this is not an option for us at the moment.

Other drawbacks of using these boxes:

1) Lack of screening from radio interference. Possible solutions: Line inside of box with tin-foil/metal tape/conductive paint.

2) Nothing to hold battery in place. Possible solutions: Metal clip, velcro.

One caveat about using VHS cases is that they aren’t all the same. Boxes from the early 1980s were made of thick black plastic and are really tough. From the late 80s onward they were made of thinner plastic. This is not a huge problem, but I’ve tried to get as many of the stronger ones as possible. As a bonus the actual magnetic tape in early 80s videos has a measurable resistance, so you can use it to make a long, flat variable resistor — good for controlling an oscillator. More about that in a future post.


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MEL prehistory 1

I am Pat Kraus. I’ve been doing electronics for about 8 or 9 years. I taught myself how to solder in about 2005, and since then i’ve built a bunch of guitar pedals, battery-powered synth boxes, and, most recently, a Serge modular synthesizer. The idea for the Musical Electronics Library came to me in March 2013 when I was reading Nicolas Collins’ excellent book “Handmade Electronic Music”. There are a lot of cool ideas in that book, and I wanted to try them out, but I was faced with a problem that had bothered me for a long time: deciding what to build. There are so many nice electronics projects I’d like to make — there are a million on the internet — but of course I’ve only got limited time and money. And it’s common to encounter something that’s electronically or sonically very interesting, but which I wouldn’t actually use that much myself. So I never get around to making it.

One solution is to build stuff for sale. Then you get to make things you might not use yourself, but that someone else will. I have done this in the past, but I found it stressful, and I’m not very motivated to make money, so I never really got into it that much. Besides, there’s not a lot of demand for more esoteric, unusual gear. When I was reading Nic Collins’ book I realised that a better solution for me would be to make a lot of stuff and then lend it out, like a library. That way I could build whatever took my fancy, and someone would be bound to find a use for it. This seemed like a good way to combine my interest in electronics and music with a desire to serve my community.


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What is the point of this website?

The point of this website is mainly to let you know what’s happening at MEL. We’ll also tell you what’s in the collection and how to use it. We want to encourage DIY electronics as much as possible, so we’ll also post technical information about what we’ve built, to help you to make things for yourself.

The other major goal of the website is to document the history of MEL. This is partly to provide a resource for future musical electronics librarians. If you’re thinking of establishing a similar project we’d like to help you as much as we can. We’ll write about our philosophy and ideas, and why we’ve proceeded as we have, so that you can learn what’s worked for us.


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Donations

Thanks very much to Liam Bowen, who donated a generous stash of parts, and Tina Pihema, who donated a sweet pile of guitar pedals.  Also, special thanks to Clinton Watkins at AUT, who has organised workshop space for us at the Colab Mechatronics Lab. Thanks Clint!