In this solder sesh, Carrie chats with Tommy of Oskitone while putting together an Oskitone Scout Synth! Tommy gives us some insight into the development process for the Scout Synth and mulls over all the 555 timers he's used in previous projects! Carrie and Tommy talk about the chip shortage from the beginning of the year, new project ideas,, and how Tommy went from animation and web design to mechanical CAD projects!
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(13:07 – 16:55) 3D Printed Battery Holder
Carrie: I have to say when I saw this and that you had basically created your own battery holder, that kind of blew my mind. It just never occurred to me to create your own battery holder and that you could necessarily even buy those things individually. Right. So, I mean, of course it makes sense, but I had never even looked for them before.
Tommy: You’re not the first person to think that. I don't know exactly, but I feel like this kit may be one of the very few electronics kits where you make your own battery holder. It's a dubious claim because I'm not sure if that's something to be proud of, but I think it's kind of cool. I absolutely did play with off the shelf ones but decided against them for two reasons. One is cost, these four metal things are a fraction of the cost of a plastic thing, and two is size because the plastic thing is much bigger. I guess the third reason is that because it's my own design, it can snap better into the thing. You'll see later in final assembly, but this kind of like clunks into the enclosure bottom in a way that would have been a little harder if I were tied to some other thing.
Carrie: Yeah, totally. I mean, it makes complete sense. I think it's kind of cool because it allows you to make the whole thing. I mean, you're already doing the 3d printed case, so, why would you then try to buy an off the shelf battery holder that then you would have to incorporate into the case. And use mounting hardware or something like that in order to fasten or tape or something like that. I think it's totally cool.
Tommy: The extra cost here is that we're losing like 20 minutes to make this thing when it could have just been some off the shelf part. I think that's the real problem with this, which I'm kind of okay with. If I were a good educator, I would write a whole thing on how batteries work and how batteries and series add together. How if you take apart your remote control or game boy or something, and you look at how the batteries arranged, they're always this sort of zigzag pattern so that they can all add up in series. And that 3x 1.5V batteries make 4.5V and how that's within the range of the supply voltage for this thing and blah, blah, blah. You don't necessarily get that education with an off the shelf component, but I'm rationalizing.
Carrie: No, it's all good stuff. Until I started designing with electronics, I definitely never thought about why do some things only use two batteries? Why do some things use three? Why do you even others use four, you know? Then you start to think about all of that stuff. How am I powering? How many batteries is that going to take? How much space is that going to be? Maybe the weight is an issue. So, yeah, definitely.
(19:39 – 24:56) 555 Timer Pigeonhole
Carrie: Awesome. So last time you were like, “Yeah, I made the Scout because I still wanted to do fun music stuff. I wanted it to be hackable. I wanted to play around with programming and Arduinos, and not be stuck as that that 555-timer guy.” Not be pigeonholed in your musical synth career here.
Tommy: Yeah. Last time you had me on Solder Sesh, you put together the APC which is based on the 556, which is two 555s, the old timer chip. We also talked about the Poly555 which is the instrument that uses 20x 555s. I was like no more 555s. I want to do some, I don't know, write some code. I don't remember if I had the Scout done yet or released; I don't remember the timeline.
Carrie: You were just about to release it. I think you might've held up one and showed it, I think. It was like right before you released it.
Tommy: The Scout has been cool. It's my best-selling kit and it’s fun. I've seen a handful of folks do some very interesting hacks with it.
Carrie: It seems like I keep seeing on Twitter, some people that make it make different noises. What are some of the coolest things that people have done with it? Or the most surprising things?
Tommy: The least surprising things are the things that I encourage. I've had folks change the octave and glide and stuff, which I hoped would happen. So really quick, the way that this keyboard works is it's a matrix. There are 20 keys and instead of using 20 pins in the controller, it uses 9. The way that it does that is that it makes a matrix of these things – 4 rows and 5 columns or vice versa; so, it can use 9 pins. This is a total tangent, but the point of the story is that it's wired-up kind of like a keyboard. It does a weird thing called ghosting which keyboard do, where if you hold it down too many keys, it doesn't really know what you're trying to do. It gets confused and there are ways to get around that in hardware, but it requires more components. It requires a diode at every switch. Because I was trying to make the scout as simple as possible and I was aiming for the least amount of time to make music, right. So, I left that out. One hacker sent me images of him putting diodes on to every switch so that he could make it do pseudo-polyphonic stuff, like arpeggiating through these notes which is interesting; not very musically useful, but kind of cool.
Tommy: Jason [from the chat] brings up, “Todd Curt put Mozzi on it.” Yeah, he did that, that is very cool. Mozzi is an Arduino library for audio synthesis. There's some hardware hacking that you have to do on the Scout because you have to swap pins, but it's totally doable. Yeah, pretty cool! You'll see on the PCB that there's a row of all the unused pins on the 328; I think I've labeled it hacking or something. I'm waiting to see if anybody uses those pins because it's all the vestigial analog inputs and stuff.
Carrie: Ah, interesting.
Tommy: Jason continues to ask, “Has anyone gotten MIDI out of it, if that's even possible?” Nobody has yet. I do think it's possible, I'm waiting to see if anybody does it. I also had MIDI on the list of possibilities, but I scratched it because I didn't think it was worth the effort. Definitely a later keyboard out of me will have MIDI.
(33:45 – 35:55) Chip Shortage
Carrie: So, it sounds like your favorite product maybe of everything that you've made so far is the Scout.
Tommy: Yeah, I think so. You know, there's recency bias, so the last thing’s always favorite.
Carrie: Always. It's hard to pick between your children.
Tommy: Yeah, it's the baby. The baby's the favorite let’s not kid ourselves. The scout is cool. It's probably not the coolest in the midst of a chip shortage. That's currently the one I'm worried most about. We'll see what happens.
Carrie: How has that been to navigate for you, and did you have to change anything about the design before you started shipping them or since you've started shipping?
Tommy: I was saved by, one that the 328 is relatively old and two, that it's in the dip package, which is not as sought after as surface mount. They're actually some memes of engineers prying off dip things and like pushing out their legs and converting them.
Carrie: Making them be surface mount.
Tommy: Yeah, I think as a joke, I hope it's joke.
Carrie: Might not be.
Tommy: Might not be. And that kept me safe for a little while I think. I mean, we'll see, knock on wood, but I may have exhausted the supply of this chip.
Carrie: Oh no.
Tommy: Keep me in your thoughts.
Carrie: I will. If anybody has extra 328s in dip packages, contact Tommy, it has to be in good condition and stored properly. There we go.
Tommy: Name your price. I'm okay for a little while, but what I have, I will definitely run out of.
(40:11 – 42:41) Upcoming Projects
Carrie: Is there anything else that you would like to say about the Scout or about upcoming projects or whatever, and if anybody watching, is there anything that you want to ask? Put it in the comments now so that we can be sure to get to it.
Tommy: Yeah, I'm excited about the Scout and what it opens up for me. I am planning a Scout II tentatively featured to have more keys and polyphony. So, it'll add the diodes that we talked about previously. If anybody's interested in that I can share stuff with you. I usually don't, all my stuff is open source, but I don't necessarily share the progress because I don't like a lot of peanut gallery comments. like to wait until I can ship it and then I push. But if anybody is very interested in that I'm happy to share.
Carrie: I’m interested.
Tommy: What else can I say? 2021 was a nice year for Oskitone. 2022 I'm hoping we'll continue that trajectory. I've got some plans and they probably again, because of the chip shortage, they probably won't be as smart.
Tommy: You know what I mean? It'll probably be stuff closer to the APC. Less musical, more noisy. Less musical utility, more, I don't know, noise toy.
Carrie: For people like Robyn and myself who don't really have any musical talent or training, noise machines are super great. We can't do anything wrong with them so it's kind of nice. We automatically feel like virtuosos.
(50:38 – 56:47) 3D Animations
Carrie: So, tell me about the animations, because I mean, that's kind of your background though, right. Is more design and like doing that stuff day in and day out. So, it's probably no big deal for you but for me, it's just like, damn, that looks so pro and cool. Can you tell us a little bit about like making those?
Tommy: I would love to. The CAD program that I used is a programming language called Open SCAD. I'm some kind of software engineer so I tend to think in code, and I have a background in making websites. Literally writing the code that says this website should look like this as you resize your window, it does all this stuff, animation code, blah, blah, blah. In college, I did a lot of flash animation stuff when that was cool.
Carrie: I want to see some of your old flash animation stuff.
Tommy: It's not the best. Yeah, that hearkens back, doesn't it?
Carrie: Viking kittens’ era, man.
Tommy: Exactly right. Badger, Badger, Badger. Oh, we're old.
Carrie: We’re so old. We're crossing over though, we're so old we’re cool.
Tommy: Okay. Yeah, all right. So, I like animation. I watch a lot of cartoons. Great. Open SCAD isn't really designed for animations, but you can do them in it.
Carrie: Is it more of a mechanical CAD package? I don't know anything about open SCAD.
Tommy: Yeah, it’s really made for making gears and stuff like that. It's definitely not like Blender, like you're not going to be doing any character animation in it because everything is mathematical. You know what I mean?
Carrie: Like it's mechanical design and everything's dimensional kind of stuff.
Tommy: Yeah, fully parametric. If you're animating an arm, you can talk about the angle and stuff, but to do a full walk cycle would just be like, you know, trying to write an algorithm for nature or something. It would not work out. But it is very good at doing stuff like an enclosure opening and closing, like the parts of this thing flaying out and doing weird stuff. It seems superfluous and a lot of it is admittedly, but I use it a lot for checking to see that things work the way that I expect them to.
Tommy: So, in CAD, there's an idea called a CAD explosion where you take all the stuff and you kind of tear the sandwich apart. That way you can see how the layers come back together. I'll do that with my stuff too. I have the APC, for example, it's enclosure slides together. When I was writing that code, I animated how it slides so I can watch what it looks like. It's sort of my visual test to see if it does what I think, because Open SCAD doesn't have collision detection. It's not like a fully featured CAD thing. It kind of relies on the programmer to do that kind of checking. It's a little bit naive so I use animation for that. I also just like it. I'm not sure if it's a good marketing ploy, I'm not sure if people have found me through my animations and then bought my products. But I really enjoy it.
Carrie: Well, I think that they definitely add a level of professionalism to the product, it just, it looks cool.
Tommy: Oh, and I was going to say, because Open SCAD is a programming language it’s very easy when you're animating. If you've ever drawn a flip book, you're basically drawing like a hundred things and with code, you could just write a little strip that’s like here are the values that I want it to be. Or I want a range between zero and a hundred or it's going to loop or 0 to 360, and then it does this thing. It's very easy and gratifying to suddenly spit out hundreds of images and then have a little script that pumps out a GIF and an MP4.
Carrie: That's super cool. Yeah, that's interesting that you do it all in code and that there's no video or flight paths or those kinds of things. It's just all mechanical model manipulation, like rotate it 30 degrees, zoom out, zoom in, explode apart in these directions. From my background and my perspective, I can relate to that more. I relate to, you have this object and you're manipulating it in your hand. That kind of CAD makes more sense for my brain than the, like you are the camera and you're going around the thing you're moving in this path around the thing.
Tommy: I know what you're talking about, totally.