Dino Box

My thoughts about the Dino Park synth board:

  • Sounds great. The Minimoog (etc.) emulations just cut through the mix.
  • BUT VA emulations of classics are aplenty.
  • BUT it’s hardware!
  • BUT the technology is old.
  • BUT it is really faithful to the old classics!
  • BUT you haven’t got any controls – and it is above and all about workflow and usability, not about the sound. Otherwise use samples.
  • BUT I can build my own controllers!
  • BUT would you ever?
  • BUT I already DID create a controller you can actually touch.
  • BUT how could you package all that tech in a way that makes sense, is easy to do, and is actually (GASP) fun to play???

The last question kept on nagging me so I kind of dodged it and came up with the easyiest possible solution.

Behold: The Dino Box.

I am very proud of the artwork – my kids did most of it. I have taken the box for a first test drive with my band, and it worked fine.

What you need:

  • a MakeAudioPro Dino Park VA Synth board (€279)
  • a 12V/500mA power supply (€5)
  • TB Midi Stuff app (€5)
  • Modstep sequencer app (€11)
  • Lightning-to-USB-adapter, aka „Camera Connection Kit (€49)
  • an iPad Air, 1st generation (€120)
  • the iPad‘s cardboard box (free)
Back of the box, with power supply, 1/4

Couple of notes:

  • I will possibly add a small back plate glued to the cardboard to give the Dino’s output sockets more stability.
  • If you use the USB bus master to connect to a powered hub, you could use a Lightning cable to charge the iPad while playing. (Well, technically you could also solder aforementioned cable to the +5V supply on the board, but is it really worth doing that?)
  • I DO like the TB Midi Stuff app, but as of this time of writing, it is almost abandonware. The author promised to do an iOS12/13 update, but I would not blame him if he didn’t.
  • Modstep is a great sequencer and beatbox with a more than passing resemblance to Live, but like Live, it is no simple tool. And there have been no updates for a while – once again, I do not blame the programmer. Do people realise that it is impossible to survive on writing special-interest apps?

DinoPark controlled by Novation SL MKII and TB MIDI Stuff

A Minimoog, a Prophet and an Odyssey enter a bar… and it’s only 200 Euros. — I know, if you don’t understand German, there is not much the last post can offer you but that is where I collected the first batch of info on the DinoPark VA PCB synth. In the meantime, controller panels have been programmed with the TB Midi Stuff app for iPad, and it works.

Simple Setup:

  • A Novation SL MKII controller keyboard connected via a USB printer cable to the DinoPark board; the Dino is the USB master, and the power supply for the keyboard.
  • The DinoPark’s USB Slave connector – the Micro USB socket – is used to connect an iPad via the Camera Connection Kit. It runs TB MIDI Stuff; the panels enable me to change the settings, and show me the parameter settings for the actual sound.

It would be possible to use the Novation controller only; this just about works for the Minimoog emulation as a Minimoog has not got that many dials to turn; for the Prophet clone, the 24 dials and faders of the SL are simple not enough; you would need two templates and would have to jump between them. Moreover, the Novation controller does not evaluate the board’s CC messages and is thus unable to show the actual values for a parameter. Nothing new for VA synths.

Update, 11.09.2019: Die Beta-Version eines Controller-Panels für den „Prodyssey“ (die ARP-Odyssey-Emulation) ist fertig, und Mann, ist das ein toller Synthesizer! Das Canvas an der angegebenen Stelle enthält jetzt auch diesees Panel.

A template for the Novation SL Controller, and a canvas for TB Midi Stuff with the controller panels, are available for download here. .

MakeProAudio Dinopark Synth – erste Einzelheiten

Hardware

See the German version of this article.

Controlling the Dino Park

  • Dino Park is switched to OMNI mode, receiving on all channels.
  • Switching between the synth models is by doing a full MIDI Bank Select: CC#0, model #, CC#32, Preset Bank (0 = Presets, 1 = User). BTW: This is wrong in MPA’s MIDI documentation for the Dino Park.
  • These models are included:
    • Bank 0: Minimoog model, „Minimax“
    • Bank 1: Prophet-5 model, „Pro-12“
    • Bank 2: ARP Odyssey model, „Prodyssey“
    • More models available for the Creamware technology: Bank 3 – “B4000” organ emulation closely related to Ferrofish’s tech, a VS-inspired synth called Lightwave, the “Vocodizer”, a FM/PD synthesizer called FMAGIA, and a „Drums ’n‘ Bass“ model.
  • Saving a preset is done by sending CC#111 followed by the preset to save to.

MIDI implementation is documented for the four first models on the DINOPARK-Support page. Some small errors and omissions: The CC#0, CC#32 sequence for model switching is mixed up, Prodyssey model VCA Mod is CC#11 (not CC#51), VCA Gain is missing from doc but can be reached by CC#51.

Downloads

It was a bit tricky but I built a controller GUI for “Minimax”, “Pro-12”, and “Prodyssey” model. Available for download here as a TB Midi Stuff Canvas unter CC-BY licence here. Please tell me of any problems and ideas for improvement.

As the Minimoog is a simpler synth, it can be controlled quite comfortably from the 24 dials and 32 knobs of a Novation SL MKII. A template is available for download here.

Falling in love with the Korg R3 – again…

Rediscovering an old love of mine, for a simple reason: The R3 is an ideal piece of gear to take on a holiday – compact yet with a full-sized 3-octave keyboard, extremely versatile, powerful sound – and really good fun.

The setup: The R3, vocoder mic inserted, my Volca Beats drum machine synched to the R3 via a sparkling blue MIDI cable, and inserted with another audio cable into the R3’s two audio inputs, and optionally, the ModStep sequencer app on my iPad as a phrase recorder, connected via the new Camera Connection Kit and an USB cable. Apart from my headphones, there is even a small autonomous Bluetooth speaker that can be wired to the R3’s output, via another audio cable. As the R3 is a full-blown synth rather a sound toy (also known as “Tischhupe”), and everything mentioned fits effortlessly into a small gig bag, and thus in my overstuffed car, I conclude that the R3 is ideal travel gear, and suitable even for camping holidays.

Yet the R3 is so much more.

Modstep app screenshot

Bass and melody tracks in Modstep, you can even override the Volca Beat‘s patterns and control the sounds directly from a Modstep grid

Came as a substitute, stayed as a champion

Many, many years ago, I was looking for a small beginners’ synth to get back into music. I had been looking for a MicroKorg but without the MK’s obvious limitations – four-voice, monotimbral, small keys simply not suited for my clumsy fingers. I realized that there was a MK XL, and then I realized that there was a slightly larger version of the same engine packaged with full-size keys, more FX, the capability to produce two different sounds at once, and a slightly better user interface, called R3. Which was to be had cheap. So I bought a second-hand one on eBay.

It was a good choice for getting back into music. The same qualities that make it a good holiday companion made it a good choice for jamming: It’s portable, it’s playable, and it’s capable. And gradually I started falling in love with the R3. Let me tell you why.

Genesis fans from the Prog-Rock as well as the „Mama“ factions hate it. Well, „Duke“ it‘s not, but it contains some truly unique pieces of music.

For one, I do love underdogs. And the R3 is an underdog synth. You see, the R3 is a bit like Genesis’ “abacab” album. Prog-Rock Fans hate this record for, well, Phil Collins, you know. Pop fans hate it for its handful of admittedly truly horrible songs. Just like Microkorg enthusiasts hate the R3 for sounding cleaner than a first-gen MK or an MS-2000; VA enthusiasts hate it for not sounding like an analog. I love “abacab” for its unique, electronic, Prophet-5-heavy sound, and for showing off what a terrific musician Phil Collins actually is, whatever you think of his songwriting.

Well, the analogy stops here – as I have mentioned the magic word “Prophet-5”, let’s be honest: The R3 is not a good VA to replicate vintage P5 sounds. In case you should be desperate to replicate the sound from Genesis’ “Lonely Man At the Corner”, better known as the sound from PC’s “In The Air Tonight”: There are much, much better VAs for that – please do look at Creamware’s Pro-12. So let me break down what I like – and dislike – about the R3.

The depth of the Radias engine

The R3’s basic layout is a traditional substractive synthesis setup, with two oscillators, two multimode filters, 3 EGs, 2 LFOs. The first oscillator features classical as well as sampled wave forms. The filters are not too bad for digital filters. A small mod matrix complements a couple of hard-wired modulations such as velocity/EG and LFO2/pitch. Some extensions and variations on the classic theme, under Korg’s “MMT” label from the Oasis line.

Some of that stuff is weird – Format wave forms, anybody? – some is really good. I love switching OSC1 to VPM – this is Korg’s variant of Casio’s Phase Distortion synthesis from the 80s, which was Casio’s variant of DX7-like FM synthesis for normal humans without a second brain or PhDs in acoustic physics. A wave shaper, technically a lookup table but very versatile. Filter2 working as a comb filter, i.e. a resonator for Karplus-Strong type string plucking sounds. And up to three independent effects per sound, including another bit crusher as well as a ring modulator.

The best thing of the R3’s mod matrix may be the feature that is not part of it: a sixteen-step modulation sequencer. Apart from sequencing, well, pitch, it can animate parameters like OSC1’s harmonics in VPM mode, which you cannot reach from the mod matrix. It can even modulate the mod matrix’s modulation depths. I would wish that the mod matrix could reach all the targets the mod sequencer can reach, but it is unfortunately much more limited. They fixed that in the Radias – a Radias is two R3s packaged with an Electribe and many, many knobs – but the software update enabling the additional targets never was back-ported to the R3. Underdog indeed.

I do own a Radias, by the way. It understands R3 sounds, and they are among the best for this synth.

Pain points

Let’s face it: in terms of digital technology, the R3 is old. 8 voices – 4 per split – are not enough. (Still, its even more limited Microkorg brethren are sold to this day.) There are fresher VA alternatives that are just as cheap, like Novation’s Mininova. And there are some things to hate about this small machine.

The plastic housing is cheap. The full-size keybed is playable but nasty. (Take my word for it: the keys don’t feature the usual metal springs but are attached by flexible plastic working as a spring load – ewww!) They tend do turn yellow over the years as well. Really, really nasty. They could also do with an aftertouch, but even if the R3 HAD aftertouch, the limitations of the mod matrix would mean that you could not program it to control vibrato independently of the mod wheel.

In summary: Rational causes for a a love affair

Pros:

  • Full-sized, 37-key keyboard
  • Light and compact
  • Deep VA engine capable of some unique sounds
  • While not knobby, it is still easy to program without an editor
  • Rich in effects
  • Bi-timbral
  • External inputs
  • Vocoder

Contras:

  • No aftertouch… yet
  • Keybed is not so great
  • Modulation targets are infuriatingly limited
  • Plastic housing not too stable
  • Delicate plastic housing
  • 8 voices only

Bitte nicht nach einer Kalibrierung für das Pitchbend-Rad beim Blofeld suchen. (Macht er selber.)

Waldorf Blofeld Keyboard white, view on the pitchbend wheel

One day, my trusty Blofeld started drifting out of tune – pretty unusual behaviour for a digital synth. Even if it was in tune first, the drifting started as soon as I touched the pitchbend wheel, so I suspected that this was the culprit.

Blofeld wheelbox

Opening the Blofeld (all 18 screws on the bottom – remember?), removing the wheelbox, and measuring the pitchbend pot confirmed that the potentiometer was indeed damaged – while an end-to-end-measurement showed 9k, the end-to-mid-resistance could be virtually anywhere, screaming “Mechanical Damage!” to me.

The potentiometer is 10k lin with a knurled 6.3mm shaft and an M10x0.75 mount. Waldorf seems to have used a Piher T-21Y type (datasheet). As I did not find something fitting in my parts boxes, I took it apart, cleaned it, adjusted the pickup spring, applied a bit of contact grease, refitted the pot and closed the Blofeld

And now for the good part…

Although I measured that the wheel now zeroed around the pot’s 5kOhm mark, it had most definitely shifted slightly, so I started looking for the calibration routine. There has to be a calibration routine, right?

But the good Blofeld seems to calibrate on power-up and on the first usage of the wheel – no calibration routine for the wheels needed. Phew!

Waldorf Blofeld Keyboard white, view on the pitchbend wheel

Important note: Be careful to ensure that the Molex connector for the wheelbox sits correctly – when I pulled the plug, the plastic holder for the pins got pulled towards the edge of the PCB so when I reattached the plug, it did not sit correctly. Rule of thumb: If the plastic of the connector is visible from the top, you might want to push it back under the PCB.

I am still testing the new shop, and I have just discovered a working plugin for showing shop and blog in English and German.

crash test dummies giving each other a thumbs-up

My, this is SO exciting.

I figured out that I have reached the point where the unpleasantness of having to buy, install and maintain a proper web shop has dropped below the unpleasantness of having to do everything by hand. (I am sure there is an XKCD cartoon for this.)

And there is also the fact that the many buyers of Bob’s firmware deserve professional handling of their inquiry. A machine is much, much better at this than me.

So this little blog is running WPShopGermany now – although I am not at all happy with their multiple documentation, things look reasonably well so far.

A German shop – for English speakers?

The WPShopGermany is fantastically well adapted to German laws and regulations, but not quite as well to speakers of other languages. To offer foreign language support, the makers recommend using the commercial WPML plugin – for which a license comes in at impressive 79 dollars, much more than I paid for the shop plugin. Which is all the more infuriating as the language files for US-English are all there (wp-content/plugins/wpshopgermany-free/lang/). And no, I am not using the free version.

Ve vill finally get se hang of your humour, was!

Luckily, I discovered that there is a newly developed free alternative to WPML, WP Multilang. Installing and activating the plugin made the shop run fine, with German and English texts – but I have not come round to translating every important title and page into two languages, so you might still have to employ GTranslate at some point or another.

To err is human. To blunder spectacularly is untergeeky.

I tell myself that this is the downside (backside?) of serendipity, but I tend to overlook things and produce errors. If you should serendipously stumble upon one of those – a missing translation, a missing order form, something running wild – drop me a line, will you? Cheers!

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Midifying Jenny, Step 1: Replacing the old keyboard chip with a Teensy

This is the first post in a series of small projects for retrofitting my JEN SX-1000 monosynth with a simple and cheap MIDI interface controller. Read about the basic idea here. Today, I am designing and building the micro-controller brain of the Jenny retrofit – if you are capable of basic soldering, it should not take you more than two hours and a couple of very common electronic parts.

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