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Press Better with Sky Creature

Back in 2021 I built a Four Button MIDI Box for the band Sky Creature. The controller itself had to fit certain requirements (with regards to dimensions and functionality) and while I did build at least one more for another musician it was a bit of a pain, so to make things easier I created the MIDI Controller 4 Button LC which was an easier-to-assemble (and Lower Cost) build. I’ve sold a few of them this year… Anyway, back to Sky Creature!

It’s eleven months later and I heard from Matt again and he let me know that Sky Creature did a 42 show tour across the country, as well as a few shorter tours, and the controller held up beautifully. Good to know! I mentioned to Matt that I seldomly get to hear about my devices after they leave the shop, and rarely get to see them in the wild… So he sent me this photo:

I like that they named it “Press Better” as well. As for Sky Creature, they’ve got a unique sound… I mean, what if Enya were in Minor Threat? I’m definitely a fan of their DIY take on things. They booked their tour themselves, and are very much about just getting out there and doing it. Sure, they got some help from Steve Albini to record things, but most smart people do.

Oh, total side note here… I’m excited for Majel’s new podcast A Music of Their Own, which will “seek advice from women artists that have their act together”. It’ll be on NPR starting December 8th, 2022.

Matt and I are discussing another controller right now, and honestly it feels good to get new challenges for the things I create. I’ve been building various controllers and physical computing devices for over ten years now, and without customers and a purpose it can often feel a bit isolating, even when you are learning new things. Having people use and enjoy thing things you make is great feeling.

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Three Button Tradeshow Video Player Controller

Custom USB Controller for trade show video playback

I was contacted by a trade show company about helping with a project on a tight deadline. At first it seemed as though they had a solution but just needed some hardware or some advice, but I did a call with the software developers and it seemed like the quickest (and most solid) plan was to create a drop-in replacement for what they were working on (and were stuck on) that would do exactly what was required.

Custom USB Controller for trade show video playback

One of the requirements was for each button to be lit a specific amount of time to match the length of video playback for each button. Since we didn’t yet know the lengths of the video, and I had to ship this across the country, I suggested an easy method of setting the time for each button to be lit. This would allow them to dial in (literally) the timing once they had the videos completed.

Custom USB Controller for trade show video playback

We did know that the videos would be under 75 seconds. Just to be safe I set the timers to go up to 90 seconds (1 minute, 30 seconds, to be precise.) The controller plugs into a computer via USB and sends commands that the custom software needs to play the appropriate video.

Cabinet

There are a lot of details I didn’t know, but it seemed like I had enough to do my part. They sent me a rendering of a cabinet the controller would live in (which I’ve replicated in the simple sketch above). When I was building museum exhibits much of my work lived inside of cabinets and was never seen by the public, only technicians… that doesn’t mean things shouldn’t look nice.

Custom USB Controller for trade show video playback

There’s a small OLED display in the controller which shows the time that corresponds to each button, and can be adjusted by the appropriate dial. The dials are 3D printed because I forgot to pocket out the back of the lid where the potentiometers are placed. There’s a few compromises that were made due to this being a rush job. (I completed this build in under a week, using only parts I had in my shop at the time.)

Custom USB Controller for trade show video playback

For other controllers I’ve used TRS jack and cables to connect the buttons, or on occasion, Cat5 cables and connectors. Both are nice because they are easy to obtain in any length, and trade show companies usually have a bunch in their inventory.

Custom USB Controller for trade show video playback

The bottom of the enclosure has four mounting holes, and I included screws to allow it to be attached inside the cabinet. Alternately, VHB or hook & loop could be used to attach it.

As always, if you need a device you can check out raster.etsy.com for some of the more popular stock items I make, but if you need something custom just get in touch.

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The (Old) Tool Holder

Tool Holder

Back in February I got sick of the tools I use most at my soldering desk just lying in a pile and decided to do something about it. I grabbed a block of wood and started drilling holes so I could place tools into it standing straight up. This would make them easy to grab and hopefully easy to put back… in the same place each time. The block of wood has worked well enough, but more than once I’ve wanted to change the order of the tools, and I can’t easily do that since each hole is customized for the tool it holds.

It was also a fun time creating the holes for the wire cutters and wire strippers since the holes are sort of oblong. I actually did pretty good for freestyle drilling on those. At the time I also imagined a modular system for this, and a month later I found a dovetail library for OpenSCAD and started messing around with it. I could not get a good dovetail joint to print though, so I gave up for a while.

Tool Holder

A few more months past (hey, I got busy) and instead of printing the dovetails on the old Maker Select Plus I tried on the Prusa MINI+ and wow, things fit perfectly! Well, after a few tests prints to determine the exact Teeth_clearance to use. Once I had that, Bob was my uncle!

Tool Holder

Here’s the first successful attempt. The pieces fit together well. Not super-tight, but not too loose. A small strip of tape on the bottom of the blocks would work well to hold them all together as one piece, with the ability to easily take apart and reconfigure. (The first dovetail attempts required a hammer to assemble and could not be disassembled!)

I’m still considering this prototyping, and I may tweak things a bit more before the final version… When I have something final I’ll post it here. My first thought on this version is to make the blocks a little smaller so the tools are spaced together a bit tighter. This should save a bit of desk space as well.

Tool Holder

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A Shorter Raspberry Pi Pico

Yes, I literally cut a Raspberry Pi Pico on a bandsaw. And… it works! It still mounts and it runs code as expected.

I noticed that the back portion of the Pico seemed to have no components, and just traces running to the pins, so it was worth a $4 test.

This makes the Pico a bit closer in size to an Arduino Pro Micro or a Teensy LC.

So why would you want this? You can get a Adafruit KB2040 – RP2040 Kee Boar Driver or a SparkFun Pro Micro – RP2040 but those both use USB-C instead of Micro USB and for specific cases, that may not be ideal.

(I originally posted most of this on Mastodon, but figured I should drop it here as well.)

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NeoPixel 7 Segment Display (Part I)

I had been looking for a 7 segment display for a project and the ones I found were similar to the ones I used about six years ago… Had things not really changed since then? Eventually I found these on Tindie, which seemed like they could work, except they were out of stock, and the were a kit of SMT components, and I didn’t want to hassle with all of that.

But what I did like about them was the Arduino library, which supported using NeoPixels for a large multi-digit 7 segment display. Someone pointed me to this Ninja Timer: Giant 7-Segment Display but that too appeared to be way too much to take on. Instead, I went a different route. (Note: I’m going to use the term “NeoPixel” even if I mean WS2812 for the rest of this post.)

Instead of using the flexible NeoPixel strips, I planned to use these NeoPixel sticks. They have mounting holes, so no need to hot glue them down or 3D print some holder. I just laser cut a plate to hold them. I did need to solder them together, and while it wasn’t the easiest thing it also wasn’t too painful.

So hey, getting 7 sticks attached to a plate and soldering them together? That was the easy part. Well, the code was also the easy part. I loaded up an Arduino UNO, connected the segment with three pins, and bam. We’ve got numerical success.

Now, there’s more to come, of course… I next made a front diffusion plate. I started by laser cutting a piece of black acrylic and sticking a piece of white vinyl to it.

I know there needs to be a midsection with walls to isolate each segment, I just haven’t got that done yet… I did get a little ambitions and did a test print without properly measuring everything and it showed I should totally measure everything. I should also note this is the maximum size I can print a single object on my Prusa MINI.

Now, the white vinyl was just a test. The idea was to use translucent white acrylic as a diffuser. The plan is to cut the black front panel, then cut the white diffusion segments so they fit perfectly into the holes when the panel is flipped over and the angled kerf of them makes the magic happen with the two pieces mating together. This worked. What didn’t work was the acrylic I got, which was 32% translucent. I got some 55% translucent later and that worked much better. (Photos of that will be in the next installment.)

At this point, there are many pieces that work, but not all the pieces. Seems I got a bit busy with some projects for customers and had to put things on hold. So I figured it was worth writing up where this project stands so it will remind me to finish it at some point.