Encore Strat DIY Project Guitar

In my wild youth I used to fling my guitars about on stage with gay abandon – something that I’ve done less as I’ve gotten older. At this point I’m too attached to most of them, and not prepared to risk a terminal injury from another aerial flight into the drumkit at the end of a gig.

To try and remedy this, I picked up an Encore Strat (in a rather fetching hot pink colour) for a measly thirty quid – the plan being that I would upgrade a couple of bits and pieces to make it passable for live use, and deploy it for the higher energy situations where things may end up getting out of hand. Here is the Facebook marketplace picture that sold me on it:

Pink Encore Strat

As you can see, it looks pretty great – especially with the matching pink headstock. In person, there were a few things of note:

  • The body itself was extremely light, and felt like it would literally just smash into smithereens if it took a hard whack in the right place.
  • Perhaps because of this, it seemed like there was an unusual amount of sustain, with any vibrations or knocks resonating through the body pretty well. Maybe not the best for other guitars, but for a feedback noise monster this should be pretty great.
  • The pickups and bridge were fine. As were the pots. Pretty bog standard stuff.
  • The pickup selector switch was genuinely atrocious, and was so loose I couldn’t really tell which setting was which. I’m not sure if that was a problem from the factory, or something that had developed over time – but either way it wasn’t good.
  • The machine heads were really crappy and plastic – and it seemed like they didn’t hold the strings in tune especially well.
  • The fretboard was generally fine, and the action not too bad at all – though the neck lacked a bit of polish – and it felt fairly low quality overall as a result.
  • The frets badly needed a polish.
  • Since it was second hand, the pickguard was a bit grubby.
  • One of the strap buttons were missing.
  • There was no shielding of the cavity – just a portion of the pickguard.

Since the plan was to actually play this guitar live – rather than to just smash it up for the hell of it, I wanted it to be at least semi respectable, and took the opportunity to modify some of the poorer quality elements to bring it up to scratch.

Encore Strat Upgrade
I have no idea what I am doing.

I toyed with the idea of going the full hog: replacing the shoddy pickup selector switch, installing higher quality pots, etc, but in the end I stripped the upgrades down to the most ‘essential’ elements that I was going to be using.

  • I removed both of the tone knobs, and shifted the volume knob down so it was out of the way. This mod is a slightly more exaggerated version of a mod that I do to all my Strats, as I always end up cutting my hand on the pots nearest the strings when thrashing about otherwise. At first I put the knob way down in the bottom position, but that kept confusing me as it didn’t match my other guitars, so I shifted it back up to the middle instead which was fine.
  • Rather than replace the crappy pickup selector switch, I decided to just remove it completely. I wasn’t realistically ever going to use anything but the bridge pickup, so I could save some time and cash this way.
  • In the same vein, I removed both the neck and middle pickups at first, but later decided to just disconnect them, but leave them in place so the guitar looked a bit more ‘guitar’ like, as opposed to a shell with gaping holes. Plus, it would help keep random detritus out of the body cavity..
Encore Strat Copy Upgrade
Halfway through the upgrade process. Switch, knobs, and redundant pickups removed.
  • I installed cheap strap locks – as it seemed sensible to make sure that the guitar wouldn’t go flying off unexpectedly, should I be tempted to swing it around my head at some point.
  • The frets got a polish, and the finderboard was conditioned with lemon oil.
  • I put in a snazzy yellow tort pickguard to offset the pink, and spice things up a bit.

Encore Strat Yellow PickguardUnfortunately, the standard Strat sized pickguard didn’t fit properly – it was a little bit too big, and the screw holes didn’t match up at all. If I was precious about the guitar I would have been concerned about this, but since I’m not, I just wedged it into place and made new screw holes the old fashioned way – with brute force.

  • I replaced the crappy machine heads with some black EZ Lock tuners. This was the most pricey upgrade, but one that was probably necessary, since keeping the thing in tune is fairly important if it’s going to be of use live. I can always salvage them later if I end up destroying the whole thing at some point.
  • The single coil pickup in the bridge made way for a dirt cheap, no brand humbucker – to try and match the output level of my other guitars. After a bit of wiring problems, I got everything in place, and it sounded surprisingly good.
Encore Strat Yellow
With the new humbucker in place.

I didn’t bother shielding the cavity, as it seemed like a bit of a waste of money. The humbucker was naturally quieter than the single coils anyway, and the new pickguard had more extensive shielding on the back than the stock pearloid one, so I decided to leave it as is.

I was fairly surprised with how well the guitar played before the modifications (crappy components aside), and after I switched things out it sounded pretty decent, was much more comfortable to play, and looked a lot cooler. I loved how light the whole thing ended up being, as I could easily fling it about. The only problem now is that I’ve become quite attached to it, and not sure I’ll want to bash it up. But we’ll see how long that lasts.

The Workout Ruse

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Hello.

January has been a bit less productive in terms of finished tracks than I had expected or would have liked, but I’ve still been doing a fair bit. I’ve re-organised and upgraded the studio so that I have far more simultaneous inputs for recording, and better access to my hardware effects, which is good. Just a matter of the final bit of cabling and it’ll be good to go.

Anyway, here’s a new track, that may or may not be on the next Cup Fungus album:

Chipmusic in Japan

I’ve spent the past few weeks travelling about Japan, and had an amazing time. Coming back to the UK has been a proper reverse-culture shock. Take me back?

As part of the trip, I got in touch with some fellow chipmusicians and chiplovers thanks to tips from pselodux and ended up playing my first live set at the Space Station in Osaka.

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Thanks to Al and Jarrod Chappell for the above pics.

Expect more live stuff to come now that I’ve made the leap from the studio… Special thanks to these two for being so nice and hanging out:

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In addition to playing in Osaka, in Tokyo I met up with chiptune historian Takashi Kawano, aka akaobi. He tipped us off to an awesome underground electro gig in Koenji, with folks like SunaMachiSoundSystem performing with a Game Boy Advance and Nanoloop, and tobokegao who was rocking a DMG/LSDJ combo with tracks from his Picnic album. You should definitely check them out. Everybody was so friendly to a weird gaijin who didn’t speak a word of Japanese, so thank you for that!

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To mark the occasion, I’ve uploaded a new track to SoundCloud, which will feature on an upcoming album. Here’s BCN:

 

Whoahoahoah what’s going on

I haven’t posted in a while, but that isn’t as a result of a lack of activity… quite the opposite. It’s been a fairly busy couple of months. I head over to Japan for 3 weeks shortly, so before we go on a short hiatus, here’s an update on what’s been going on… complete with lots of pictures.

Closet Organ – 5318008

My grunge pish band released our debut album, which was recorded in just three days in a cottage in the middle of nowhere. It got partly funded via Kickstarter, and we have vinyl on the way, which is pretty exciting. You can order a digital/tape/vinyl copy by clicking on the artwork below…

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and if you are supremely lazy, then you can stream below… right from this page:

We have our album launch gig on Saturday in Glasgow at the 13th Note, with the awesome Ex Wives. Come along if you happen to be in the area… it should be a good one. Click through on the poster for the Facebook event.

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The stage will look something like this… but smaller.

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Eurorack

I was always totally confused and intimidated by the world of Eurorack, but I suppose it was inevitable that I would end up getting involved at some point. I started out by getting a single 3u row skiff case, and a few modules…

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and ended up progressing to a wooden 6u rack cabinet…

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and eh, this is the current state of affairs…

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The whole thing is helping me understand synthesis and signal flow a lot better, which is definitely a good thing. I am still investigating how best to incorporate the wonderful sounds that the various modules create in my music… but it’s just a matter of taking the time. I suspect it will form part of a cup fungus release in future, though the possibilities are (dangerously) endless. The lights and… tactility of the whole thing is irresistible, and I’m looking forward to devoting some attention to it after the Japan trip.

One cool module worth mentioning is the SID Guts. It uses a C64 chip for producing sounds, which of course is something I had to try out. I ordered a chip from some ‘specialist’ seller on eBay, and it was so badly packed that it turned up like this…

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Needless to say, I was not happy. I sent it back, and took the opportunity to get an 8580 SID from elsewhere. I’ve got 6581 chips in both my TherapSID and the actual C64, so good to try out a bit of variation.

Despite all of my Eurorack desires, I’ll be stopping at two rows for now. I have a third row all planned out, but it’s probably wise to take a step back and release something based on the gear that I already have before plowing ahead any further.

Moar GameBoys

Because you can never have too many. I finally got my act together and finished up a project that I’d had on the back burner for a while – an all ‘white’ DMG, complete with white backlight, frosted white case, white case LEDs, and glow in the dark buttons. I even used white wire on the inside. It looks pretty awesome…

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So what’s next?

Once I come back from scowering the various second hand electronics shops in Japan, I have a bunch of different projects that I want to pull together:

  • A new, full length unexpected bowtie album, written on LSDJ.
  • A mini album, written entirely on Houston Tracker 2 – using a calculator.
  • A compilation of remixes and b-sides.
  • A new cup fungus release.

So plenty of things in the works.

 

NoisePedals.com

One of the things that’s always driven me to play about with different gear is a craving to find new and interesting sounds. It’s what led me to the whole chipmusic world in the first place, and continues to develop in different ways.

Over the past few months I’ve begun to really appreciate the huge range of weird and wonderful effects pedals that have been released by boutique manufacturers. It’s become a bit of an obsession actually. The problem when buying things like this is that you can’t really fire down to a shop down the road to plug in your Gameboy and see what a pedal will or won’t sound like – and almost all of the demos online are primarily focused on playing warbly guitar riffs. Nae use to somebody who wants to process LSDJ’s noise channel!

That has spurred me to set up my own pedal demo site, where I’ll feature some of the more unusual pedals that cross my path – and do so using the sort of instruments that I actually use to make music with: Gameboys, synths, keyboards, drum machines, Commodore 64s… etc. No fiddly guitar riffs here.

The first post has just gone up, and takes a look at the MWFX Judder pedal. This beast:

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Take a gander:

http://noisepedals.com/2016/03/17/mwfx-judder-pedal-review/

Patchblocks as Effects Processor

Recently I came across a modular synth system called Patchblocks, and thought I’d give it a bash, as the components themselves weren’t too expensive.

The idea is pretty simple, but deceptively powerful. Essentially you get various inter-connecting blocks that all have two nobs and two buttons, as well as stereo audio out/in ports. By connecting them up to a computer via USB you can use dedicated software to program them to do a whole host of different things, such as simulating drum beats, or acting as effects processors. The latter is what I am particularly interested in.

The device itself is pretty sweet, and doesn’t take up too much room, with a footprint just over the size of a credit card. I plucked for the clear blue plastic version, which apparently glows in UV light… you know… for all those times I’ll be playing live.

The build quality is good, and despite an exposed PCB on the sides, it feels pretty solid.

The coolest thing about these blocks is that you can set it up in whichever way suits your workflow best, rather than just ‘making do’ with workarounds. I’m always on the look out for different audio effects, and one of the things I miss when recording is having a hardware panning control. Sure, I could always just make use of a MIDI controller, but that still routes into Logic’s automation feature, which has never quite agreed with me. So, I set up one of the knobs to correspond to audio panning. That left me with two buttons and one knob free. I added in a filter, with the remaining knob controlling the frequency, and the right button switching through between High-Pass, Low-Pass, etc. The other button I set up as a bypass, so when it was ‘on’, the filter was active. The LEDs also correspond to the particular different modes.

Here’s what that all looks like in the patchblocks software:
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It looks complicated, but it isn’t really when you get used to it. Just like that, I have an effects unit that’s customised to do exactly what I need, and which I can modify at any point. Pretty cool.

If you’ve got a patchblock yourself you can check it out here. You’ll need the custom ‘LED Helper’ block that you can get on the Community download section of PB.

Sadly the block I received seemed to have a dodgy output when the audio input circuit was running, so I’ve sent it back for a replacement. The PB people couldn’t have been any nicer about it though, so I’m looking forward to testing it out properly when it comes back.

If you like hardware controls, but want to be able to fulfill a host of different functions in just a few boxes, check out the patchblocks. If you’re into the synth side of things more than the effects, there’s even a dedicated block to provide MIDI DIN in/out functionality. That’s something I might have to explore at a later date.

Update: I got my replacement unit back, and whilst some of the artefacts have been cleaned up, the quality is still noticeably worse than the input. It looks like it’s down to the sample rate of the unit itself, which is a shame – as it limits their usefulness as effects processors.

Bringing my Commodore 64 to life

Gameboys are great, but arguably the classic analogue chip sound belongs to the Commodore 64.

The C64 was my very first computer, one that my parents got me when I was only about 4 or 5. As a result, it holds a particularly special place in my heart. Sadly the actual one that I had from back then disappeared at some point, but I tracked down a replacement later on, complete with one of the coveted working 6518 sound chips (or ‘SIDs’).

For ages I’ve wanted to bring the C64 back to life and use it as a vintage analogue synth, but the space required to leave it set up was always prohibitive. In my foray back into music, I decided it was time to take the plunge.

I already had all the bits and pieces I needed, including a really sweet expansion device called the ‘MSSIAH‘ cartridge, which plugs into the back of the ‘breadbin’ and adds MIDI support. Making use of a composite video to HDMI convertor that I use for my N64, I hooked it up to a monitor, and hey presto…

My desk is a bit of a jumble just now with various things on the go, but that’s not where it’s going to live permanently.

For the technically curious, here I’m using a C64 DIN out to phono/composite cable, with the video end going into an AVI to HDMI box for the monitor, and the audio portion connected up to my headphones using a phono coupler and phono to mini jack cable. This is just the testing setup though. When I switch to actually recording with it, I’ll be using a VGA monitor and running the phonos straight to a mixing desk for output.

I’m going to use it in a couple of different ways: to play directly as a synth, but also as an external synth controlled by the Gameboy, using LSDJ as a sequencer (see my previous post on this…). Using a MIDI thru box, I could run different channels into different devices simultaneously, which would sound amazing.

There’s loads of things to explore with the C64, which is pretty exciting, and should keep things fresh. Here’s a couple:

C64 SD tape emulator – To save sounds and patterns and all that you need an external device to store them on. The C64 used to rely on either cassette tapes (!) or floppy disks… and not the kind that most people are familiar with, but large, 5 and 1/4″, truly floppy disks. As it turns out, I actually have both of these…

  
  
but they’re not the most practical – taking up a lot of space and being a pain to use. In the past few years some intrepid people have developed gadgets such as a C64 cassette tape hardware emulator – that plugs into the back and allows you to save onto SD card. They’re pretty smart, but relatively pricey, so I need to see how much I’m actually going to use the thing before I commit.

Second SID – You can install two sound chips in the C64 with a bit of modification so that it can play polyphonically, and make it really sing. This doesn’t look too difficult to do, and could be a fun project for later down the line. I’d be interested to see if I can run two different chips (with different sound qualities) simultaneously, but I’m not sure if it’s possible because of voltage etc. Needs further research.

Picture upscaling – the video output was never designed for modern monitors, and certainly not to be run over HDMI at 1920×1080. As a result, the picture looks terrible – and the controls are almost incomprehensible with my crappy eyesight. I’m sure there are ways to improve upon it, such as through the use of a decent upscaler, but it also needs a bit more exploration.

The most important thing though, is getting it working as a synth first and foremost. At the moment, the sounds sound pretty weak. I suspect that might be because I’m not running them through an amp – so I’ll check that out. I’ve ran the diagnostics and the chip is fine, so it’ll require a bit more investigation. Just a matter of getting time to sit down and play with it.

Controlling Korg Volca with LSDJ on Gameboy + Arduinoboy

Once you get over the steep initial learning curve of learning how to use a tracker like LSDJ on the Gameboy to make music, they can be a real pleasure to use: both powerful and simple.

Whilst the sounds you get out of the old Nintendo handhelds are amazing, there comes a point where you feel like you’ve gotten all you can out of them for the track that you’re working on, and at that point start to look into layer sounds from different places. There are a ton of different electronic synths and samplers out there, but I’ve never been a big fan of writing loops on them; the process often seeming unintuitive and overly complicated. It would be far easier to be able to program them using the familiar LSDJ layout, but that seemed impossible.

As I recently discovered, it apparently isn’t impossible at all. Back in 2011 I bought a special DIY-built MIDI device called an ‘Arduinoboy‘ from a guy called Ralph Tyler (aka NeX), who is a bit of a legend in the Gameboy modification world. This clever wee box brings MIDI connectivity to the handheld, and I have always used it up till now to play the Gameboy as if it was a synth, using a bog standard keyboard (the musical kind) and an app called mgb to trigger the notes. Pretty cool, but it turns out that LSDJ can now be used to send MIDI notes as well. I stumbled upon a video from chip musician jefftheworld doing just that, with a bunch of different Korg Volas, and it sounded just wonderful.

Just watch this… Skip to 1 minute to see the Gameboy kick in.

I decided I had to give this a go, so got my hands on a Korg Volca Bass, which is a really cool wee beast. I already had the Arduinoboy, so figured it shouldn’t be all that difficult to get up and running.

I should have known better.

I connected everything up, and LSDJ was sending clock signals successfully from the Gameboy to the Volca, but it wasn’t sending the notes themselves. Hmm. After a bit of research on chipmusic.org, I realised that the LSDJ ROM I had loaded onto my EMS Flash Cart (a specially made Gameboy cartridge that lets you load ROMS on via USB) wasn’t the right version, and so didn’t support the MIDIOUT mode. Not a big deal, as once you pay for one version of LSDJ, you get access to them all. I fired up the EMS Flasher Utility for Mac in the Terminal, and loaded the new one over.

Everything connected up again; LSDJ set to MIDIOUT mode; and the notes added in via the newly available ‘Q’ commands (Q00) on the existing track I had loaded up to test things out… I hit play, and… nothing. After a bit more research, I discovered that because I had bought my Arduinoboy years ago, the software that it was running was also probably out of date, and didn’t include the support for LSDJ’s MIDIOUT mode.

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I’d never updated an Arduino board’s software before, and never even seen inside the Arduinoboy as I hadn’t built it… but, I’m no stranger to computers, and it seemed that updating the ‘sketch’ as it’s called would be as simple as opening up the case, and then connecting up the Mac to the Arduino’s onboard mini USB. That in mind, I grabbed a hold of my Tri-wing screwdriver (particular to Nintendo), and carefully began to open up the Arduinoboy.

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I forgot to mention, the Arduinoboy is neatly nestled inside an old four player adapter device, with the MIDI ports on the sides. Pretty cool.

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I got the case opened up, and discovered my worst fear. The Arduino board that was acting as the brains of the operation was a ‘Mini Pro’, which meant that it had no USB built in, requiring a ‘breakout’ board, or some other connection to load the software on.

Crap.

By the looks of things, this meant de-soldering a lot of the existing connections that Ralph had put in there, and I really really didn’t want to do that, as his work with a soldering iron would always be infinitely better than mine… since uh, he knows wtf he’s doing. However, I couldn’t see any other way around it,so dropped him an e-mail whilst I looked up some schematics online. I had a spare Arduino Uno board lying around that I could potentially use to load the software on, so all was not lost yet – it would just be a bit more complicated than expected (shock).

It turns out that Ralph is extremely nice, and with his encouragement I started to solder the various jump wires from the Uno board to the Micro Pro based on the steps here. The schematics in the comments were particularly helpful.

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There are various glaring errors in the above image. Firstly, I took out the header pins to solder the wires as it seemed easier to do flat, but didn’t check whether or not the pins would all be next to each other. It won’t surprise you to learn that they are not – so there were a couple of extra stragglers. Secondly, I used wire that was far far too thick, because stripping down the thin wire is more of a pain. As it turns out, trying to solder that stuff to a tiny Mini Pro board is not going to happen, so I had to join all of the strands of big wire to smaller wire afterwards. Sigh.

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Anyway, after a while I got all of the wires in place (give or take), and was ready to connect it up to the laptop and flash the software. Woohoo!

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But, of course that wasn’t the end of the story. It turns out that the Arduino Uno board I got isn’t actually an official one, but a cheap knock off. I knew this at the time of purchase of course, and was trying to be a cheap bastard. However, it then came back to bite me as the Arduino IDE software kept coming back repeating the same error – something about stk500_getsync() and how the board couldn’t be found. Even after installing the pokey third party drivers it didn’t seem to be working.

I went down a rabbit warren of Google searches, checking the verbose logging in the console for errors and getting led on a wild goose chase by problems that were nothing to do with my own, and before long I felt like I was hallucinating. I was about to send a furious e-mail to the eBay seller that had sold me the Arduino ripoff in the first place, when I tried to load the Arduinoboy software onto it – without the Arduino Mini Pro connected. That worked, which meant that the board itself wasn’t the problem – but something to do with the communication between the two boards. Interesting.

That didn’t mean things were solved soon after though, as the problems still remained, and there was no obvious answer. I had checked and re-checked the connections to the board so many times I could hardly see them any more when I squinted, and was getting more and more frustrated. I thought I might have accidentally short circuited something or trashed the board by over-heating it… Things weren’t looking good.

After ages I finally stumbled upon a different set of instructions. To sum things up, there are two different kinds of chip installed on these Arduino boards: the classic ‘DIP’ kind (which looks kind of like a digital cockroach), and the more modern ‘SDM’. The former can be easily removed; the latter cannot. Either way, they need to be bypassed on the host somehow – or else the Arduino programmer gets confused between the two boards and freaks out. It’s just that it’s easier to do with DIP chips than SDM. (Guess which kind I have?). There are all sorts of conflicting ideas about how to do this effectively with SDM chips on the web, but as it turns out, the easiest way is to upload a particular sketch to the Uno board. The Instructables article had a copy of this, and I’m re-uploading it here for posterity: serial-disable.ino.

Some other important things that I learned:

  • Crappy knockoff Arduino boards can be good, but also require more fannying about. You need to install special drivers rather than it just work out of the box. Everything is more complex and fills you with needless uncertainty and dread when things go wrong. Just spend some more cash and buy a bloody real one.
  • The ‘programmer’ choice in the Arduino IDE doesn’t make a difference for most purposes.
  • You need to make sure that all of the connections to the TX and RX points are removed (except the ones you’ve added from the host Uno board obviously), otherwise it will lock up the board and prevent you from uploading (thanks Ralph!). This meant more de-soldering and trying to remember where to put things back later. *bites nails*.
  • There was a whole host of talk online about how if you were using a ripoff Arduino host board you would have to hit the reset button manually on the Mini Pro at just the right time to get it to initialise properly and take the software properly, because the reset points on them weren’t there. As it turns out, you don’t need to do that at all; the reset point is just named slightly differently depending on the board you have – and it’s just a matter of finding out what that is and connecting it correctly.
  • You need to select ‘Pro Mini’ as the target board, as it helps bypass the host board’s chip. Or something.
  • There are some truly insane people out there giving some really bad and incorrect information about this.

The order I wired up things in the end was:

TX – TX
RX – RX
RESET – RST
GND – GND
5V – VCC

I can’t tell you how relieved I was to see this message:

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HALLELUJAH.

So began the task of putting everything back together. I’ve never had the steadiest of hands, and I’m in the middle of Dry January – so have the jakey shakes due to lack of alcohol consumption – so probably not the best time to attempt re-wiring some fiddly electronics that were originally put together by far more deft hands than mine. However, I got it all back in place eventually – hopefully the joins hold out! I do not want to take this thing apart again.

At first my heart sunk, as it didn’t seem like anything had changed. The LED behaviour was a bit weird (less active than before…), and the Gameboy was still just sending clock signals, not notes. AGHH.

After a bit of jiggery pokery, it all came to life though. I was shocked. The damn thing was working.

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I’m still not convinced that the LEDs on the Arduinoboy are going in the same pattern that they used to, but since everything seems to be working I’m going to put it down to the software change and think nothing more of it.

I shot a quick video to show the setup in action:

The sound is coming from both the Gameboy and the Volca simultaneously, and I’m using that particular Gameboy as it’s one of the few that still has the internal speaker intact (i.e. not ripped out for some other kind of mod). I fanny about a bit with the Volca controls to show how you can manipulate the sound, but I have no idea what I’m doing with it yet really.

Explanation of steps: You need to set LSDJ to MIDIOUT Sync mode, stick the Arduinoboy on the correct mode (for me it’s whatever the second LED means), and make sure the Volca is set to the right MIDI channel. The first column of LSDJ corresponds to channel 1, and so on. Hold down Write as you power up the Volca to change the channel.

And that, was tonight’s misadventure. I’ve no idea if I’m learning anything by doing all of this stuff or not.