Carrie and Tommy talk about his 555 synths, the OKAY and the Poly 555, and his upcoming arduino-based keyboard called the Scout, plus switches, light pipes, and 3D printing and design, while Carrie solders up his APC Atari Punk Console noise-maker.
Check out all of Tommy's cool musical inventions at www.oskitone.com
Carrie: Hello, how's it going? I am Carrie Sundra with Alpenglow industries. Welcome to the weekly Wednesday solder sesh, where we come and hang out and put something together! This week I'm super excited because I have Tommy Marshall from Oskitone. We're going to be putting together this kit right here, which is his APC Atari punk console. Also, I have his poly 555 which is an amazingly fun little synth that is made of 555 timers and is polyphonic. It has like one separate timer circuit for each key, which is simple and overkill and lovely.
Tommy: It's a joke instrument, yeah.
Carrie: Yes. It is an excellent joke instrument though.
Robyn soldered it all together and she had fun doing that and then tuned it. You can now see the extent of my piano skills. The pressure is on, I've never done this live before, so I'm probably going to screw it up. All right, here we go.
Carrie plays a halting rendition of Chopsticks. She obviously has little musical training.
That was chopsticks. So yes, that is the extent of my piano playing. I think all of the other songs I know are only one tone at a time, so they don't show it off quite as well.
Tommy: And Carrie, how many years of piano lessons were paid for, for chopsticks? Was that 4 years?
Carrie: Oh, well, well for chopsticks, I looked it up on the internet, so it was about five minutes of YouTube. Then I needed to refresh for this week. I really needed to prepare for that recital, so it was five more minutes on YouTube and maybe three practice sessions. Yeah.
Tommy: You know what, honestly, that's pretty good. 10 minutes
Carrie: patterns, right? Recognizing patterns and remembering the pattern. That's what it is for me, at least, because I'm not good enough to associate a sound with a particular key. So, for me, it's all, what is the physical position?
Tommy: The dirty secret of musicianship is that for a lot of instruments, especially guitars and stuff, it's all just patterns. You'll learn to do this little box or something and then some of you change the key and you'll play the same pattern in different spot.
Pianos are not great because this little layout doesn't lend for transposition easily. Transposition is where you change keys because the naturals and the accidentals, the whites and blacks are a totally arbitrary thing, and every key kind of looks different and your fingers do different things.
It’s like a muscle memory thing that you either learn or you don't, or maybe it doesn't matter. Maybe you have a keyboard that does a key transpose or something. Anyway, the point is that they're easier instruments for knowing how to play. A keyboard is good because it's like a known thing, right? There's infinite frequencies and keyboards are like, there's just this many and it's multiplied, and they always look like this, and it's been that way for a long, long time. So, you can look at any keyboard and be like, yeah, I basically know how to play that.
Carrie: I'm going to start to solder up the APC while we do a little bit of chatting. So, I'm super curious about so many things. First maybe tell us, how did you get started on the whole 555 musical instrument kit path? How many 555 timer-based instruments do you have?
Tommy: I have two that I'm selling and probably three, if you count the old OKAY instruments.
Carrie: Oh yeah, what happened to the old OKAY instruments?
Tommy: They were really hard to put together, they took a long time. I thought the ROI on them, as a maker, was really low. I thought if you're spending a long time on something, it should give you more.
As a one-person maker business, I field all the support questions. So, I saw the most earnest effort not get rewarded and all these questions that were like, I should have just designed this better. I should have made this a lot easier for folks to put together.
Carrie: That was like the first thing that you put out right?
Tommy: Yeah, it was, it was a real learning exercise. Cool. Um, and I, I hope, I hope that everything that I make, I get to learn from the previous things, you know what I mean? So, I hope that I learned from the OKs failures and put those lessons into the poly 555 and now the new Scout thing, which just launched the other day.
Carrie: Yeah, the poly 555 was pretty easy going together.
Carrie: What inspired you to make your first 555 instrument? Take us down the twisted path of your brain.
Tommy: What can I say? I learned how to solder around 2013. I wanted a hobby that was technical, that didn't use a computer, and electronics fits the bill. I did the things that hobbyists do, I did various kits and stuff, and I started building my own circuits on breadboards. One of the first things that folks will do is blink and LED. It turns out if you blink a pin real fast and it's hooked up to a speaker, you’d get a little tone. If you give it the right components, you can fix the frequency of that tone. I'm a musician, so I put the things together and I was like, okay, I'll just make some instruments with these things. The OKAY which we've mentioned before and looks like this, was a ridiculous thing. It's a chunky boy. You put it on your shelf and it's like a little conversation piece. I think the poly 555 is also a conversation piece, but probably for different reasons.
You asked about 555 timers. I've used them because that's what I was kind of familiar with, but there are other ways to make square waves. I've made different, weird one-off things with different waves. Schmidt triggers, hex inverters, quiz me later on what the CD 4,000 numbers are for these because I don't remember. I liked the 555 because it's kind of like a running joke within the electronics community. For folks who don't know, you'll see anything, anything anywhere, and there will always be one comment like, “Ah, I should have used a 555.” like, no matter what it is. Save the world, man. I could've done it with a 555.
Carrie: I mean, you know, you can really do anything with the 555 timer. I think that's the main theme, right? Any circuit that exists could probably be made using a 555 timer.
So, APC stands for Atari punk console and is basically used to make fun and obnoxious Atari-like sounds.
Tommy: Yeah, APC makes some annoying sounds. It was made famous by Forrest Mims in one of his books for radio shack long, long ago. Seventies, I think. It's fun. It's obnoxious.
Carrie: I've said this before on previous streams, but my mom just hated nothing more than repetitive, eight bit arcade noises. They drove her crazy. I wasn't allowed to have a normal Nintendo console as a kid. I finally was able to get a game boy, pretty much because my dad got it for me. I used to be forced to wear the headphones a lot so that she didn't have to hear all of the noises, which you know, for me was a key part of the game. Right? Some of the best parts were all the fun noises.
Carrie: Let's see. Oh, yes. Don't bend the speakers leads. I am going to solder the wires and I saw that you include holes here for strain relief, which is super cool. That's always nice and something that I forget to do in my boards sometimes. So it's always nice to have a reminder. So feed it through its holes. I'm guessing that we want to feed them from the bottom to the top and then solder them over like this.
Tommy: I'm trying not to spoil it.
Carrie: I kind of want to see a photo. Because, it might make a difference whether the wires exit the bottom or the top of this board for routing purposes.
Tommy: There is a picture of a finished PCB at the top. But, there could be step-by-step photos, which isn't a bad idea.
Carrie: This is a small enough board though. I think you're fine with just one photo. Okay. So now those are bent over and I'm going to pull this through a little bit, just so these guys kind of are more or less in their final resting position. Making sure that red is to plus and black is to minus.
Tommy: One reason I like those relief holes on the PCP is that it kind of helps hold it in place while you're soldering, without those you're trying to binder clip it in, you're doing a blob or a tack or something. So, the relief is nice because it's a mechanical thing. I think that helps assemble it too. If you can spare the space on the board, I think it's always nice.
Carrie: So, we recently had a tantalum capacitor blow out. So I am now triple checking tantalum, capacitors. I really hope I have mine in the right way. I think I do. I think I do from the instructions, but I don't know, the one in your picture almost looks different maybe, but I don't know if I want to second guess myself right now.
Tommy: Let's see your board again.
Carrie: Let's see, I have the minus on the side next to the speaker. We might not be able to focus very much closer than that, but definitely the white is to white. Yeah, hoping that I don't blow things up.
Tommy: There's an electrolytic. There's a couple of ceramics on there.
Carrie: Yep. Just one electrolytic, one tiny one. Well shoot, should we, should we try it? Robyn definitely has some PTSD from that.
Tommy: All right.
Carrie: Okay, and I think our switch was to the off position probably since nothing's happening.
Tommy: I think it's good. Do you hear anything?
Carrie: I hear a little bit.
Tommy: So RV 103 is volumes. It's a quiet thing, thankfully.
Carrie: My mom would approve. It's pretty great. Well, it's cranked to 11.
Tommy: Yeah. Nigel Tufnell would like that.
Carrie: I'm going to try the other one, more tone and pitch. Oh, that's fun. That is definitely fun. All right. Let's put it in this case. I have some questions about your mad 3d modeling skills here. I am very impressed with this case. First of all, what printer do you have? Because I'm always interested to hear what printers people like.
Tommy: I got one of these Prusa’s, one of the bigger ones, not the latest, it's a couple of gen's old. I like the Prusa. All of that is in PLA, which is the standard relatively cheap stuff.
Carrie: The thing that I liked about this so much was that this slide is really, really nice. I look at this and I'm like, man, if I tried to print this, that under cling or the under the lip would be all sorts of crappy and I'd have to clean it out. It would just never quite work very well. So, when I got this and it just slid so smoothly, I was like, dang that's impressive. Can you share any tips or tricks you have for making parts that fit together so nicely? And, and do you have to do any finishing to these?
Tommy: I try very, very hard to design things that print nicely and don't require a lot of post work. Uh, rewind. When I design kits, I'm kind of designing for a couple of different audiences. 1. Is the electronics person, is this easy to solder? 2. Is it easy to assemble at the end? 3. Can your printer do this well? DFM design for manufacturability. What you’re appreciating there, and I thank you for appreciating it, is that the tongue and groove joints of that thing. This goes together pretty well because there's this trick you can do where, if you ever have to print something that goes out, instead of printing it as a T, you print it at a 45-degree angle.
Carrie: Yeah. Now I can kind of see that a little bit in the profile.
Tommy: The Scout’s enclosure kind of snaps together, but it uses the same tongue and groove joints with a lot of 45-degree angles. The last thing you want to be doing is like cutting out supports from very tiny places. A lot of things that I do unfortunately have to have supports because they're weird. But whenever I do that, I try to make them big things that you can clunk out easily or maybe things that don't really matter. A joint like that needs to be really tidy. If you're anything like me after you put this together, you’ll fidget with it and it’ll become a toy.
Carrie: Nice. So now I gotta fit the little switch in,which I think goes in that way. That seems to be proper.
Tommy: I'm curious what you would call a piece like that. There's this adage that one of the hardest things in engineering is naming things. I had the hardest time naming this little piece.
Carrie: You know, from an electronics perspective, I would call it a switch cap.
Slight caveat, this is super interesting because you have a vertical switch here. And yet you have a right-angle switch cap. That right angle switch cap, actually keys in here to the vertical switch. I would never have thought of doing that that way at all, because I would have just been like, oh, well, I'm just going to get a right-angle switch. Yeah.
Tommy: That would be the smart thing to do. Let me share a fun fact about my version of APC and it relates to the poly 555. So, the poly 555 has an L-shaped PCB and it's really big and expensive. Fab houses don't care if your thing is L-shaped or heart shaped or whatever shape, you get charged by the rectangle. So, I was getting charged for this big chunk of space that I wasn't using. I was wasting money. What I did was, I literally just grabbed that radio shack book. I was like, what is the circuit that I know that everybody will know? I very quickly did the step tone generator, and I threw it in that corner. I basically did nothing else. I kind of changed the pots on it, but it worked, and it was good enough for me. It existed like this just in PCB form for like a hundred of these. I had a lot of these PCBs before I ever started on the design for it.
Carrie: Bold, very bold. I like it.
Tommy: So that is why that switch is kind of weird, because I kind of thought that I would have a switch that exposed out of the top of the thing, like the switches right here. But it's a weird spot and to have that switch exposed out at the top, I think would have been ugly. So, I made it instead expose out the side., This switch cap, as you say, I call it a clutch because it’s clutched onto the actuator. I was careful not to call it a switch itself because it's not switching anything. It's kind of like an actuator on the actuator, I think that makes sense.
Carrie: Switch actuator is also something I believe I've heard for this type of thing. Especially when it's something like this, where you're translating motion into a different plane, because I generally associate switch caps with just going on the top.
Tommy: That’s what I thought too. I thought a switch cap is a thing that just goes on top.
Carrie: Yeah, so I think actuator might be the more proper term for it.
Tommy: I thought that actuator is the name of the part that sticks out of the switch too.
Tommy: Naming stuff is hard.
Carrie: Yeah, it is. It's hard to search for things too when you know what you're looking for, but you don't know what it's called by the people who are selling it. Learning terminology can be a real challenge.
Tommy: Yeah, this is something that I struggle with because I'm not an industrial designer. I'm not an electrical engineer. I don't know. I don't really know anything about anything.
Carrie: Well, you're doing a great job at both.
Tommy: I find myself just making up words all the time. My code is just littered with these words that probably don't mean anything to anybody else. I'm like, ah, somebody else looks at this code, I hope they understand this. I hope they can get it.
Carrie: I like it. I also have an L-shaped board and I did not come up with something as clever as your solution. I panelized it myself and I ordered them as a panel. So, I panelized it wit the cutouts, it was kind of shaped more like a flag, so I was able to nest them. The same thing, those boards were going to cost me almost twice as much money if I didn't do that. I did get the prototypes made by OSH park. It was funny, I even got a comment after I had ordered them, whoever processed the order was like, Ooh, nice nesting.
Carrie: It's a super fun build. I also think that it's super approachable kids, I think because it's not a kit that has a million different parts, you know, and you get a lot of really great instant gratification from it. I think it's awesome. So, tell us more about the Scout and could you play something on it or the poly 555.
Tommy: The Poly 555 Is this. It looks like this. There are 20 555 circuits, they're all identical It has keys. It's got this thumb wheel on the side. Like it's an old nineties Walkman. It doesn't slide together like the APC, but it uses a lot of the same enclosure parts and kind of screws together. There's some hitches here so this part is held together right there. And this screws together, it's basically top and bottom. It's takes 20 hours to print. There's a big old speaker in there and a nine volt battery.
Carrie: I love that there's an LED per key too.
Tommy: Next time you have me on, maybe I'll have a better camera set up, but you got to trust that I was playing that. I can do one blue scale and it's C blues and that's the only blue scale I can do.
So that is the Poly 555, available at Oskitone.com. The other thing that I launched Monday is called the Scout. It looks much smaller, much cuter, 17 keys powered by an atmega 328, which is the same microcontroller used by the Arduino UNO. It is called the scout because it is my first foray into microcontrollers. I don't really know much about much, but I knew that I wanted to get away from 555’s and I wanted to make something that could be done in a much shorter time. So, this takes about 45 minutes to put together to solder and assemble. It still takes like nine hours to print because you know, printers can only go so fast. It has the same kind of switch caps, switch clutch, the volume uses the same code as the APC, but it looks different. Instead of a Brody knob we have a little dimple and there's no spokes. It uses a lot of the same code. It has a line out, first time playing with headphone jacks. It's a stereo Jack, but it's wired as mono so you could use headphones and I tried to make it so that at max volume it won’t deafen you. It has a UART do you know what UART stands for? I don't remember.
Carrie: Universal asynchronous receive transmit? I think, I'm not sure if the U is universal or not.
Tommy: When you turn it on the APC has its LED exposed as does the poly 555.
Carrie: I love that light pipe action too, by the way. The “ah, do I really need a light pipe? No, I'll just work it into the print. “
Tommy: I will. I always want a light pipe. There are things that I keep coming back to. I always want to make a real light pipe. If I can figure out a design that uses them well and make sense to get them manufactured, I probably will because I just keep coming back to them.
Carrie: You know you can buy light pipes too, right? :)
Tommy: You know me, I have a disease called “not invented here,” which means I want to make everything from scratch. That's why all these knobs are like this. This is why I'm not using like off the shelf mini controllers or whatever. The Scout does not have an exposed LED instead, it's kind of a secret thing that when you turn on it, there's a little thing inside the thing. Also, the speaker is not exposed, the speaker is actually right here, and it uses the keys as a grill.
Bob asks, “Does the UART on the scout allow for reprogramming?” It does, you hook up an FTDI cable, sold separately, and you plug it into this and then your computer talks to it just like an Arduino Nano. I ship all the chips with a bootloader so that you can do that.
It sounds like this.
At this point Tommy holds the Scout up to the camera with one hand and plays it without the other, barely looking at the keys, making playing music look effortless.
Tommy: It is monophonic it, uh, monophonic means one note at a time. But yeah, it's fun. I think it's a nice little kit for folks new to electronics and people who are familiar with Arduino. I hope people like it. I put it out Monday. I'm still kind of promoting it a little bit. Thank you for the opportunity to promote it right here.
Carrie: Of course, of course!
Tommy: I'm hopeful that people like it, but I'm also hopeful that it unlocks me to do new, weird things. You know what I mean? Anytime I put something out, people are like, “can it do MIDI?” And I'm like it’s all analog. Like, it wouldn't be worth it. And people ask, “can do filters, what about envelopes?” This still doesn't really do any of that.
Carrie: This is more of an instrument than a synth, right? Like that's how I kind of think of it.
Tommy: Yeah. It's, it's I don't know. It's an overloaded word. When you say synth, that means a lot of different things for a lot of people.
Carrie: Well, you see, I know nothing about this! There's synth drama. I love it. I'm not surprised. I mean, you know, there is knitting drama. There is crocheting drama. There is spinning yarn drama. There is all sorts of drama in every community. So, it's like, of course there's synth drama and discussion about what is the meaning of synth and what exactly is the meaning of yarn and what constitutes a fabric? It's fun having those discussions,
Tommy: right? Yeah. I bet I love it about as much as you do. Anyway, I'm hopeful that this will unlock some of those things and I'm also hopeful that it will give me a foundation to start doing weirder things that are less keyboard-y. Pianos are like the 555 timers to me, it's like a known thing. There's value in using a thing that already has precedent and people have a general understanding of like the, the ins and outs of this thing, but we shouldn't be beholden to it. You know, the world is our oyster. Why shouldn't we do weird, weird stuff?!
Carrie: I like it.
Tommy: Maybe I'll do some weird stuff.
Carrie: I think you should do lots of weird stuff
Tommy: If people buy it, I will make it.
Carrie: yeah. I'm like, well, even if people don't buy it, I'll probably still make it, but that's not a very good business decision. I don't recommend that, but it does happen sometimes.
Tommy: Yeah, no, I hear ya. It's hard to be both an artist and a business person, you know, it's, uh, those two things can be at odds when they both meet up, it can be a little awkward.
Carrie: Yeah, definitely.
Well cool, this was super fun. Thank you so much for coming on and everything.
Tommy: Yeah, this was great. I'm so glad that it actually worked. Thank you for having me. Thank you for buying, buying my wacky things.
I also want to say, you know, I'm a big fan of you and of Alpenglow. And I recently learned what Alpenglow is. I love the poetry and the name and the mission. And I'm so excited for your new space, new expansion, your new people. I'm real jazzed about everything that y'all are going to do. And, uh, I'm weird on camera, but I will do this for you.
Carrie: Well, thank you because I feel like I'm weird on camera too. So, thank you for being weird on camera with me, I think it all works out. Cool. Cool. Cool. Well, awesome we'll definitely keep in touch with each other. Give Tommy @Oskitone a follow, give him some retweets, sharing the Scout love. He has really cool things, he has a range of stuff on his website and even has like a little sequencer that I also got at the same time.
That was a pretty inexpensive little kit so if you're not quite ready for the poly 555 yet, there's still a lot of cool stuff.
Tommy: I'm trying to better serve the markets out there. So, if you like my aesthetic, but you don't see something that is for you, let me know.
Cool. Thank you, Carrie.
Carrie: Thank you. And thank you everybody for watching, we will see you next time.