DIY MIDI Kits

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Designing and building your own hardware was previously restricted to those with huge R&D budgets or extensive technical know-how, but it’s now within the reach of just about everyone. Development of the Arduino and other low-cost, USB powered MIDI boards have sparked many home brewed MIDI controller projects that are relatively easy to use and fairly powerful.  This article will cover some of the low-cost DIY MIDI kits available on the market and evaluate each of their individual strengths and weaknesses. 

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What does it take to make your own controller? Much less than you might think. The image above shows the insides of the custom controller built on the MIDIbox platform, one of the first and most powerful DIY MIDI communities out there. MIDIbox projects, while being very powerful, are unfortunately quite complicated to actually make. As more and more people converge on the topic of hardware modding and hacking, some entrepreneurial spirits have developed much easier kits that do most of the legwork for you. Some of these USB powered MIDI boards can run anywhere from $40-300 — depending on its capabilities — and are relatively simple to set up. There are a few important factors that you could consider when looking at building your own MIDI controller with a DIY MIDI Kit.

  • Number/type of inputs – how many direct line or expandable (read below) connections are available on the board? Most boards feature both analog (potentiometers and fader) and digital (buttons, rotary) direct wire connections. For more on types of inputs and components see the Cuban MIDI Crisis article.
  • LED Outputs- Having LED feedback can also be very useful, but only if the board accepts MIDI control for the lights.
  • Size of PCB – Most of the kits are small (credit card size), but make sure they are smaller than the controller you plan on building.
  • Modular or linear design model – Can you increase the number of inputs like the Midifighter?
  • Component connection type – Components can be soldered in by wire but some boards use ribbon cables and connectors (remember those massive grey cables coming out of your hard drive?) in place of all direct wire connections to save space.
  • Plug-and-play – It is also important to note that some boards require USB drivers to be loaded, whereas plug-and-play devices do not. This is because they are USB class compliant, or use system standard drivers.
  • Power – Adding more plugs to your set-up is undesirable. Thankfully, most USB bootloading boards are USB powered.
  • Middleware Editor – Some DIY boards require a middleware program (software between the hardware and your music program of choice) to configure the inputs and MIDI before they can be used.

Most DIY MIDI kits vary in how complicated they are to set up and how many features they support. Hardcore programmers may find the MIDIbox project up their alley, but building the projects requires extensive experience, testing and patience. On the other hand, more basic kits sacrifice capability in order to reduce the required effort in making your own controller.

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Another important aspect to consider is the use of multiplexers and matrices that lower the restrictions of space and power in a circuit board. These extensions allow you to take advantage of the legwork done in simple kits like Builder DIY, and expand them to have capabilities closer to the more intensive projects like the MIDIbox.  A multiplexer takes multiple inputs and sends them down a single channel and are usually chip based. This allows a PCB to be expanded from a static number of direct connections to multiple inputs per connection. The Midifighter, for example, features 16 direct button connections but can be expanded with latch-and-shift chips that multiply the number of possible digital inputs to over 200. While the controller above was originally created with MIDIbox, the same design could be duplicated much faster today with a Midifighter DIY kit.

Bliptronome

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This modding kit turns a Bliptronic 5000 matrix synth into a small Monome. The kit includes a DIY arduino, all the necessary components, and even a port of Monome Serial (Monome mapping software) to complete the transformation from cheesy 80’s sounds to scrolling controller mayhem. While this mod is limited, the Bliptronic’s diminutive design and unsatisfying snappy buttons, it is a good beginner-to-intermediate project especially if you have a Bliptronic on hand. Built by Stray Technologies, the Bliptronic 5000 is $49.99 from Think Geek and the Bliptronome is $69 for the Breadboard kit.

  • Analog inputs = 0
  • Size = roughly 6″ x 6″
  • Digital inputs = 64 buttons, 4 analog-to-digital pots
  • LED outputs = 64
  • Plug-and-play= No
  • Connection: Ribbon cable, FTDI
  • 4 x AA battery powered
  • Middleware Editor: Yes, requires MLR Serial to interface with a DAW

Builder DIY

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The folks at Livid, responsible for the Block and Ohm controllers, offer a totally modular approach to building your own controller. The USB “Brain” board is small (3.5″ x 4.5″), offers a large number of inputs and LED outs and is easily programmed with an included firmware editor. The keyword here is expansion; the board can handle a total of 179 buttons and 48 LEDs when coupled the matrix boards. Costs can start adding up quickly, however, as the “Brain” board is best suited to the expansion boards sold by Livid, and everything else must be sourced yourself. Because the Builder is modular in design, it takes more time to get off the ground, but has very wide potential for modification. Find it at Livid for $189 for the “Brain” and around $12 for matrices and other modules.

  • Analog inputs = 64
  • Digital inputs = 16 (expandable to 179)
  • LED inputs =14 (expandable to 48)
  • Plug-and-play = USB class compliant
  • Component connection type = Ribbon cable
  • USB powered
  • Middleware Editor = Yes, Brain Editor

Midifighter

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DJ Tech Tools’ entry into the pantheon of DIY MIDI controllers strikes a balance between ease of use and creative potential. A button masher can get started within about 20 minutes from receiving the Midifighter, as it comes with the all components to get started and doesn’t require a middleware editor. Though the board features 4 solder-able analog inputs, an analog multiplexer lets you multiply the possible analog to 16. Those willing to dive even deeper can use switch chips to expand the digital and LED inputs as well. Find it at the store for $125.

  • Analog inputs = 4 (expandable to 16)
  • Digital inputs = 16 buttons, 4 unassigned (expandable 200+)
  • LED outputs = 0 (expandable 200+ with latched serial drivers)
  • Plug-and-play = USB class compliant
  • Connection type = direct wire
  • USB Powered
  • Middleware Editor = No, can be reconfigured from hardware

Hale UMC32

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In this extremely small board (1.6” x 2.7”), each one of the 32 inputs can be configured for a large assortment of analog, digital and LED components. Hale also make a “linker-board” that, you guessed it, links separate UMC32’s together. The board can send MIDI SysEx commands for controlling other MIDI hardware, but the trade-off is that Windows only software is required to configure the output before you can even get started, and it does not feature a MIDI out as standard. Again, components here must be sourced yourself. Find it at Hale Micro for $89.95.

  • Analog inputs = 32 (Shared)
  • Digital inputs = 32 (Shared)
  • LED outputs = 32 (Shared)
  • Plug-and-pla y= USB class compliant
  • Connection type = ribbon
  • USB powered
  • Middleware Editor = Yes

Doepfer USB 64

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This board is a rectangular 6.2″ x 1″ monster. This controller board from the German modular synth makers is a bare bones board that, like the Hale Micro UMC32, has cross compatible inputs. It also has 2 MIDI outs, for controlling other MIDI hardware. While offering a lot of I/O, one hangup is that the board does not receive MIDI input for LEDs — like the Midifighter or the Bliptronome — and all components must be sourced. Find it at Doepfer for around $200, includes ribbon cable and 240v power connector.

  • Analog inputs = 64 (Shared)
  • Digital inputs = 64 (Shared)
  • LED outputs = 64 (Shared)
  • Plug and Play = USB Class Compliant
  • Connection type = Ribbon
  • USB or independently powered
  • Middleware Editor = Yes
  • wardtf

    Livid came up with a new smaller brain, much cheaper and easier!

  • Milo Johnson

    You think it’s possible to use the Hale UMC32 brain with the Livid breakout boards? They should be electrically compatible I’d imagine and it’d save a lot of money.

  • oops sorry !

    just saw you were talking about the midibox

  • you absolutely have to mention the Midibox platform !

    it’s one of the best solution out there. it’s open source, and you can buy kits to make your system.

    http://www.ucapps.de/

  • This is the best blog post I have ever read on the internet ever.

  • manuel
  • J450N N4ME

    I have not regretted it. The biggest issue I have is the spatial arrangement….I want it to more closely match the GUI. Unfortunately you have to build your own if you want to get that picky. I thought about taking the keyboard apart and replacing the keys with some more tactile buttons but I found some teardown photos of the keyboard and the results are depressing. Apple didn’t use any screws, they glued the stupid thing together. Oh well- as long as you color code in a way that makes sense, the spatial arrangement is a small thing to get over.
    Combo-ing with a Mashine eh? That ought to be quite capable once you get it up and running. I would not be able to do a thing on the keyboard for effects- that is where the Akai APC40 is a dream come true. I find that even if you go stick almost $500 into an awesome multitasking controller, you’re still gonna need a few $50 gems kicking around as well (like an xsession pro). I’ve been nothing but pleased with the keyboard and I too feel like an absolute genius!

  • digibeach

    YES OK….we are exactly the same in one sense…I hate modifiers/macros/and scenes as well. I just thought i was lazy. I want each button to have its own function. I use two numark omnis, and a maschine controller…but i also went out and bought a bunch of Korg Nano pads for jumps and cues of all types and sizes.

    When I first got on Traktor, about 3 years ago as a young pup, i did the same exact thing you did but with a Microsoft Keyboard on my Dell desktop. I spent Weeks on it making it look perfect. I thought i was an absolute genious. Shortly after i discovered controllers and became obsessed.

    Anyway, now i use a mac book pro so i was in need of a keyboard anyway.

  • J450N N4ME

    [quote post=”5161″]Can you talk a little more about this or show a picture, please, thank you. Or give a link.[/quote]
    Well, I was talking to the guy from U-Hid about translating the message of the U-Hid board into midi. He told me that the U-Hid sends keyboard codes so any 3rd party program that interprets keycodes would be able to process the info from the board without a go-between program like junXion. I hung up the phone and got to thinking…..”wait a minute, I can just march right in to the apple store and see how much a new keyboard costs. Then I can assign hotkeys to it and paint it without ruining the functionality of my MBPro keyboard.” Well, the keyboard (with the numeric pad) was only $50. I bought some Sharpie™ Paint Markers (not the normal Sharpie™, these daddies are oil based) and painted up a loop and beat juggling setup that mirrors (closely) the GUI on Traktor Pro. 18 of the buttons do not send useable data to Traktor Pro, so I painted them silver to match the background of the keyboard.
    ttp://www.facebook.com/photo.php?pid=3837603&l=6ec21d22cf&id=511451673
    I ended up with 80 buttons for $50 and an extra USB port. Added to my APC40 and my Xsession Pro…….I’m in no short supply of buttons. Hotcues live on the APC40 and the loop/beatjump controller is COMMITTED to each deck- no toggling to make 1 button do 4 things in 4 places. (I’m a little slow with switching pages so I wanted everything accessible all the time for all 4 decks). I hope the picture helps (if it loads for you). cheers.

  • Wow! Great info Deraadt. This is exactly what I wanted. I need to start this project soon. 😉

  • digibeach

    [quote comment=”28213″] decided to go buy an extra keyboard from Apple and turn it into a “Traktor Pro Z Board”. [/quote]

    Can you talk a little more about this or show a picture, please, thank you. Or give a link.

  • dan-the-man

    would the ohm64 be easily mapped with traktor pro ?

  • Remote

    I like the news on teh midi-fighter but after a bit of searching I can’t find anything on what is needed to expand it further than the 4 analogue and digital inputs you can currently add?

  • Ah, awesome! I’ve been rummaging around the web for different takes on the different diy midi platforms, and then it pops one up right here on good’ol’ DJTT!
    Thanks.

  • J450N N4ME

    so glad you posted this. I pounded my head against my desk for about 3 months trying to sort through all the jibber-jabber on the Uhid, Hap, and arduino sites. I even got a guy who is a tech at a local radio station to go through some sites with me and help me pick a suitable board (I want 120 arcade buttons and a load of other analog controls on a single board) I could not get any straight answers from any of the sites about there plug and play capabilities. This is the most concise collection of info on this topic I’ve ever seen and I searched the WHOLE internet. LIVID is the way to go and I had no clue they were that adaptable or easy to program. Good thing I gave up when I did and just decided to go buy an extra keyboard from Apple and turn it into a “Traktor Pro Z Board”. that only cost $50 and gave me 119 buttons (though not spatially arranged in a sensible way). Looks like my midi project will be back on for this summer THANK YOU!!!!!

    Oh, and these are a few sites that I found to be useless (but still awesome), and totally useful. If you are thinking of this project, you will want to hit these links:
    http://www.einar.com/control.html
    http://www.slagcoin.com/joystick/introduction.html
    http://tomscarff.110mb.com/products_prices.htm
    http://www.sparkfun.com/commerce/categories.php

  • looks like fun! can’t wait to try it out… thanks for the references!

  • midifidler

    “They can’t have kids in their bedrooms outdoing the big companies!”

    The difference is manufacturability, sure it might look comparable in price if you simply add the cost of components up, but the time it takes to assemble it all is where it gets very pricey very quickly

  • Mudo
  • hoxoboxo

    Anybody know of a DIY midi kit that has 14-bit analog outputs? I would need it to make a pitch fader.

  • MrSteve81

    This came about a week late!
    Just waiting for my Hale UMC32 to arrive. As its only got 32 inputs I’m planning to create something I will call the mini fighter.

  • adrian

    @Colly.tv – I think the open-source movement is coming to hardware now. This is just like what happened in software 15ish years ago (Linux anyone). The real question is which of the bedroom hobbyists will rise to take on the big boys!

  • Anson Cheung

    nevermind it was mentioned in the main article…just not the hardware section…i should learn to read before i say anything 😛

  • Anson Cheung

    not to mention the project shown (the black one) is midibox based….

  • Anson Cheung

    I’m surprised midibox wasn’t mentioned

  • Vinicius Hoffmann

    Thanks for this article
    I keep dreaming with a custom controller everyday hehehe

  • Fyoog

    Was just asking about this on the forum last week, excellent timing. The question I asked also was seeing where would be good to read up on how to get started for beginners on this kind of circuit work as I don’t have much experience but it is something i want to have go at, anyone know any good books or tutorial web sites?

  • Mudo

    Hi Deraadt,
    It could be useful in each revision the label “Midi data”: 7 bits, 14 bits…

    and it could be so great another article with HID and OSC diy solutions like http://www.u-hid.com or arduino.

    🙂

  • Since they are pretty straight forward to make DIY for not huge money, we should expect all the major vendors to come out with some really great stuff, well built and great value too. They can’t have kids in their bedrooms outdoing the big companies!

  • nice write up deraadt… the bliptronome caught my eye the other day on another blog and im interested in checking it out when i get some cash