A gold-plated Turing Machine module made for https://unendlichesspiel.de/

Why open source hardware works for Music Thing Modular

I’ve been designing and publishing open source hardware since 2012, mostly synthesiser modules under the brand Music Thing Modular. (Here’s the latest catalogue.)

Everything you need to build a Music Thing module is open — the circuit, the panel, the PCB design.

If you want to buy one, you can get a kit from Thonk, a ‘hardware record label’ in Brighton. They pay me royalties, do great documentation and provide fantastic customer service.

Or you can put together the parts yourself, using companies like OSHPark (for the PCBs) and Bitsbox (for the electronic components).

Or you can pay someone to build you one if you can’t solder yourself.

The project has been — to my mind — a big success, for two reasons.

Firstly, many people build, use and enjoy my designs, which is amazing and gratifying.

Secondly, a lot of people have gone one step further, and are actively contributing to the project.

That’s what this post is about; the people who have used the Open Source license to do amazing things.

The panel designers

Endless Play is an art project in Cologne, involving endlessly playing modular synth patch as a soundtrack for a radio play based on David Foster Wallace’ “Infinite Jest”.

The modular in question has gold-plated panels, including an expanded Turing Machine and several Radio Music modules.

The first alternative Turing Machine panel appeared five days after the project was launched in June 2012. It was designed by Shiro Fujioka from LA. There have been many since. Wes from Grayscale has had huge success selling standardised plain panels for a wide range of modules.

Magpie Modular is Kris Northern, who makes intricate silkscreened and sand-blasted panels. Experimenting with different finishes and formats, he’s added a fresh, hand-crafted look to Music Thing and Mutable Instruments modules.

“Since beginning I’ve learned how to through-hole solder, SMT solder, trouble shoot circuits, polish aluminum, create panels, powder coat, screen print, flash ARM microprocessors, print circuit boards and on and on,” writes Kris in a post about open source. “This would not have happened if the work was closed source and sold strictly as a retail product.”

He’s gradually sharing panel layouts — sharing layouts and sandblast resist patterns for his steel Radio Music panel here — so his work makes it easier for anyone with silkscreen gear and skills to get started making custom panels, because the steel templates are available.

Kylee Kennedy (C1t1zen) has designed nice alternative PCB panels for Radio Music based on the shared designs. They’re not yet available for order on his OSHPark page, but I’m sure they’ll be there soon:

Panels by Kylee Kennedy — the plain one works well for alternative firmwares, with a wipe-clean gold surface

Designing panels is a good way to start learning Eagle PCB design software, which has a very steep learning curve (I got started with the Sparkfun course). Venetian musician Filippo Nunziale has designed PCB panels for the original Turing Machine range (which originally had acrylic laser cut panels):

PCB panels by Filippo Nunziale

The Hardware Hackers

How does it feel when someone posts a video of a circuit you designed, hacked so that it uses high-voltage Nixie Tubes as the display instead of the crappy red LEDs you used?

Awesome, that’s how it feels.

The Turing Machine was designed with a port on the back to allow expanders.

Eli (aka Windspirit, or Mystic Circuits) started out building Turing Machines for non-DIYers, creating the glorious Rainbow Turing (and offering a six month warranty on all builds) before developing the most ambitious third party expanders.

Bytes is a clever response to people who wanted to control the length of loops in the original Turing, giving voltage control over loop length, Switches turns the module into a sequential switch, while Vert is can drive Turing expanders without a Turing. Eli’s designs are published under the same CC-BY-SA license as the original.

Many people have taken Music Thing modules into different formats. There are big 5U Moog format Turing Machines from Stephen Drake, Analog Craftsman and Magman. In Buchla format there are Radio Musics and Spring Reverbs.

Big Turing Machines

People have also extended and warped the Turing Machine within Eurorack format. Turing Machined is a huge mega-expanded Turing with a built in clock. Kris Northern created an amazing Turing panel that flips Voltages through 90 degrees (seen above with the rainbow LEDs). At the other end of the scale, Galingong has taken the Turing Machine design, etched his own PCB, done a whole lot of wiring and shrunk the whole thing to a cute smaller format.

The Coders

As soon as Radio Music was released in December 2014, more talented programmers than me started to write alternative firmwares using the (actually not open source, but excellent) Teensy Audio Library, most notably this collection from James Carruthers of NoBots. Finlay has made a Radio Music Trigger pack.

Firmware by James Carruthers, panels by C1t1zen

Jouni Stenroos, a classical guitarist from Finland, has contributed significant improvements to the core Radio Music firmware, now available in the new Beta2 firmware.

Mxmxmx from Berlin, the designer behind fantastic modules like Terminal Tedium, Eurotrash and Ornament+Crime, has also contributed a great deal of advice, help and support to the Radio Music project.

The Teachers

The original Turing Machine thread on Muffwigglers now contains 98,000 words of advice, troubleshooting and help contributed by the community. That’s a little bit longer than The Hobbit, and unfortunately it would be impossible to thank everyone involved.

Eli (from Mystic Circuits) has done great work squashing bugs in Turing Machine hardware. Tony from Synovatron helped improve the Turing clock circuits and in many other ways.

Mark Verbos shared the vactrol crossfade circuit in the Spring Reverb. The rest of that module was based on Roy Mallory’s tech notes, still hosted on Tripod after 15 years.

The Storytellers

The modular community is driven by people who take the time to show, tell, explain, and demonstrate modules. YouTube is full of videos of Music Thing modules like… Turing Machine from supportsquid, Turing Mk2 from DivKid, Mikrophonie from Leafcutter John, Spring Reverb from PianoHorst, Radio Music by Mylar Melodies.

That’s why my designs are open source.

Further reading about Open Source Music Hardware:

  1. Open Modules for Open Minds
  2. What it means that the MeeBlip synth is open source hardware