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Magnum Opus, a custom made ableton live midi-controller

Magnum Opus, a custom made ableton live midi-controller

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Published by Patrick Ijsselstein
A short documentation on my custom made midi-controller.
A short documentation on my custom made midi-controller.

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Categories:Types, Presentations
Published by: Patrick Ijsselstein on Feb 22, 2014
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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The Magnum opus

a short documentation on the realisation of my custom diy controller

puikegast midi-controllers

my custom midicontroller
about me...
i've started dj-ing when i was 18, and spinned my records on almost a daily basis for over 12 years. I'm 35 now so i guess i might say that i can dj. Nevertheless, when i've discovered that i could create my own tracks in 2007, the dj-ing shifted aside, and more and more i found myself creating, instead of playing other people's tracks. My first tracks were created in Reason and everything was done with mouse and keyboard. It didn't take me long to find out that working with physical knobs and faders works so much faster and nicer. One day, i made myself the promise that i would make my own midi-controller, so i did. And a few controllers later, the idea of creating the ultimate controller that suits my personal needs and desires became more and more reality. this is a short description of how this controller became reality and i encourage everyone who has this idea as well to just do it. As a 100% noob myself, i had no education in electronics or whatsoever, i started to read, and search for info on the matter. There is plenty to be found, But you'll hardly find any complete guide or something like that. This isn't one for sure, but it can point you in the right direction if you're interested in building or designing your own controllers. there are some helpful links and info about using existing circuitboards for designing a midicontroller that's yours.

Basically, i wanted a mixer-type of console for Ableton live with at least 8 tracks so i could mix my own work. 4 tracks left, 4 tracks right, each with individual EQ, 2 sends and a few buttons for play and stop clips. So i started searching the internet to see other peoples work and following are some examples of what i've found and what inspired me the most...(sorry if your name isn't there, i do my best...)

design by Esta

design by unknown

R. Henke a.k.a. monolake's monodeck

Korg's zero8 mixer

Livid's cntrl:r as used by Ritchie Hawtin

sketching and brainstorming
After seeiing these controllers and imagining their functionality and how it would workout for me, i've printed the layout of a vestax vcm600 and copied it a dozen times. Then i started cutting and moving the groups of knobs and faders around until i came to something which would work out best.

This was my first design, it comes pretty close to the final design actually....

Next, i started to improve the design and make it look a bit more professional. Nothing special, just random copy/pasting in Photoshop. In this design there's even a nanopad's x/y pad. Which i decided to skip eventually.

the third, and final design i came up with

My final design has the following functions; 8 tracks, each with a volume fader, 3 bands equalizer, and 2 pots for sends. 2 return tracks, each with volume fader, a crossfader mapped to the chainselector of a fx-rack on the corresponding return track. 2x8 macro's for the fx-racks on the return tracks (with scene button that's multiplied by 4), 2 button-grids of 4x4 buttons with shift-function which control; select track's device (the little blue hand),track on/off, play clip, stop clip, cue (pre-listening), record on/off, and a filter on/off. And finally, some buttons for global functions to scroll up and down scenes, trigger scenes, global record, play/stop (spacebar), session/ arrangement switch (tab key), tap tempo, metronome on/off.

finding the right circuitboards
The original idea was to use the circuitboards of existing controllers. This has multiple reasons. Some very suitable controllers can be found relatively cheap secondhand. And they are already programmed to behave as midi controllers so all that's need to be done is extract the circuitboard and replace the components as you wish with better quality knobs, buttons, potentiometers, and longer faders. At first, i wanted to use 2 x-session pro's to begin with. It turned out, they send midi on channel 1, and there's no way you can change the global midi-channel on another x-session to, let's say, channel 2. There goes my plan for using 2 of these.

M-audio"s x-session pro, unsuitable for my idea...

the "eureka" moment
During one of my searches, i stumbled upon this... A guy called fakemoney used a nanokontrol as the "brains" for the controlbox you see here. Also he had written a quite detailed and humoristic "how to" tutorial about it which can be found here; Fakemoney's nanokontrol hack http://fakemoneynyc.com/2010/06/02/if-you-build-it-youwill-have-blown-at-at-least-a-week-of-your-life/

pots, knobs, faders and the internet...
For my controller, i've wanted to use better quality components. On the internet you can find every component you can imagine. And prices vary a lot so i really would give the advice to not buy everything at the first webshop you find. Unless money isn't an issue ofcourse, but personally, i'd rather keep as much money in my pocket as possible. For this particular hack, i need 10 kOhm linear potentiometers and faders, knobs and faderknobs and tiny little cute pushbuttons for the buttongrid. For my fellow europeans i'd really recommend a Polish firm i've discovered trough the internet. They are way more cheaper then everything else and have an excellent backoffice and service. Once ordered and payed for, the components are sent by air-mail (about !8 for the Netherlands...) and will arrive within 2 or 3 days, perfectly wrapped and packed. The name of the Polish firm is Transfer Multisort Electronics. You find them here; http://www.tme.eu/nl/ Everything i needed was available here at the lowest possible price.

Ofcourse you don't have to use a pushbutton as the one displayed here. You could use a footswitch, a big tv-show type of button or a touch or light-sensitive sensor. The price for a pushbutton will vary from a few cents to 50 euro's or more for a heavy industrial antivandal titanium pushbutton. For prices of other used components i made a list which can be found in the last pages of this document.

For example, the 100 pushbuttons i ordered at TME costed me !56 Exactly the same buttons will cost you !180 at Conrad's webshop.

the enclosure
The box that was needed to fit my design had to be custom made, simply because it didn't exist. As i'm on a tight budget and don't have any fancy machinery, it's completely handmade. On one of my skipping trips, yes, i'm a proud skipper, i found some fancy teakwood floor-panels in a trashcontainer, they were there, because i had to pick them up. Just perfect for my custom controller.For the top panel, i created a 1:1 copy on paper. The copy was used for measurement, to see where there is or isn't space to put in the frame, screws and such and to check if all the components would fit in. At this stage, finding out you don't have enough spacing between potentiometers and side-panels isn't such a big problem, compared to having to drill everything all over. For the inner frame and the rest of the enclosure i used wood from the diy-shop. The top panel and the sides where made from mdf. If i had the money, i would get a 3mm aluminium top panel with my design lasered out perfectly, but i don't. This meant all holes had to be drilled by me, there were about 100. The holes for the pushbutton are filed out by hand from 12 to 12,7 mm because i didn't had a drill around with that exact size. 0,7mm doesn't sound like much but after filing out more then 32 holes you wish you had the right tools to start with.

Nanokontrol hacking
• reverse engineering the Nanokontrol

The Nanokontrol itself has a very nice interface. Unfortunately, the faders are short, the little plastic knobs fly off, it is to small for people with big hands. So since i've noticed i could get them secondhand via sites like e-bay and the dutch marktplaats for prices between 15 and 30 euro's. I did some research on what other people did with nanokontrols and there actually were some people who used multiple nanokontrols inside one enclosure, with some better quality buttons, knobs and longer faders. A guy named Fakemoney and a guy which goes under the name Zeal (check the links later on) have created a pretty helpful blog on how to mod a nanokontrol. And a fellow named Lucas Carpenter (what's in a name...) created 2 very clear video tutorials. This is why i won't go in to details to much. I've found a new hack for the Nanokontrol 1's scene button though, which i will describe later on. In my sketches for my controller, i planned 2x nanokontrol 1 and 2x nanokontrol 2.

preparing the circuitboard

After removing the little knobs and screws that hold the enclosure together you'll end up with the guts of the nanokontrol. Since i want to solder my own 10 k pots and faders to the board, the original pots and faders need to be removed. The faders are easy, this might sound stupid but a flat screwdriver worked best. just stick it inside the fader and push the metal bit that clamps onto the board aside. simply take it off. It will leave you with the faders inner workings with some fine pads to solder on like the picture below. The pots are slightly more difficult to remove. I've used a plier to cut the three connections and then i've cutted one of the 2 sides. Now move it from left to right until the last bit breaks. You have to be very careful not to damage the boards traces or the very little components which live beside the parts that are removed! If you wreck something, the board becomes useless (not totally, you can use it to find new hacks and soldering-points)

1 ground 2 signal 3 power

solder, test, fixate

For my controller i only planned to use the pots and faders. That gives 16 pots/faders per board (18 for a NK1), and requires a lot of soldering. The thing that worked best for me is to have all the new pots labeled, wired and tinned, ready for soldering and solder them to the board in one session. testing the new components half way the board will not work because of the removed potentiometers, so don't. after soldering and testing the new potmeters in live, you'll know fast enough if your hack succeeded.

Bad connections or damaged circuitboard traces/ components will result in midi-jitter which will make the midi-mapping of the board impossible. If you get jitter, find the potentiometer that's bitching and check the soldering joints. This can be nervewrecking, and you should stop when you notice the process is losing it's fun. Drink a cup of coffee, go for a walk or something and leave it for what it is. Most of the time, when you get back with a fresh head you'll see the problem instantly.
same technique as with the keyboard's pcb

the nanokontrol 1 scene button hack

I've found a nifty hack for the scene button on the nanokontrol 1. This is nice, because this gives me 4x the 16 controls of 1 scene. Below you'll see the connection points for wiring a external button.

Soldering points for external scene button, use very thin wire to make the first connection. When soldered and tested (!) use a glue gun to secure the wiring. Now you can solder bigger wires to these wires. The leds can be replaced with wires as well, so you can re-solder them to the wire ends and let them pop up somewhere else in a new enclosure.

here you see the scene button and the 4 scene led's in my design

The DIN Keyboard-hack
button grid
For my controller, i wanted to be able to go up and down scenes, play and stop clips, toggle the cue-button on/off, mute tracks, record-arm tracks, toggle between session and arrangement view and the possibility to select devices and racks(the little blue hand that gives Macro-control possibility) on tracks by a buttonpress so i can switch between macro's fast and, this is important, without using a mouse or touchpad. The keyboard based buttongrid on my controller can do all of this and more. Since the shift button of the keyboard's circuitboard doubles the amount of events that can be triggered

preparing the circuitboard for soldering

Opening up the keyboard will expose the circuitboard, beneath each button you see black conductive contact points, similar as the ones found in joysticks and gamepads. Normally, pressing a key will connect these 2 points and let that key make contact with the board. Basically, it's a on/off message. These 2 black dots need to be exposed and scratched to be able to solder wires to the board. I've used a pointy dremel-tool for this. when you see the copper traces beneath you're done. Scratch off as less as possible, or you'll end up with something that doesn't work as it should or doesn't work at all. Once done, apply a drop of tinning to the exposed points.

preparing the wiring for soldering

You'll need wires to connect the soldering, a lot of wires. Since each key needs 2 wires in order to work, and we need to get from the circuitboard's points to a button somewhere else, cut the wires as long as you think is needed, if you cut them to short, stuffing it all inside a enclosure will be more difficult. If you cut them to long, you'll end up with a box filled with wires that are untraceable because it is a mess. Mostly i cut what i think is needed, plus a bit extra. I found this old printer serial cable which has plenty of multicoloured nice thin wires inside, they were even twisted in pairs, which was nice because each button will have it's own bundle of two wires. Once stripped and tinned, i've decided to label each bundle of wires to match with the desired button. It is a lot of work, but will save you from headache later on

soldering wires to the board

This speaks for itself, i never had any education or training in soldering so if i can, you can. There are plenty of tutorials you can find online. Personally, i practiced soldering on some old circuit boards from defect devices. The only thing you need to know is that you should be careful not to scratch the boards traces or, even worse, burn the circuit or components because the soldering iron is to long in one place. If you prefabricated your wiring and board as in previous steps, you can wire the complete keyboard in less than 20 minutes.

testing your work

To check if your soldering has been done correct there's a fast and easy way which works with letters, numbers etc. For things like shift, space or function buttons you'll need to use a multimeter to check continuity. Each button now has 2 wires soldered to it. Plugin the keyboard, and open up a text program. Now let the wire ends of each button touch eachother and see what happens on your screen. If nothing happens, something is wrong. If you see something like; sssssssssssssssssss or nnnnnnnnnnn that means you have succes. The 2 wires can be soldered to a pushbutton you like. They come in many shapes and sizes.
temptation's a bitch, ask adam and eve...

Glue gun and tie wraps

To secure the reversed engineered connections, i've used a glue gun and applied blobs of glue on top of each connection to make sure the wiring will stay in place.

this is not a glue-gun!

To keep everything surveyable later on, i used tie-wraps to bundle the wiring. After the glue/ tie-wrap treatment, you'll end up with a nice cable tree, ready to put in a enclosure and soldered to the buttons of choice. Even if you are not that organized and your work looks like shit, it doesn't matter because it will end up inside a box anyway. As long as your connections are solid you're covered.
cable tree, labeled, glued and bundled

Keyboard mapping
Personally, i think key-mapping is one of the most underestimated features that is possible within Ableton Live by default. Most of the keys on keyboards can be mapped to act as individual midi-events. And this is where it gets interesting. With the shiftbutton you can even double the number of mappable keys. Let's say you have 48 keys that can be mapped, with shift that gives you a total of 96 things that you can trigger, just from the computer-keyboard. Knowing this, it is possible to create a very cheap controller, with just a secondhand 2 euro keyboard, some coloured stickers, and a waterresistant pen. You can design a layout in advance that suits your personal needs. here is an example of a custom labeled keyboard for a completely mapped out dj/live looping ableton liveset .

custom made keyboard for a dj-type liveset pictured below

So the total price depends on how much you will pay for the secondhand nanokontrols. You can find them as cheap as !15. Wiring can be stripped from an old serial printer cable, inside there's lots of thin colour-coded wires that are very useful for projects like this. The DIN-keyboard i used might be old, but it has the button layout which works best for reverse engineering a keyboard (like on gamepads!) Basically, what you want is a mechanic keyboard with a switch for each button. most modern keyboards work with conductive sheets and matrix pcb's. I've seen people hacking these, but it is a lot of extra work and not as simple as the type i've used for this project..

I created a keyboard for Resolume (a vj-application) as well, and Resolume even let's you make combination of keys which are mappable to individual triggers. You can make a insane amount of combinations. More than i can remember at least. If you're into making your own keyboard controller, based on a existing circuitboard like i did, there are many tutorials to be found on the internet on this subject.. Another option is to use a microcontroller like the Arduino (http://www.arduino.cc/ ), or which i think works better, the Teensy-board (https://www.pjrc.com/teensy/). It let's you build your own device, and requires some programming (again, lots of tutorials on this matter to be found). Finally, there's a keyboard-encoder available like the IPAC (http://www.ultimarc.com/ipac1.html), which gives you a number of 56 individual keyboard inputs. Easy to use, because it has screw-terminals for wiring the buttons so even someone who says he can't solder can make a working device. In my case, i used an old DIN keyboard. Why? because all the plastic crap they produce nowadays (besides from mechanical keyboards) has a plastic membrane inside and work with matrix programmed keys which are not impossible to use for reverse engineering, but close to impossible.

I-PAC based Keyboard/trackball console created by me

sketching and planning the button-grids for my controller

Everything looks sexy in the dark right?

after soldering the buttons it turns out not all of the keyboards keys were mappable in ableton. On the other hand, at this point i've discovered some new possibilities. Did you know the keys from the numeric keypad are mappable as well? I didn't. Also after soldering i've discovered my original planned layout for the keys wasn't perfect, i had to resolder some buttons so they'd have a better place in the grid. For example, you don't want a start/stop button (spacebar) to close to the buttons you use during a liveset.

what? pushbuttons

List of used parts
amount/numbers 50 10 56 10 56 2 meters 2 2 total price !35 !12 !33 !3,75 !33 !0 (skipped) !10 (recycled from defect midi keyboards) !126,75

fader potmeter 10k linear potmeter 10k linear faderknobs potmeter knobs wiring ( stripped printer cable) little short faders

what? wood, screws, nuts, bolts etc. spraypaint 3 total amount/numbers price !25 !26 !51

So the total price depends on how much you will pay for the secondhand nanokontrols. You can find them as cheap as !15. Wiring can be stripped from an old serial printer cable, inside there's lots of thin colour-coded wires that are very useful for projects like this. The DIN-keyboard i used might be old, but it has the button layout which works best for reverse engineering a keyboard (like on gamepads!) Basically, what you want is a mechanic keyboard with a switch for each button. most modern keyboards work with conductive sheets and matrix pcb's. I've seen people hacking these, but it is a lot of extra work and not as simple as the type i've used for this project..

Circuitboard donors
what? old "useless" DIN-keyboard ps2 to usb adapter cable usb-hub, powered korg nanokontrol (not new) amount/numbers 1 1 1 4 total price !0 (skipped) !3 !15 !80 < > !100 !98 < > !118

All of it together gives the baby a pricetag of !285,75. Some of the stuff i used for this controller actually costed me nothing. I skipped the wiring, the old "useless" DIN- keyboard and the front and back (real!!) teakwood panels. I don't have a lot of cash-flow myself, so even on a tight budget it's possible. I've collected all that was needed over a 6 months timespan. Each month i ordered some parts. When the parts arrived i put them in a little box and each month my controller was getting closer to complete. Not included are the hours and hours of sketching, measuring, wire stripping, soldering, drilling and failures (yes, you will fail and when it comes to jittering midicontrols and finding them, it will drive you nuts) So yes, it is a lot cheaper then a comparable device from a big brand factory controller, but not really cheap. On the other hand, playing with the result of weeks of hard work beneath your hands is priceless.

Some useful web-links
Hardware hacking
http://www.djtechtools.com/2012/02/07/best-dj-controllers-for-modification-be-dj-frankenstein/ Fakemoney's nanokontrol hack http://fakemoneynyc.com/2010/06/02/if-you-build-it-you-will-have-blown-at-at-least-a-week-of-your-life/ Archaeopteryx A box with 2 nanokontrols implanted http://zeal.co/archaeopteryx/

How to build a USB Foot Controller Pedal for Ableton Live (or other DAW) http://youtu.be/jKxVDZDxLak Attaching knobs/potentiometers to your DIY foot pedal controller http://youtu.be/7rVt2EMk_GM

Knobs, buttons and switches
http://www.bitcheslovemyswitches.com/ http://www.tme.eu/nl/

if you feel like contacting me, send a mail to;

some of my music can be found here; www.soundcloud.com/puikegast
a short demonstration video of my controller;

Some images of the build

Faceplate after drilling

i'd had to see what things would look like in the end....

After the first layers of paint

the 2 faders for the return track's fx-racks

even bundled, it can get messy fast

now everything has to fit in....

wiring the button-grid

wiring closeup

the wired new pots

Some images of the finished controller

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