Behind The Palette Project: Modular + Customizable Controllers

Every time a modular controller project or concept comes to light in the DJ industry, there’s always a ton of interest from the masses – just look at some of the comments on our recent article about unreleased controllers. Palette has sparked that same interest, but with a fully backed Kickstarter project it’s on track to be one of the first widely available modular controller systems for DJs.

Designers: Calvin Chu + Ashish Bidadi
Price: Comes in kits, $99 (4 modules) / $149 (6 modules) / $399 (16 modules)
Availability: Kickstarter underway, expected release June 2014
Communication: HID and MIDI over USB (USB-powered)

The Good: Completely modular layout – arrange the individual elements in any layout. Can connect up to 32 controls in each layout. Sends both HID and MIDI signals.

The Bad: No wireless connection. Individual components (faders, buttons) aren’t quite up to the quality that DJs expect from pro-level gear. A bit pricy when comparing to buying other DJ/producer controllers that lack the modular capabilities.

The Bottom Line:  Palette isn’t a “game-changer” – but it does bring customizable modularity into the realm of realistic options for DJs. Seems ideal for supplementary controls to a larger setup, and you won’t find this level of rearrangement possible on anything else.

PALETTE’S GENESIS: USER-FOCUSED CUSTOMIZABILITY

The team behind Palette wanted to create a freeform hardware interface – meaning a system that would be completely re-arrangeable and user-customizable based on the needs of different users. More specifically, those users all could have different processes and approaches that might work best with a unique arrangement of controls. Instead of focusing on the creating these arrangements on the software side (where TouchOSC and Lemur dominate), Palette is all about giving users real hardware to touch and feel instead of just tapping against glass.

Calvin Chu and Ashish Bidadi started working on the project that would become Palette while they were studying Mechatronics Engineering at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada – and after school the duo were accepted to a hardware accelerator program that allowed them to work in China with components suppliers and hardware manufacturers to prepare prototypes for their Kickstarter.

MODULES TO MAKE A WHOLE

The aluminum modules that make up Palette are designed to be plug-and-play “just like Lego” – and for the Kickstarter launch will come in just four different flavors (with more planned for future versions of the Palette system – they’re considering joysticks, trackballs, motorized sliders, foot pedals, etc):

  • a slider (fader)
  • a dial (endless encoders)
  • a button (arcade button)
  • power module (USB connection to computer and OLED display)

The input connectors on each module have a similar feeling to old-style iPad/iPhone connectors, a relatively thin and wide connector that lightly clips into place.

The modules themselves have an aluminum housing with a matte finish on the top, a ring/halo LED just inside the top edge, and a lightly rounded black plastic base where the input/output connections live.  They’re the right height to place around a standard laptop, but will sit a bit low if trying to use them alongside mixer-height gear.

TECHNICAL DETAILS

A Palette setup starts with the power module acting as the central hub. After connecting the power module, a chain of up to 32 modules can be connected. There are no limitations on arrangement, or what type of modules you can add, or in what order. Each of the components are hot-swappable, so if you unplug every single module and rearrange them into a completely different layout, they’ll retain the same functionality when plugged back in.

“The most difficult obstacle was trying to make [Palette] as future-proof as possible […] we wanted to have a protocol and architecture so you can always add more modules in the future” – Calvin Chu

A Palette kit can output HID or MIDI – and the signal from each individual control will be able to be adjusted in a forthcoming software that will “recognize software installed on your computer, and automatically pull functions that you can map to the modules”. This obviously becomes a bit more complex with DJ applications – unless the Palette team is planning on writing their own version of Xtreme Mapping.

The Palette team designed their own custom PCBs for the project, and purposefully chose a microcontroller that would allow them to achieve latencies comparable with most popular MIDI controllers.

AS A DJ CONTROLLER 

We’re not convinced Palette isn’t going to replace your primary DJ controller or mixer simply because of the cost associated with getting a set of modules that would be equivalent to, say, a Kontrol S4. Additionally, the components that we played with aren’t quite of the same quality that you might find on other DJ controllers – the line faders won’t be sufficient for rapid cutting and abuse, and the arcade buttons have a resistance that finger drummers and controllerists might scoff at.

(Editor’s Note: The units we tested are still beta prototypes – they’re still taking feedback and finding the final components that will be used.)

It’s easier to envision a Palette kit as a complimentary or secondary set of controls around a larger DJ setup – a few use cases that come to mind include:

  • effects controllers
  • easy browse/load controls for turntablists
  • simple portable track preparation setup
  • basic DAW channel strip controls
A potential Palette control layout for DJs.

Palette could also work very well along with other modular controllers in a DJ or live production rig. Need to add a few knobs and faders around your traditional button grid? A Palette kit would be perfect for that. Palette also makes a lot of sense for controller users whose needs are always changing with each gig. Many visuals effects artists have this exact issue – with new surfaces, screens, and projects that would benefit from unique controller layouts.

KICKSTARTED + CHALLENGES

The support levels on Kickstarter (shown in Canadian dollars)

As with most hardware projects, the biggest issue is actually moving from a prototype phase to a completely finished product that gets manufactuered to completion. Not only is there a financial hurdle (investing in tooling, parts, etc), but there’s also the risk of unknown problems arising during the actual production process. Palette has solved the funding process by meeting and exceeding their Kickstarter goal (they’re just past $115,000 Canadian dollars at the time of press).

Calvin estimates that production will begin in February of 2014, with the first production run finishing in June. Since he’s been on the ground in China and in discussions with manufacturers, this is likely a realistic estimate. But many Kickstarter projects miss their mark – just ask Keith McMillen (read our article about the process behind funding and creating the QuNeo here).

Either way, the fact that Palette is poised to be a piece of modular controller gear that won’t get mired in pre-production makes a unique offering in the DJ world. 

Check out more similar modular projects featured on DJTT:

dj controllerkickstarterKitlittle bitsmaawsermodular controllermodulespaletteproject
Comments (21)
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  • Djblackjack

    this is great! but the connection of the modules look weak, meaning that any slight movement can ruin your gig. the idea is great…. but i don’t see how you can make the structure intact. maybe its good idea to connect the modules to the power module wirelessly (although you’ll have to find out how to power them differently.

  • DJ_ForcedHand

    OK, so here’s what gets me; why aren’t there other options for knobs, buttons and sliders etc.? I mean, I get that they have this modular interface for “total customizability” (which is cool), but those knobs and sliders don’t look very “DJ friendly.” Cross-faders and up-faders are normally paddle-shaped, not dished like the the up-faders of a mixing deck.

    Some immediate concerns: The knobs look very chunky/strong, but look like they don’t have much grip area (and they’re certainly not “rubberized” like most DJ controllers today). I imagine these knobs are not the push-in type, and there is only one color option… black. This is certainly an opportunity for Chroma Caps to come to the rescue (I imagine DJTT/ Chroma Caps has a plan to come up with an over-sized knob for jog wheels as well).
    I’m going to presume that the color we see on the edges of the modules are assignable so I guess that helps a little, but are they interactive? Can you assign the knob’s rotary (or linear for the faders) position value to light intensity or color? Do they blink?

    Moving forward: I know a lot of DJs like to swap out standard cross faders with Innofaders, is this an option? How about touchstrips like the ones from VMeter, is this an option? Velocity sensitive RGB backlit trigger pads are popular, is this an option? What’s a person to do if they want Midi-fighter-esque buttons with an LED color ring or a limitless rotary encoder? A backlit LCD is probably not in the cards (right now), but it might be an option users would want. There are a lot of human interfaces that don’t seem to be covered here, but could be useful… I’d never presume I’d cover all the bases of a topic.

    In summary, I like the direction this project is going, but if this is going to be “the customizable interface”, perhaps some other user interface options should be made available.

  • chris

    this is very nice.
    with a small software for testing tracks on the way.
    but for bigger one, there need a tuning

    f*ck NSA
    every time i’m writing with friends i had some shit of this Operation in brain. In german we had an word for such sick doing :”Faustrecht”. it means that the stronger one has all rights, but this is very ill and evolutionary similar to an unwashed animal.

  • synthet1c

    any chance that you could control your windows system volume with the knob?

  • cunguez

    I was very interested when i found out about Palette, as well as another project on Kickstarter Australia (I believe) where the designers are offering custom layouts on a 6×6 grid, they already have a web builder site up and running (their project obviously lacks the modularity but there are an increasing number of concepts from designers looking to offer greater customization). While I understand where the cost is coming from, I agree that for me, at least, it is somewhat prohibitive when I do the math and see the cost of a setup that would meet my specific needs. That said, I am still very interested in the software component…

    I am one of the people that Calvin and Ashish mention who are using midi controllers as a means of interfacing with programs other than those that are music based (in my case, I’m building a setup to work with lightroom). I believe that there is a very large market for a flexible, modular hardware solution with SOFTWARE that meets the needs of people like myself who are looking to use controllers in an unconventional way, and therefore have a need for a setup that is both very different from Ableton users, et al, in both layout and the ability to easily patch in to other software (such as Lightroom).

    Right now I’m in the process of putting together a controller that is basically a Midi Fighter 3D, a Livid Code v2, and a Griffin PowerMate all housed in a custom wood case. I’ve worked with Livid to produce a custom aluminum top plate and I have a friend doing the wood work. The look is similar to some of the Monome projects, just a bit more complex.

    Again, to Calvin and Ashish, while in my case I will have already build a system ideal for my needs, getting the controllers to work with Lightroom has been the most challenging part of the project. There are programs out there such as Knobroom and Paddy, but nothing as streamlined as what you seem to have already worked out. If you were to release the software separately, I know that I for one would happily pay for a license.

    As it stands, I’ve been able to put my controller together for less than $600 and I have 36 indented rotary encoder with 13 programable soft buttons on the Code, 16 arcade buttons and the 4 bank buttons on the Midi Fighter, and the PowerMate as a jog wheel – which, when put together would add up to a sum of money larger than I could afford if I were assembling a Palette system. Granted, I’m going a bit further than most Lr users might (to put it mildly) and were I to have the disposable income and could wait until June I would happily put together a Palette system, but to reiterate, I love the idea of being able to license your software. I know I’m just one person, but I would put it to you to consider letting customers have that option.

    Best of luck to both of you, I love the project and look forward to what the future holds for you guys and for Palette! Cheers!
    Chris

  • Palette

    Thanks for the article Dan! Lots of great feedback that we’ll incorporate into our design before production. If anyone has questions, please drop us a comment here. We’re also still looking for beta testers so shoot me a message on Kickstarter if you’re interested! http://kck.st/1ayG8Kl
    – Calvin

    • Sean Y

      Imo, From a music control perspective, 16 controls is not nearly enough to justify the price. 400$ would nab me a much more versatile controller from any other company. Even as a complimentary control, it seems quite sparse…

      @Calvin: Do you have any comments / arguments to refute this? I’m very open to having my mind changed because I really do love the idea of the product your putting forth!

      Good luck!! I hope it takes off and we see more of this in the future!

      • Guest

        Hey Sean, great question. The value in Palette isn’t the sheer number of inputs but how you use them. Since you can customize everything down to the physical layout, you can make it fit your exact style. Each input is there because you wanted it there. You can build your dream controller.

        The fine-grained modularity also lets Palette grow with your needs. When you want to upgrade, you can always add or swap out modules in the future, instead of pawning off the gear you already paid for.

        The higher cost is due to the materials (lots of matte anodized aluminum enclosures, CNC machined knobs, light halo, etc) and internals (indivudual PCBs, LEDs, side connectors…) needed to get this slick experience. Plug-and-play setup and looking/feeling great when in use.

        Finally, the Palette software lets you easily map it to way more applications beyond music. I’m sure many of you pursue other creative passions like video/film, photography or design. You can use Palette to improve your workflow for all those activites too. So much room for activities.

        I hope that sheds some light on things! If you have any more questions, send ’em over!

        – CC

      • Palette

        Hey Sean, great question. The value in Palette isn’t the sheer number of inputs but how you use them. Since you can customize everything down to the physical layout, you can make it fit your exact style. Each input is there because you wanted it there. You build your dream controller.

        The fine-grained modularity also lets Palette grow with your needs. When you want to upgrade, you can always add or swap in modules in the future, instead of pawning off the gear you already paid for.

        The higher cost is due to the materials (lots of matte anodized aluminum enclosures, CNC machined knobs, light halo, etc) and internals (indivudual PCBs, LEDs, side connectors…) needed to get this slick experience. Plug-and-play setup and looking/feeling great when in use.

        Lastly, the Palette software lets you easily map it to way more applications beyond music. I’m sure many of you pursue other creative passions like video/film, photography or design. You can use Palette to improve your workflow for all those activites too. So much room for activities.

        I hope that sheds some light on things! If you have any more questions, send ’em over!

        – CC

      • ydar

        Keep in mind that those prices are in CAD, not regular Dollar. CAD has a really low exchange rate. Especially when you are from Europe like me. 99CAD equals 60€ and 400CAD equals 274€. So the Price seems ok to me, if the quality is really as sturdy as it is promised.

    • Anski

      Just sent you a message about beta testing (Micah), we’re highly interested! Being able to bridge the gap of using the same tools I know and love as a DJ with the media production software we use during the day would be something I’d love to see what kind of holes a modular setup could fill. Cheers!

      • stefanhapper

        Too modular = too fragile

        Personally I would love a faderfox-type controller merged with a full 4-channel mixer. Or put differently: a more compact DDJ-SX without the jogwheels.

        • Prof_Strangeman

          You mean like FaderFox’s partner project the “4MidiLoop”?

          • stefanhapper

            The 4MidiLoop devices are MIDI controllers only. What I am looking for is a combined full-scale MIDI controller with a 4-channel mixer.

    • Oddie O'Phyle

      if i were to go modular in a controller i would probably go the livid route, although i’m pretty happy with NI.

  • Oddie O'Phyle

    i was checking this out about 2 weeks ago. the really cool thing about palette is that it isn’t only a digital controller for music, with the software it can be configured for many other applications.

    • Palette

      Thats exactly right Oddie. But we continuing to make improvements to design to create the best freeform hardware platform. Thanks for your support!