This is a little rundown of how this MIDI controller came into being, made largely because I am an idiot and will probably forget half of what I did when it breaks and it’s time to build another one. My requirements were pretty simple: I needed an Ableton controller that I could hammer on, that I could use blind-drunk in the dark, that would be solid and predictable and could take some hits, and not cost a fortune. Oh, and I wanted to never, ever, ever have to touch my laptop during a show. Everyone’s gonzo about 2-way communication between software and hardware these days, but I don’t like looking at LEDs and I HATE staring at my computer screen. I figured that if there was anything with a variable state, it would be hardwired to a knob or a fader and I’d know where it was set by looking at the knob, not at some lights or the laptop. So this nixed things like channel mutes and solo/cue buttons. I did a lot of planning to figure out what was absolutely necessary and what would have to go. Read on!
Rough parts list for the box is as follows, and prices are approximate:
1 – 18×11 sheet of 1/4″ Plexiglas ($14)
10 – 10k linear potentiometers ($15)
8 – 10k linear 60mm faders ($16)
32 – arcade buttons (i used Yonex; they’re very cheap and they have a solid click. Yeah, i’m trying to sell my own self on this; I could have made the whole box two inches thinner if I used those Sanwa joints, but who’s got $4 per button to blow on something that might not even work?)
1 – cheap USB QWERTY keyboard ($7 at Fat Albert in Bushwick)
1 – Korg Nanokontrol ($45 warehouse-resealed/ding-dent) and budget for another one for when you fuck it up
1 – Neutrik USB jack for the back of the box ($8)
1 – USB hub ($10)
a shitload of stranded wire, 18-22 gauge
some kind of wood to build a box (I used an old oak shelf from my bookcase)
enough knobs and fader caps for all yer controls
a bunch of tools, including a hole saw and a good soldering station
at least 2 fifths of sub-$15 Scotch, possibly more if you weigh >150lbs
24-hour access to bodega with cold tall cans and loosies (solder fumes will fuck you up; a consistent buzz will mask the effects of this for as long as it takes to build something like this)
a week of your life, possibly less if you’re unemployed
I bought a Nanokontrol a while back and it’s a great little toy. I played out a few times with it, and software-wise it was great: super-reliable, plug-and-play, never caused problems with Live, it’s ridiculously cheap, the Korg software editor is awesome, and it’s half the price of most DIY midi kits that don’t do nearly as much. The only problem is that it’s a tiny piece of plastic shit. The buttons stick, the knobs are tiny, you’re forever hitting adjacent faders. It’s nerve-wracking and it looks like you’re doing needlepoint on stage. Wouldn’t it be sweet if we could use it as a brain and attach some grown-up-sized faders to it? Enough already with all us laptop clowns fiddling with our peewee units; real rock stars go out with their fists up and they break shit. You can’t look at tits when you’re staring at a laptop, unless there are tits on the laptop, in which case why leave the house in the first place?
Boobs, Chad. Say boobs.
I like triggering clips with a QWERTY keyboard. It’s another piece of hardware that never causes problems (ahem) and is very easily mapped in Live. Plus you get modifier keys (shift and opt) so that each key is really worth 4 keys (key, shift+key, opt+key, shift+opt+key). I don’t know shit about programming and I knew that getting a MIDI controller to do that would take more time and energy and smarts than I had. Then I stumbled across this thing and I was like FUCK YEAH THE WORLD IS MINE.
First step: Get the PCB out of the USB keyboard. That’s easy enough to do, and there are instructions about it at that link above. I did the same thing, but with a lot more buttons. Number the ends of the traces on both sheets (I used numbers for the topsheet, letters for the bottom sheet). Take yer multimeter and figure out which keys use which traces. This is a pain in the ass, so it’s good to have another identical keyboard around so that when you roast the PCB on the first one, you don’t have to remap everything.
Once you figure out which connections you’re going to need on the PCB, you can start by tinning a few of the unused ones. You’ll probably wreck at least one before you get it right. I did, but that’s probably because I’m a dope, and not quite the Solder Master I fancy myself.
Tin your wires and very, very quickly reheat and stick ‘em to the PCB. Then don’t touch them. Find some way to secure them so you don’t accidentally rip something off. I came up with an inelegant solution based on a piece of rubber, some plexi strips and some long bolts. Whatever works. Sit this on the windowsill to cool and go drink a beer.
The Nanokontrol isn’t as much of a pain in the ass as you might think. I wrecked one trying to figure out where everything went and trying a lot of stupid things, then I got another one and, armed with the vast inside info I got the first time around, made it my bitch in round two.
The best way to solder wires to the 9 faders is to grab the bottom of the metal cover with a pair of little wire snips and twist. Seriously. You won’t break the board if you’re careful, and the whole top comes off at once, with the wiper and all. That leaves you three huge, beautiful pads you can solder away on.
Connect these to any 10k linear variable-resistance type knobby things you choose (I bought a couple of these 100mm Softpots, but wound up not using them. The pair is yours for $20! Email me!) The pots are more of a pain. Don’t drink too much before you do this. Borrow a dremel from someone, with one of those tiny cutting wheels. Cut the legs that hold the metal cap on top of the pot. Don’t cut the board. Don’t wreck your traces. Take a few deep breaths. It should take about twenty minutes. The tops of the pots will fly off and then you’re good to solder wires for your new, awesome knobs to the existing pins. That’s pretty much it for the Nano board. (At this point you’ve got this clusterfucky crow’s nest of Very Fragile Shit; it’s going to make you nervous and it should.)
Oh, and if you’re checking as you go to see if everything works, don’t. As soon as you rip the wiper off of any of the knobs or faders, it will start sending out intermittent, random MIDI data. You can have 17 out of 18 controls wired up and ready to go, and that last one will still be the dickhead bee in your bonnet. So put the engines on blast, turn your cup up and wire the whole thing at once. If you fucked up, you’ll find out soon enough. Don’t plug it in until your octopus is ready to swim.
I’m not going to get too deep into the software setup here; everyone’s got their own way of working and it’s best to figure that stuff out as you go. I will say that I try to keep the operation of the board as simple as possible, which means a lot of automation and deviant behavior behind the scenes. Almost everything in my live set is run by dummy clips that contain MIDI CCs that are fed out of live via the Mac’s IAC bus and fed back in via Remote. (You can do this with some Windows apps too, but I’m fucked if I know what they are.) This means my set’s about 30 scenes deep before the audio clips even start. I have a MackieControl emulator channel with its own separate IAC bus for things that you otherwise can’t do without Bomes, an APC or some seriously creative shit, like showing/hiding the clip view and mixer, changing the tempo in increments, auto-scrolling through scenes, routing tracks to an effects bus, changing global quantize, etc. If Ableton ever gets wise and fixes some of the more glaring omissions in their goddamn software, I’ll be seriously pissed that I spent so much time devising these bizarre workarounds.* For cueing, I’ve got the channel’s level faders mapped backwards to Send A, which feeds the 3/4 outs on my interface. Main volume is down, level goes up in the headphones. Main volume is up, it drops the cue level to something like -20db. Works for me. Anyhow, the upshot is that your software setup is going to completely dictate how you build your board. Figure it out, sleep on it a while, make some notes, measure everything ten times, draw it on paper, make a cardboard mockup, whatever the hell you think you need to do to make sure it’s going to work out for you.
I used Plexi for the faceplate because it’s cheap, it’s easy to drill and file, it’s fairly lightweight and because I plan to stick some groovy backlights in the thing next time I open it up. And because my dispatch spot is across the street from Canal Plastics and it seemed like a good idea at the time. Drill your holes, make your cuts, act decisively, get your hardware, give yourself more space than you think you’re going to need, make sure you don’t forget something like the fact that the microswitches on your buttons are wider than the buttons themselves, or that the threads on your pots are only 1/4″ long (yeah, I had to countersink the retainer nuts because apparently I don’t know how to read a fucking spec sheet) and fit every piece together as you go to make sure you’re not doing something dumb.
So bang the box together, make sure it’s deep enough to accommodate all the shit you want to put in there, and button it up. If you need inspiration or supplies, go for a walk. I woke up on a weekday with a terrible headache after a night of boozing and soldering and screwing (screws) and was thinking about where the hell I was going to find some strips of solid 3/4″ wood to make the lip for the bottom of the box. I fell down the front stairs and skinned my knee and in the trash pile I landed in, there was a busted Ikea folding table with legs that were the perfect size. Bing! Let go of your shit and the world will throw you some bones. (I was bumbling through midtown last month and there was a dumpster outside a post-production joint that had presumably gone digital. There were three mixing boards in the garbage; two Mackie CR1604VLZs and a 1402VLZ. Aside from the bent aux knob on one of the boards from having been dropped ON TOP OF THE OTHER ONE from the second floor, they all work 100%. Rent might be steep in NYC but the benefits are fucking unbeatable.)
Anyone want to buy a mixer?
Okay, the USB jack goes into a 1″ hole in the back of the box, all the other self-explanatory shit happens by itself, and you’re mostly done. I attached the Nano PCB to the faceplate by way of some dowels I cut down from a wooden coat hanger. (You can see that in the picture at the top of the page.) I used the tiny little screws that came with the Nano to keep it tight; there was enough room under the top row of faders to accommodate the board with about an inch to spare. Sweet. I bolted the keyboard PCB to the bottom of the board with a nut on the end of the long bolts that held the plexi strips and the rubber together. The only remaining whaaaa? issue (continuing) is with the USB hub. When I plug each device into the laptop’s two USB jacks, everything works perfectly. When I plug the devices into my 7-port powered Belkin hub and then into a single jack, everything works perfectly. When I plug both devices into the little 4-port unpowered hub I bought to keep inside the box so as to keep the output to a single cable, the MIDI works fine but there is a horrible lag in the buttons (QWERTY) input. Keystrokes are dropped, the thing jitters and is totally unusable. When I put a power supply into that hub, the jitter remains and the shit stays broken. So it doesn’t seem to be a power issue, and the Macbook USB-port-inequality thing has been explored (apparently the rear port is shared with a bunch of internal shit like bluetooth and the camera, while the front is flying solo) AND the whole latency thing happens when I plug my extra (unmodified) Nanokontrol and my extra (identical, unmodified) USB keyboard into the hub. Same thing happens with a similar hub from a different manufacturer. Which means it isn’t a wiring thing, it’s a Who-The-Hell-Knows type of thing, it’s a don’t-buy-the-six-dollar-keyboard-for-your-DIY-thing thing. It’s not me, it’s them. As a workaround for the last show, I just ran a USB cable out of the top of the box with some gaff tape to keep it from wrecking anything and used both MIDI ports on the laptop. I guess I’ll either stick the monster Belkin inside the box permanently or just install another Neutrik jack on the back so I can properly connect two cables. I’d rather not do that because I do like to plug in other USB stuff like keyboards, drum pads, vibrating clit-eggs, tasers, atomic clocks and cigarette lighters when I play live. I have no idea how to avoid this issue and can provide no advice on how to remedy it.
At some point, if there’s any interest, I’ll put up a thing about how everything’s mapped and how the effects work and stuff. It’s a slick setup.
*As much as I’ll hate, these dudes make a tight product. Five hundred bucks buys you what 50K couldn’t have back in ’99. Quit bitchin.