Maker Movement Mania

DIY Synthesizer Helps Bring Music to the Masses

One savvy Brazilian music enthusiast used off-the-shelf technology to build a programmable synth on the cheap.

With the rise of Spotify, SoundCloud and other music sharing platforms, listening to the latest tunes is easier than ever.

Hitting the same beats at home? Not so seamless — and often expensive.

That’s precisely why Jomar Silva sought to build a programmable MIDI synthesizer that was easy to use and wouldn’t break the bank. As an Intel IoT and Open Source Developer Evangelist for the Latin American Region, Silva was able to combine his music hobby with his passion for technology.

“It’s key for me because most music software is developed by musicians who are also software developers,” he said, noting that when music software first came on the scene it was difficult to understand and use.

“Today, almost anyone who can handle a PC can use it to produce quality music in their homes.”

Built using only a MIDI controller, a USB audio card and an Intel Edison board, Silva’s DIY synthesizer costs a fraction of the $12,000 Roland Jupiter 8 Analog Synth. He also created a version of the synth that uses Edison and Fluidsynth and supports SoundFonts, technology designed to connect recorded and synthesized audio during computer music composition.

These synthesizers cost less than $300 and allow musicians to replicate everything from drum beats to Vox Continental, a combo organ known for its bright and breathy sound.

The project came about after Silva saw a YouTube video of a man playing a MIDI Synth on an Intel Galileo board. Unfortunately, the synth required difficult software tweaks.

“My idea was to build something easily replicable by anyone, so I insisted on keep studying the best way to implement it,” Silva said.

When Intel launched the Intel Edison board, however, he had what he needed to make it work. After a year of studying the best techniques and five months of playing with the Intel Edison board, Silva built the entire system in a couple of hours.

“Most musicians and DJs today have a good background in technology, and they experiment a lot with new technologies,” Silva said. “The cool thing about Edison is that it allows people to experiment even more if they work with a developer or expert, but they can have the basic things running very easily with a minimum skill set.”

Silva also says that the Intel Edison board’s compact size and “excellent computing power” means musicians can easily take the system on the go.

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Developing this hardware is a huge accomplishment for Silva who, as a Brazilian, grew up in a musical household. Silva studied drums since age 10 and played in a 70s rock-and-roll band for nearly 15 years.

The beats are in his blood, and his attraction to music began nearly at birth.

“When I was a very young child, my dad would play ‘As Long as I can See the Light’ by Creedence Clearwater Revival when he put me to bed,” he said. “He cried when I told him I remembered that.”

Not long after, Silva asked his parents for a piece of a drum set equipment. Today, the musical hobbyist continues to experiment with new and inexpensive ways to help people create their own tunes.

The programmable synths are just the beginning.

“My idea is to reach a point where I can turn on the Edison board, open an app on my smartphone, chose the instrument, tune it and play,” Silva said. This is in the works, but developing the app will take more of Silva’s already scarce free time.

Despite the challenges of fitting everything in, Silva has his eye on a personal project too.

“I would really like to build my own laser harp like Jean Michel Jarre plays,” he said, adding that many people on the internet have tried but it’s still very expensive.

“I like finding a way to make my ideas come to life in a way that is as inexpensive as possible,” he said.

 

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