AMBER Modular Controller System

One of our readers has mocked up a modular controller system that allows you to custom-arrange your own knobs, faders and buttons for a personalized layout of physical controls. Last week’s red-hot multi-touch debate divided most DJs along real-vs-virtual controller lines. Would a flexible, inexpensive hardware version of the iPad make everyone happy?

LOOK FAMILIAR ?

You may be thinking, “didn’t someone already try this?” Yes, there was a controller in 2007 called the Mawzer (below) that tried to make the same idea a commercial success. The problem? It was expensive, large and fairly impossible to get. The Mawzer line appears to be all but totally discontinued, leading one to wonder: What would these guys do better? Well for starters, the magnetic connection principle would cost much less to manufacture and in a smaller footprint, could mean a price range of $600-900 (compared with $1,500+ for the Mawzer).

The AMBER system is not yet a commercial product, but a proof of concept. We checked in with the creator, Derek Disanjh, to get more information on how the AMBER works and what they have in mind for the future.

* What is the commercial viability of producing such a product?

One problem in producing this type of product is the value in hardware customization to a consumer. Although no market research has been conducted, it is plausible that the modularity in the controller may become stagnant once the user has optimized a control layout, thus defeating the purpose of a modular controller.

* How much would it cost?

If this product were to become commercially available, the price would be driven by factors such as base size (e.g. 64/128 component board) and the types of modules (knobs, faders and buttons). Owing to time restrictions and resource limitations, our prototype was not designed for mass-manufacturing, and thus certain considerations (such as industrial design) were overlooked.

* What are the benefits and limitations of such a system?

The project was initially conceived to provide a proof-of-concept prototype for modular MIDI controllers: Is it possible to have the flexibility offered by customizable touch-screen controllers (e.g. JazzMutant Lemur) in a tactile form? The driving motivation for modular controllers is to push the limits of customization and enable the user to design his/her own tactile control surface.

* How is the firmware set up?

The controller works on a custom firmware that converts serial commands from an Arduino micro-controller to MIDI protocol. The controller signals are converted using an analog-to-digital converter.

* How much did it cost you to build?
The unit was designed and built over 8 months using a student machine shop, water-jet cutter and a printed circuit-board milling machine. Although certain machine and material costs were not considered owing to the nature of university sponsorship, the unit cost approximately $1,000 to put together. It must be noted that this prototype was not optimized for manufacturing and costs would be considerably lower for a consumer unit of comparable scale.

* What features does it currently have?

  • The prototype allows for up to 16 different modules to be connected to the controller base. Three types of modules (knob, fader and button) were developed and connected magnetically to the base.
  • The modules have mechanical features to prevent incorrect placement (i.e. the units can only be plugged in with a single orientation).
  • Each module comes with a white LED backlight. A global brightness can be controlled by a knob on the control base.

* Any future development plans?

Currently, development has been put on hold to obtain feedback on the concept and decide on a direction for further development. As discussed above, additional features have been discussed, and the industrial design of the device would be drastically changed. In its current state, the controller base was designed much larger than necessary to allow for troubleshooting and debugging purposes.

THE RUB?


As Derek points out early on, the real question is: How much customization do people really want, and how much would they be willing to pay for that privilege? Would you be willing to pay more for a controller that can be personalized or is it better to have a lower price and a generic set of useful controls?

The creator of the AMBER project can be reached at: d.disanjh @ gmail.com

Further reading:

Multi Touch – Hot or Hype?

iPad DJing – Ready For Primetime?

DIY MIDI Kits

OTTO Controllerism Instrument

  • Harp

    One word: iPad.

  • Derek Disanjh

    [quote comment=”35773″]building a prototype without market research is the dumbest thing I have ever read[/quote]

    I would agree with you from a business perspective, but this was done as an undergraduate engineering project over the course of 8 months.

    [quote comment=”35834″]I want to see this on the DJTT store so bad, this looks awesome! This could easily take over the ableton and traktor market if it’s set at a fair price. I could see this being the next monome…

    As someone earlier said it would be cool if there were x/y pads, and maybe even monome like chunks you could put into it… Or even… ARCADE BUTTONS![/quote]

    I agree! AMBER+DJTT = ARCADE BUTTONS! During the concept phase, we considered including x/y joysticks but out of the interest of development time, we decided to leave that out for the time being.

    Although I’ve never used touch strips (see Moldover MOJO controller), it may make a cool adaptation to our design.

  • wikkid1

    i dont see the reason behind this suggested product. it looks like a minimal number of movable controls at an insane price. but with midi ANY controller is customizable since you can map any function to any suitable control. yeah you cant move your faders over by an inch or two, but how many people are willing to pay a grand for that?
    imo there is no need for this type of modular controller unless the manufacturer figures out a way to make it much more affordable. id say on the level with regular controllers that offer same amount of controls.

  • ted

    ^^…even better a midi fighter with a touch screen companion.

  • ted

    if you want to build a modular controller each module needs to have the same dimensions as the other modules. & each has to be usable & aesthetically pleasing on its own. then you could by another one if you wanted. they’d have to fit very tight(without a case) & function as one. picture the midi fighter with another box of controller knobs that line up, etc.

  • [quote comment=”35773″]building a prototype without market research is the dumbest thing I have ever read[/quote]

    It’s cold war-era look and feel do not lend itself to mass acceptance, nor does the high level of configuration requirement. Portable & Now is the big desire, not hours of utilizing your jigsaw puzzle and software mapping abilities.

  • Anom

    I seen this guy on the news yesterday, he was building the worlds largest Lego tower. And even thought it was really cool, I didn’t see the point. I kinda feel the same way about this mixer. Really cool, really impressive, but don’t see the point. If I had one I would just set it just like my mixer I already have.

  • Playground

    DJ DERKY IN DA HAU5555!!!!

  • Tyler T

    I want to see this on the DJTT store so bad, this looks awesome! This could easily take over the ableton and traktor market if it’s set at a fair price. I could see this being the next monome…

    As someone earlier said it would be cool if there were x/y pads, and maybe even monome like chunks you could put into it… Or even… ARCADE BUTTONS!

  • Paddy

    [quote post=”7544″]vageotter
    August 18th, 2010 at 8:53 am Quote
    i think you have to make it simpler for the big mass if you want to sell a lot and can make it cheaper. why not a unit the sise of a midifighter? so a unit with a mix section with 2 faders and the eq knobs. a unit with a jogwheel and 4 knobs. a unit with knobs(midifighter). a unit with a touchpad or x-y joystick. and a main controlbox where u can plug all the units u want in. so if u want 4 deck control u plug 4 jogwheel and 2 mix units and some knob units for the effects. so everyone can make its own controller but u can produce the units on a large scale. is this a stupid idea or is it realy do able?[/quote]

    faderfox products do that, they are only missing the jogs and x-y/touchpad modules

  • great ANOTHER controller

  • if you really want a custom setup….. check out LIVID INSTRUMENTS…. the have a DIY kit… and really if your a dj ….learning how to solder can save you money…

  • BRIDGE

    NOTHING ABOUT THE BRIDGE PUBLIC BETA

    IT’S HEAR

  • I love this, if it can be done cheaper. I was excited about the Mawser before I found out the price. I for one am very concerned about being able to do a custom layout, without having to go through the time and expense of building something myself. That said for me I am planning on doing a “live” performance with Ableton rather than Traktor.

  • vageotter

    i think you have to make it simpler for the big mass if you want to sell a lot and can make it cheaper. why not a unit the sise of a midifighter? so a unit with a mix section with 2 faders and the eq knobs. a unit with a jogwheel and 4 knobs. a unit with knobs(midifighter). a unit with a touchpad or x-y joystick. and a main controlbox where u can plug all the units u want in. so if u want 4 deck control u plug 4 jogwheel and 2 mix units and some knob units for the effects. so everyone can make its own controller but u can produce the units on a large scale. is this a stupid idea or is it realy do able?

  • I personally am not attracted to this at all. There is a reason why Dj’ing has taken on the form of two turntables (or CDJs) and a mixer.
    That layout is fine for me and I believe optimal for a Dj to use. What I would love to see is mixer that is fully midi (as well as analog) and can be used as the hub for the control. What I would love is a Dj mixer that has a built in USB hub so I can plug everything into the mixer… that would be a great innovation for the industry (in my opinion)

  • z0r

    Leave the modular stuff to us synth-people, tia 🙂

  • buckner

    Oh…and send it to ME for testing

  • buckner

    Focus on CFs for scratch djs. Simple cheap and they WILL buy it if it crabs.Make two cfs, one top and one bottom. I can mix with one and scratch with other. Put knobs in middle. Need 200 dollar price point.

  • It’s a great idea, but i just don’t see there being a big market for something like this. But i’ve been wrong before…. NS7

  • Tristan Cary

    building a prototype without market research is the dumbest thing I have ever read

  • photojojo

    [quote comment=”35763″]How about adapting this type of thinking into current Midifighter concept?

    I would love to add two faders & 4 Knobs to the setup…[/quote]

    You can add faders and knobs to the midi fighter as it is. I’m not sure how many though.

    I agree that this would end up being stagnate after the user figured out their personal best setup. It might be cool they could develop a manufacturing process that would allow you to build your perfect controller when you order.

  • Ando

    [quote comment=”35761″]Such a cool idea, but sadly it’s hard to see this survive unless a large well known brand took the concept on. Imagine wot NI or pioneer could do with this great idea if they was producing the hardware.
    ++++
    Considering how user definable software is, it would be great if our hardware was too(not just the mapping). If the amber project was to somehow merge with aspects of the reactable theory, hmmmmm Re-Traktorable’s![/quote]

    you couldn’t afford the system if pioneer would produce it….

  • I love when people bring stuff like this into the world, because it makes people think. I don’t see this particular concept being a strong seller because of the complexity and apparent lack of core features (like MIDI feedback), but I could see this being a successful project (along the lines of MidiFighter or the FMDJ9303). Kudos on a great idea!

  • This idea is amazing based in arduino platform. Pioneer or the others doesn’t want to give you the control of choice… it is better to do it in open source side until force them to be in “the game”. The other path go on closed products.

    About phisical haptic control check this tread:
    http://www.djtechtools.com/forum/showthread.php?t=16558

    😉

  • How about adapting this type of thinking into current Midifighter concept?

    I would love to add two faders & 4 Knobs to the setup…

  • Nicholas

    I think this coupled with the multi-touch interface in some way would be very interesting..

  • Such a cool idea, but sadly it’s hard to see this survive unless a large well known brand took the concept on. Imagine wot NI or pioneer could do with this great idea if they was producing the hardware.
    ++++
    Considering how user definable software is, it would be great if our hardware was too(not just the mapping). If the amber project was to somehow merge with aspects of the reactable theory, hmmmmm Re-Traktorable’s!

  • DjKeyWee

    Big advantage though… in case you have a faulty control, fader, knob… unpllug it, plug a new one… and you’re done. Even hot swappable module could be done. Now that’s a “cool” feature. But how often it happen… Maybe it has to happen once to appreciate it ;o)

  • DjKeyWee

    The idea is really good. As a hardware/software designer myself, I know what’s going on here and under the hood. The only thing that may not work, is the retail price and the “general” interest.

    I like the modular idea for proof on concept, but for a final product… it leave me cold a little bit. But still, a good idea.

    Since years I’ve begun my own controller and I’ve never found the “right and ultimate” layout… but, is there any perfect layout? I don’t think so. My ideal layout would be too big, while the “one fit everywhere” have too many page switching and all that plah plah.

    Now assuming that a modular approach would allow you to customize your gear for a specific booth size? I would say why not? But still have some reserve on it. Like everyone, I may have some fear of “new idea” :p

    Good article, and good luck. Hope they have success with that!

  • This is great especially for ableton users who can customize their uses of ableton. But for those who uses serato and traktor, there are already dozens of midi controller are on sale. besides midi fighter arcade buttons arent there…

  • For me, the problem is not so much about modularity as it is about dynamism. I don’t care about customizing the layout of my controller, I want it to change according to what I’m doing live. I want more effect knobs and an X/Y pad to appear when I’m working on a transition, I want the screen to be bigger when I’m browsing for tracks, I want the jogwheels to get bigger when I scratch, those kinds of things. That’s the kind of things touch interfaces can be good for. So I think we should explore more towards adding touch feedback to touch interfaces instead of adding “movable parts” to hardware controllers.