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electronic MUSICIAN

Digital DJ: One-Bill Control

By Ean Golden | August 1, 2008

You can do eeet! Save a few bucks, turn off the TV and get your hands a little dirty, and you can make your own MIDI controller that does what you want it to do.

You can do eeet! Save a few bucks, turn off the TV and get your hands a little dirty, and you can make your own MIDI controller that does what you want it to do.
Photo: Ean Golden

In last month's column, I covered just a few ways you can modify a MIDI controller for your DJ set. Now I'll take it up a notch and show you how to construct a fun and functional MIDI controller in less than one hour that will cost between $100 and $200. This basic piece, which I lovingly call DJ-101, requires only a few basic hardware tools and almost zero electrical experience. While the DJ-101 is not exactly the world's most groundbreaking controller, it will get your feet wet and show you how easy it is to construct your very own MIDI-control surface from scratch.

PICK AND CHOOSE

The first and most important part of designing your own MIDI device is deciding what controls you want to work with. A quick scan through the electronics catalog of a company such as Mouser (www.mouser.com) will yield thousands of possibilities, making it easy to get a little carried away and design something that is well beyond your reach.

My task was to design a controller that has only eight controls but is flexible enough to be useful in a number of DJ applications. For their fun and flexibility, I decided on two basic types of controls: arcade buttons and touch-sensitive strips. The touch-sensitive strips come from the DIY shopping headquarters, Spark Fun Electronics (www.sparkfun.com). Spark Fun has a broad range of interesting products and a helpful staff that will turn your visions into real-life projects. Happ Controls (www.happcontrols.com) stocks a wide range of genuine arcade components, including buttons. While the competition's arcade buttons perform slightly better, I recommend you get the low-profile models because they will fit easily into most enclosures. The DJ-101 boasts four arcade buttons and four 50 mm touch-sensitive strips, which all serve multiple duties, including pitch bending, transport, tempo controls and effects. To get the most out such a small number of controls, they will be running in modes, and I picked up four multicolor LEDs from Spark Fun to indicate which mode I am in. Once you have finalized the number of controls, it's possible to determine which MIDI brain will fit your needs.

BRAIN TRUST

Truly building a MIDI controller from scratch would be beyond the means of most people, but fortunately there are several manufacturers that offer pre-built DIY MIDI modules designed for just this type of project. All of the kits allow you to connect analog controls directly to the board and transmit that data to the computer via a standard MIDI cable or even USB in some cases. Some even offer editor/librarians for customizing the way your MIDI controls behave. The differences lie in how many knobs, switches and buttons you can actually connect to each system, so here is a short list of some of the best options.

The IcubeX USB-microSystem ($99; http://infusionsystems.com) supports as many as eight analog inputs and outputs each. This is the only USB-powered MIDI kit in this price class, and it's quite small and easy to use. IcubeX also stocks an impressive line of forward-thinking sensors and control interfaces. They are a tad bit pricey, but if you're looking to build some crazy MIDI interfaces, then that is the place to go. Ultimately, that is the system I used for the project because it's the most simple to implement.

Doepfer's Pocket Electronic ($120; www.doepfer.de) has 16 MIDI inputs and no outputs. A respected name in DIY synths, Doepfer offers several DIY MIDI kits ranging in price and features, including a USB kit for about twice the price.

The Eroktronix MidiTron ($149; www.eroktronix.com) provides as many as 20 inputs or outputs. MidiTron offers the only Mac/Windows editor and even a wireless/USB version for $395; easy connection points also mean no need to solder wires to a tiny board.

Lone builder Leo Bodnar produced the Precision Joystick Controller BU0836 ($35; www.leobodnar.com) with eight analog and 32 button inputs (no outputs). This single-man operation in England offers the best bang for the buck. The downside? Rather than MIDI, his tiny chips spit out HID data, which can be converted to MIDI only by using a host of software tools. That problem aside, these inexpensive, USB-powered interfaces offer high-resolution inputs in large numbers for a great price.

BOX IT UP

Once you've chosen the brain and controls, it's easy enough to create a rough layout in Photoshop and figure out how big the case needs to be. With more than 6,000 cases and enclosures in stock, Mouser is a good place to start. Because the theme of this project was simple, quick and inexpensive, I opted for a black, Atari-looking ABS plastic box. They range in price from $5 to $20, depending on the size and configuration you want. While ABS may not look as professional as metal cases, they are a lot easier to mount the components on. For the arcade buttons, a ⅞-inch spade bit or step bit will drill perfect holes. Because the touch strips stick directly to the top of the box, a Dremel tool can be used to cut thin slots where you can feed the ends inside the case and connect them directly to the brain. To mount the LEDs, I drilled holes and fixed them into place with clear silicon caulking gel. Mounting the brain inside the case is simple — most of the cases sold at Mouser have mounting brackets and holes for various-size boards. Finally, solder jumper cables between the control terminals and the MIDI brain and you are ready to go! There are some specific guidelines you need to follow to make sure the soldering is done correctly. For more tips and a full video tutorial on how to build this specific controller, read this column at Remixmag.com or www.djtechtools.com.

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