The Chopper Tone – Classic Arcade Custom Controller

Anyone who has ever casually browsed through our domestic cable must have stumbled upon such gem’s as the “American Chopper” and discovered the unique world of beautiful custom motorcycles. Possibly inspired by that aesthetic, one of our readers has created his own custom Hot Rod: a classic looking arcade controller fitted with all the trimmings including flared faders and a gorgeous wood surface. Continue reading for more photos, tips on building your own DIY controller and even a great video demonstrating this unique instrument in action!

BUILDING MY “CHOPPER TONE”

By: Nick Francis

I think it was a post last year on Create Digital Music (with the announcement of the availability of the builder brain) that inspired me to consider building my own custom MIDI controller. After using Ableton Live for almost five years with standard controllers (Axion 25, Launchpad), I really wanted something that could be used in an intimate live performance situation like coffee houses, living rooms, small theaters. Instead of the standard plastic or aluminum, it had to be wood with soft round edges.  I also wanted the face of the instrument with its buttons and pots and sliders to face the audience, rather than be sitting on a desktop, out of view.  Something you could play on your lap and (with a strap) standing up. Kind of a cross between an elegantly smooth-carved jewelry box, and a guitar body. Most of all, I wanted this instrument to feel warm and beautiful.


Last fall, I attended a short talk at the Seattle Decibel Festival on building DIY MIDI controllers with Ean Golden. The one suggestion of Ean’s that really stuck with me was this: “Take your time with the design; look at every angle and every possibility.” I took this to heart particularly in regard to working with wood.

As far as choosing the components, pretty much straight away I purchased the Livid Brain and also bought turn boards, slide boards, and a breakout board from them.  For buttons, I really dug those arcade buttons that are used on the MIDI fighter. The action and response to the touch are just really great, so I bought 32 black ones directly from DJTT.

For the design of the faceplate, I found some free software from frontpanelexpress.com, which served my purposes. I spent several months toying with all kinds of enclosure shapes and arrangement of components.  Here’s a shot of the faceplate:

Because the thickness of the faceplate would have to be around 1/4″, it was necessary to make some adjustment for my pots and sliders (which are designed for thinner sturdier material). I decided to cut a rectangular hole in the faceplate with the exact shape of the slider pot and  then attach the slider on top with some kind of guitar pickguard material.

Now to the enclosure. I decided to go “all-in” and hire someone who had some skills. My wife was friends with a fellow in town named Carlos, who did custom woodworking. Carlos had a nice business doing custom furniture work on boats and yachts. Luckily, he was also a big music fan and hosted a weekly world music show on a local radio station. When I came to him and explained and described my project, he totally got it. Carlos suggested a 1/4 inch plywood top of maple burl, with the frame made out of walnut.

One week later the enclosure came back. Here’s what it looked like:

The next project was finishing the wood. I decided to use a very simple, though time consuming process of using Danish finishing oil. Each day I’d put a coat on and then wipe it down. I put nine coats on. By that last coat, it was really starting to shine.

The design for the pickguards came from a Gibson Thunderbird Bass, which were purchased from stewmac.com. Here’s what it looked like about  halfway through.

The last assembly section was with the button matrix. Tedious, but doable. And here’s the finished product, both the outside look.

and the inside look.

THE CREATIVE RESULTS

LESSONS LEARNED

  • Know what your needs are and what you want out of your controller; only go the DIY route if no other controller exists for what you want.
  • Spend as much time in the design phase as you can; visualize how all the parts will fit in your enclosure, and how you see yourself using it, because once you start, it’s hard to turn back. And once you’re done, it’s inevitable that you’ll see how you could’ve done it better. For me, this was the biggest takeaway from Ean’s talk in Seattle last fall.
  • Be creative and unique with your enclosure. make something that’ll make fellow controllerists and lay-people stop and do a double-take.
  • If you’ve never done a major DIY electronics project before – DO NOT FEAR. You can do it. Just take your time, go step by step, and ask for help. There are loads of tutorials and instructions on all kinds of stuff online. And don’t be afraid to ask an experienced neighbor, friend, or acquaintance. Live real time mentoring is great.
  • Enjoy the process, even when you’re stuck or frustrated. This is a prime reason for any DIY project; you learn so much along the way.
  • Once you’re done, start making music…and don’t stop!

A NOTE FROM THE EDITOR

I just love this project, it really brings an entirely different set of influences into a world of controllers and music software normally dominated by high technology. It also never ceases to amaze me how many unique and special people are attracted to the world of DJing with controllers. Nick is hardly what you might assume our typical reader is like and I just love that.

– Ean Golden

Here are a few details about Nick from his own words:

  • I’m Not a DJ (not in the way you guys are) but a longtime radio broadcaster, specializing in programming and production, with an focus on jazz.
  • I’m also the Music Director at KPLU in Seattle (NPR), and jazz24.org
  • I’ve had a passion for chopping up and reconfiguring audio ever since the days when 1/4 inch tape & razor blades were the tools.
  • I really love and appreciate what you guys are doing and think these new digital DJ tools are fantastic.
  • Pingback: Gorgeous Hot Rod MIDI Controller – The Choppertone – Synthtopia()

  • Pingback: Modern Instruments for DJs and Producers | DJ Vibe()

  • Update: Finally! A new Choppertone video up now; mashing up “My Generation”. http://youtu.be/UeQO-_c5pcQ

  • I’m actually really pleased that readers did ask some tough questions about the new Moogerfooger in comments on that story, and I’ll make sure we get those questions addressed directly to the engineer. Talking to the actual engineer and not just going through the filter of marketing is really important to me.

    If you’ve got more – particularly those from an engineering perspective – let us know.

    I’m also excited to mix and mingle someone working with a major-name maker and some of the folks on the DIY side of things.

  • Nick, you truly are an inspiration to all of us. Making live remixes on your own custom midi controller….that’s what it’s all about. Keep jammin man!

  • Blake Lawrence

    I was already proud to know Nick and to have worked with him in radio. And now I’m floored by this truly astounding invention! It’s important that more of the world (outside of the broadcasting biz) gets to know what an innovator he is, and here’s the proof.

  • Blake Lawrence

    I was already proud to know Nick and to have worked with him in radio. And now I’m floored by this truly astounding invention! It’s important that more of the world (outside of the broadcasting biz) gets to know what an innovator he is, and here’s the proof.

  • Diego

    i wanna be his son

  • Diego

    i wanna be his son

  • Teo

    I read here alot and have to say that this is by far one of the most inspiring pieces to date… Watch out Ean…lol

  • Teo

    I read here alot and have to say that this is by far one of the most inspiring pieces to date… Watch out Ean…lol

  • Anonymous

    Beautiful controller

  • really nice,

    i have a question, how was the wiring of the button made to be kept that simple?

  • Anonymous

    Way to go Nick! What a beautiful controller!

  • Awesome. Very inspiring.

  • This just made my night-the controller is beautiful beyond belief and a true instrument! Your remix was also amazing, I’ve never even considered working in jazz. You’re an inspiration, keep up the great work!

  • This is absolutely jaw dropping incredible.

  • I can’t wait to see what else you come up with. This controller looks like it has a ton of potential, and I love the symmetrically angled faders. Cheers!

  • Guest

    Wow, just wow. Really gorgeous work on your controller, quite the inspiration. Your remix is bordering on the Jackin’ House sound from known sometimes as Swing House. See what Flapjack Records from Chicago is doing with the likes of Frankie J, Wattie Green, Scrubfish and Laurence et all using jazz/swing samples and a jacking house beat. You could have a nice little hit there on your hands!

  • Wow, just wow. Really gorgeous work on your controller, quite the inspiration. Your remix is bordering on the Jackin’ House sound from known sometimes as Swing House. See what Flapjack Records from Chicago is doing with the likes of Frankie J, Wattie Green, Scrubfish and Laurence et all using jazz/swing samples and a jacking house beat. You could have a nice little hit there on your hands!

    Damn double post. Tried to remove it through Disqus but it only made it “Guest”… sorry!

  • Nancreations

    Nick, congratulations on your work. I find it very inspiring, and I feel that this community thanks to people like is becomming an excelent resource not only for technical stuff, but also of influence for people to try and do their own thing musically. You made my day man!

  • Muzikmonkee

    I rarely comment on posts here but all I can say is WOW. I am a fan nick. I love that you prove that the love of music is timeless and ageless

  • what a breath of fresh air, this truly puts a sunday smile on my face….
    I have been putting of a few mods lately because I was afraid to, but I guess I know what I am going to do today, with a great mellow mix from your mixcloud…
    thanks m8

  • RICERIDER2010

    beautiful! hell of a job!

  • Anonymous

    I am, completely and utterly awestruck!

  • Gbrown44

    And might I come back and say i’m truly inspired and delighted at your age (even though you did not post it)… As I was wondering if the desire would die out one day, you give me hope that it never will…

  • Gbrown44

    I actually clapped a round of applause to you… Good work sir.

  • Good

    Great job on the controller, great article, more innovative stuff like this.

    Again good job nick

  • Andie

    You sir, are a legend.

  • Love the remixing. Sounds so Classy. I want to try this with some of my sets now. I am going to have to get some “good” music now.

  • Adexcgvr

    This doesnt look like a DJ instrument at all. It’s more like a guitar or a bass. And thats un a good way 🙂

  • That has to be one of the classiest controllers and concept I have seen in a long time. Very inspirational work.

  • the idea of remixes of jazz music for coffee bar type environments is absolutely amazing and completely unique.

  • Anonymous

    Nick I want to compliment you on this milestone achievement. It’s good to know that people who are older and wiser are turning to DJTT for inspiration. That was an incredible remix. I love Jazz music, just like I love Deep House and Techno. I hope some djs or musicians would someday stop the hate and accept the revolution occurring within the music industry.
    Peace!

  • OMC Nick Francis you Legend YOU! Jawdropping stuff and a badass performance bro.

  • yah, that things epicccccc, repeating what everyone else has all ready said, Great Work, simply amazing.

  • Uncledj401

    TOTAL Old Man Crush.

  • John Smith

    Great post and even greater piece of kit i’m sure this will inspire many to make their own controllers from here on in. But please try not to flex your neck so much. I’m a sports therapist and this will really cause you problems in the long run. I’m sure once you are more familiar with it you will look down less, much like a guitarist. Also big up to all the other comments on here for showing this senior member some much deserved RESPECT.

  • Man I can only imagine how good the build quality is. This guy is an OG!

  • OGP

    Big up! Does Nick Francis produce his own music does anyone know?

    • Thanks OGP. I produce and host a weekly radio show (16 years running). It’s called “Quietmusic”, a very mellow jazz-meets-ambient mix. I post an hour of my show every week and have a nice following over at Mixcloud:
      http://www.mixcloud.com/quietmusic/

  • Nick, you’re the man. Truly inspirational stuff. Seeing this only wishes me for more diversity in the digital dj world.

  • razmakati

    Blown away!!

    This is awesome

    Thanks alot!!

  • Nicky H

    Beautiful – thats not a word normally associated with controllers – great job!

  • earl panda

    i just fell in love with a piece of wood and some plastic attached on it!
    great work nick! this really is a big inspiration!

  • Taz

    So cool to get to see someone else’s interpretation on controllerism and potential benefits of using it.

  • Zac Kyoti

    Thanks Nick, for the beautiful work and the creative application of sound. I’ve always loved the idea of controllers as instruments rather than simply consoles. There’s some interesting work going on out there with this trend – misa guitar, zendrum, reactable, onyx ashanti, etc, – I think you’re definitely on to something with the chopper tone!

  • I just have a word!!.. Awesomenessssssssss!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Educateteam

    Awesome Job on the controller and the track! The controller looks very elegant – market them to and through DJTT =)

  • Well done Nick. All the best.

  • Coldfuzion

    That’s simply awesome!

  • This project takes the word badass to a whole new level. People like you inspire me! Looking forward to a new video when you have really mastered your new instrument!

  • Bigbeatzz

    Epic

  • rasmus

    he is the shit 🙂

    damn it i love jazz and im really amazed what the guy and ableton live are able to do. very creative

  • Soundshock

    Go out and Publish this great tune !

  • awesome work!

  • LOL

    very clean build… but the controller looks really heavy and akward to have in your lap… especially since it is the size of a install console…..

    With what your using it for seems like you should shoot for something half the size/weight thats more lap or “guitar strap” friendly replace half them buttons knobs with 1 shift button/rotary and lighten your load!

    • Appreciate the critique. The shift button/rotary thing is a good suggestion. (I think it’s a modification that can work with what I have now.) Although it might appear to look heavy, it’s not. (The front and back pieces are 1/4″ plywood–very light. Ironically, the most weight comes from the 20 metal pots). And whatever awkwardness I show comes mostly from the unfamiliarity of using it. The tactile feeling of this thing is amazing; it’s a joy to behold…literally.

    • The materials/types of wood used would make this a lot lighter than it looks. The obvious cool thing about DIY controllers you can tailor it exactly to personal taste. If this little beauty was mine I think I’d long for a back lit arcade mod like the one’s found in this other epic diy vintage TechTools post http://www.djtechtools.com/2009/06/22/more-arcade-buttons/

  • Mr Draxx

    NOW THAT’S BEING A KID AND HAVING FUN! CLASS ACT HANDS DOWN. THANK YOU NICK FOR THE INSPIRATION

  • Beautiful Nick. You seem like a true gentleman, who appreciates the art of music.

  • Thanks to all of you for your attention & respect. I so much appreciate it. I really believe that digital music making is the folk music of the 21st century. It’s a beautiful thing to watch it all evolve & be a small part of it too. NF

  • Amazing. Simply amazing. It’s so great to see that it isn’t just my generation staying on the cutting edge of technology and creativity. What an inspiration!!!

  • Fusor010

    Ean, my friend, thanks…

  • PURE QUALITY!!! in every sence of the work fantastic work :0

  • pure amazing.

  • Rokku

    Gibson Thunderbird bass or Gibson Firebird guitar…there was never a Fender Thunderbird…

    Sorry, long time bass player.

    • You’re right Rokku. I never corrected the original post from the forum. Gibson it is.

  • M Live

    Pure Genius!!!

  • fleater

    I have been following this for some time on the Livid Instruments website as an Ohm64 user and lover!
    Well done for this gorgeous piece of kit!

  • Mikael

    truly incredible, fantastic work. Allowing the usage of the controller so the audience can see what’s going on is a great idea!

  • Second all of the above, inspiring stuff.

  • wow. loving the jazz mash and the beauty of the controller.

  • Santielenaiscool

    awesome work, i’d like to have something like that one day, i disagree with the “used like an instrument” to me it’s still used like a controller to activate clips and mix/fx them rather than an instruments to play notes, have you ever seen the Zendrum, http://www.zendrum.com/ that’s next on my list

    • Evan

      Yeah i would describe this as more of a “Live Re-Edit”

  • Tcharles

    As both a swing dancer and a swing DJ I can only express my thanks a thousand times : there are too few mashups/remixes of this kind and it’s really inspiring.

    As a controllerist I can only say : damn! This controller is better-looking than my last girlfriend =)

  • Karlos Santos

    Ladies & Gentlemen I think we have a new hero in our midst.
    That is a stunning application of controllerism. What a guy.

  • I hope this becomes a solid trend in controllerism…more diversity in users and the performed material.

    The controller looks stunning. The only things I would have added would be some sort visual LED feedback and a system to label the knobs and buttons. That thing looks too good to just use a cheap homemade labels.

    The idea of performing with the controller in your lap like you would an acoustic guitar seems like a really viable approach. You could just put the laptop on the floor with zoom on ableton cranked up.

    All of this reminds me of how Futureman from Bela Fleck’s band is really from the future: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_BPpy1lLvys

  • R3 bonaire

    hopy respect from Bonaire. as you say yourself ,not a DJ but i give you a true controllerist. 1/4 inch tape and razorblades are build in your chopper(for me also 30yrs ago). I know a Jazz Cafe that would like to have you play live……just frkn awsome man…..

  • Amazing!!!!!!!! (Both the controller and the mashup)

  • sD

    This manages to be both classy AND badass.

  • TENOTCH

    BRAVO!!!!

  • Seriously huge massive piles of respect, on so many levels you done a great job!

    • Dj caine

      ha ha I just knew youd like this one wicked 🙂

  • another

    Nick wants us to call him as big daddy with these last sentences ” really love and appreciate what you guys are doing and think these new digital DJ tools are fantastic.” =)

  • I1Kirm

    I’m speechless. You just opened a whole new world of possibilities to me. And the mashup was great! Well done

  • Wow that was an amazing video! I loved the fact that you used your controller like an instrument AND played a jazz mix with it! You must have put a lot of effort into that and it shows in the video. If there’s a new project I can’t wait to see it!

  • joemaffei

    Where did you get the circuit boards?

  • Quite unique and very beautiful, perhaps of great value, when the Native Instruments wake up and create a step pattern sequencer to be used with cue points, when this occurs abandonment Ableton Live.

  • Michielygil

    that wiring is so clean!

  • Rdperry

    Wow, it’s so weird to see a midi controller being used to mess around with jazz music, not to mention that beautiful piece of artwork. Great job Nick!

  • Anthologic

    Great looking controller… even better mash-up!!!

  • Kobb

    Amazing mashup! The best thing Ive heard in a long time. True genious at work.

  • Synthetix

    really great. never before have I viewed a midi controller as an actual instrument in this way.

  • Wow – beautiful peace of custom gear and very nice remix.

  • Afrowhitieeee

    Incredible – really awesome controller and i think your Fats Waller mashup sounds great!