May 11, 2017 by

Handmade Electronic Music Hardware Workshop w/ Nicolas Collins

So I spent the first weekend in May – the first sunny one of the year I might add – with 17 other like-minded individuals, in a very nice, but practically windowless room, in the Science Gallery, Trinity College making Things That Make Noise.

Tracy and Luke bring the noise

Tracy and Luke bring the noise


The Noise, my god, the Noise. Migraine-inducing squeals of feedback, giggle-inducing sad robot drones, gasp-inducing jack-crackle – not to mention blush-inducing solder-swearing – that last one mostly coming from me, admittedly. It was brilliant, fun, inspirational – and I’m sure the tinnitus will wear off in a couple of days. So why all this lovely horrible Noise?  I was doing the handmade electronic musical instruments workshop, run by none other than Nicolas Collins, legendary composer, music producer, electronics & music hacking pioneer, and author of the bible on the subject: Handmade Electronic Music: The Art of Hardware Hacking”. (Note that there’s no “h” in there, he’s not Nicholas Collins, Phil Collins’ 16-year old son – who may also be a handmade electronic music expert, but that’s outside the scope of this text).
Handmade Electronic Music by Nic Collins

Handmade Electronic Music by Nic Collins


Nicolas is the perfect guide to this world: warm, funny, enthusiastic, he’s super-smart without being intimidating, and knows how to communicate enough practical information to get you going and keep you interested, but, crucially, not so much theory to paralyse, or bore. Think Christopher Guest with a flip chart and a soldering iron. He’s giving us a preview of the kind of thing that’s in store for SOUND CHECK, the Science Gallery’s summer 2017 exhibition on sound.
Nic demos his cigar-box cracklebox

Nic demos his cigar-box cracklebox


He runs workshops like this on the regular, so he’s well used to the sounds of hundreds of angry bees coming from tinny speakers, and hunched people effing and jeffing as they burn themselves soldering. He delights in every screech – and we all learned to love it too, basking in the warm glow of home-made, hard-earned, hacked-together noise.

So we get stuck in quick – our first project: a simple electrical drum, took just a few minutes for Nic to explain and us to do. Ridiculously easy, just a two croc clips attached to the two terminals of a little loudspeaker  (I salvaged mine from an Orange mini guitar amp that didn’t turn on) one to a terminal of an 9V battery (the trusty PP3 is the gives life to all of our projects), then tap tap tap the other croc off the other battery terminal – the cone in the loudspeaker pushes in and out and, bingo, you’ve got yourself a simple electronic drum.

The projects come fast; put a coin in one of the croc clips, scrape it along a metal file. The surface of the file gives pitch change, periodic not random – you’ve got a rudimentary record player!

Homemade record player (kinda)

Homemade record player (kinda)

Next – demonstrating an analogue algorithm: just fill the loudspeaker cone with conductive material – a couple of bottle caps, some screws, an Allan key (I’ve carried it in my purse for years l, I knew it would come in handy someday) – they jump about, touching each other when power is applied. The music is made automatically by the bits in the speaker cone, no human intervention needed.

We learn about different mic types, and make a contact mic from piezoelectric disc and a 3.5mm jack.
It works by not by picking up sounds in the air, but through mechanical movements – and it makes little sounds big, like a microscope for sounds. Attach it to a slinky for lovely space noises – which is exactly how legendary Star Wars sound designer Ben Burtt made the iconic Blaster sounds – a Slinky and a contact mic! Everyone loves a Slinky, indeed.

Contact mic

Contact mic


We make an induction coil pickup mic too, from an inductor and a 3.5mm jack. Talk into it – nothing, tap it with a finger – nothing; mine’s not working, I start to panic. But it’s all OK, that’s not how it works. Wave it over some thing electrical and suddenly – plenty of sound: it picks up the electromagnetic signals produced by all electrical things.

Induction coil mic

Induction coil mic


We learn a mic is really a backwards speaker, and a speaker is a backwards mic – and Nic explains this with an entertaining story about The Beatles pursuit of the Motown bass sound, the bureaucracy of the Abbey Road recording studio top brass, and the ingenuity of the engineers there. We listen to Paperback Writer and it’s time for lunch!

After lunch we’re right onto the next project – making a cracklebox from a radio. You need a big radio that’s battery-powered – very important – you don’t want to mess with things powered off AC power, plugged into the wall, but DC is totally safe. The radio needs FM and AM dials, not buttons, and an old one from the 60’s or 70’s works best – the components are more separate on the board. 80’s and 90’s boomboxs are buggers to open, some comrades lost their boards in the fight to pry them apart. Open it, carefully take out the circuit board, flip it so the solder joints are facing up, then lick your fingers and play it! Hopefully, you’ll get spooky screechy sounds, depending on where you touch – finding the sweet spots is the key. There lots of potential to amplify signal in the components  in a radio, it’s just ready to go, and skin – essentially a variable resistor – provides great scope for dynamic interaction, the sounds are, literally, at your fingertips.

My Roberts radio cracklebox

My Roberts radio cracklebox


Don’t do what I did and use the wrong voltage thinking “OK, so it’s 9V not 6V, sure it’ll be grand.” My cheap Roberts radio gave up the ghost after 15 minutes getting too much voltage, and thus ended my cracklebox career (for now).

Next onto the meat and potatoes, the main project that occupies us the rest of Saturday, and all of Sunday: making an electronic instrument from scratch, using readily-available components that cost lest than a Euro each.
We start with prototyping on a breadboard – the components can easily be moved about, perfect for troubleshooting while getting the bits of the circuit up-and-running.

Breadboard with 2 chips and other components

Breadboard with 2 chips and other components


There are two chips in it: a little 8-pin LM386 amp chip, for amplifying the signal, the same kind of thing that’s in your mini Fender or Marshall guitar amps.

The fun bits are in the 14-pin chip – known as the Hex Schmitt Trigger Inverter, or the 74C14 to its friends. We work with pairs of pins as oscillators, first pin 1 and pin 2, placing a potentiometer – “pot” for short – across the pins, and a capacitor at pin 2. The potentiometer acts as a variable resistor, with a turning knob, and allows one to change the frequency of the oscillation, from low to high, making some pretty great music for dogs at the top of its range. To make it more useful, we make enhancements – resistors, different capacitors – we’re encouraged to try many different parts, see what works best.

Nic believes with cheap, modular components we can get our hands dirty with electronic music; make mistakes, explore the random, happen on happy accidents – and have fun exploring, looking for new sounds – with hands-on doing we can work in a different way than we’re used to with computers – it’s hard to get messy with a mouse.

So we add more parts to our circuit – a light-sensitive diode along the second pair of pins makes a second oscillator, sound changing in sync with changes in the light hitting it. Two diodes mix the outputs from the pin pairs, creating non-linear mixing. We test as we go, learning basic troubleshooting.
Then – when we’re happy with the sound, we take the lot and solder the components, one by one, permanently to a piece of prototyping board. It’s touch and go with mine – turns out I bent a leg of my 14-pin chip, so power wasn’t getting across it – but I got there in the end (with Nic’s help, of course).

Completed handmade instrument

Completed handmade instrument

It was a most successful workshop, with lovely participants, a great space in the Science Gallery and a wonderful teacher in Nicolas Collins. Watch this space for MOAR NOIZE.

Need help powering any gear, or got any other questions? Drop me a line at caroline AT myvolts DOT com or hit me up on Twitter, username carolinezoids

Caroline is a leading authority on power supply adaptors. Although there's not a lot of competition, admittedly. She's been at MyVolts for more than 10 years, is Director of Operations, and works in the Dublin office.

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