The Junk Synth

This is a long running project–a suitcase containing a number of small sound-making gadgets and kits I’ve acquired and built, connected together to streamline the setup process for performances. I’ve finally gotten it in a useful configuration and I’m looking forward to developing some performances and recordings with it.

The Junk Synth – ready to play

I started collecting toy electronics, circuit-bending, and making little kits during my PhD, though I had been doing some work with Arduinos and sensors in the years prior. I’ve performed with these electronic doo-dads many times, and wanted to create something that was quick to set up, and was flexible. Since a lot of modular synthesizer enthusiasts have suitcase systems, I thought something similar would be cool to do.

I started putting this together in the summer of 2018 and it has gone through a few iterations. Before, I just had 1/8th-inch cables coming out of each unit, with a small patchbay going only to the effects units. This worked ok but I was always having to trace what cable came out of what. What I’ve done in this version is tie everything into the patchbay.

Closer look at top panel

As seen above, what I have in the Junk Synth is a Stylophone, an Atari Punk Console (inside the Altoids tin), a Pico Paso by Bleep Labs (open Altoids tin), A Korg Monotron, a Bleep Drum by Bleep Labs, and a circuit-bent Speak & Spell. Not seen here are a Zoom multi-effects pedal, a Velleman digital delay kit, a Nady mixer, and two mini-Marshall amps.

Closer look at patchbay and delay controls

The pots on the left of the patchbay control the delay unit (time and feedback). The patchbay works like this:

  • Top row: outputs for the Stylophone, Bleep Drum, Atari Punk Console, Pico Paso, and Speak & Spell.
  • Second and third rows: inputs for the Delay, the Monotron (using its aux input for the LFO and filter), the Zoom effects pedal, an Aux output, and inputs directly to the mixer.
  • Fourth row: I think of these as my output jacks, but actually they can be inputs too! The Delay, LFO, and FX jacks are connected to the “input” jacks as well as the mixer. If you connect a cable here, you can route the sound to another row. For example, the stylophone can go into the delay, then the delay into the LFO.
  • The “Aux” column has two connected jacks, or an in and an out. The Return is not connected, but rather goes straight to the mixer.
  • The “Mix” column is not connected – each jack goes to a separate input on the mixer. This way I can patch something “dry.”
in-progress shot of patchbay soldering and troubleshooting

Another important element of this project is the power supply. I am tired of buying and replacing batteries! This power supply is for guitar pedals, which generally run on 9-volt batteries. Several of these units do as well. The Speak & Spell runs on 4 C-cells so I have it on a separate AC adapter. The Stylophone and Monotron are the only things running on batteries now (I didn’t feel like hacking and adding voltage regulators…maybe in the future).

The Junk Synth – packed up

In earlier configurations, the little Marshall amps had to hang out inside. So I’m really glad I moved thing around so it all fits in the suitcase, power cables and all. I doubt I can take this on a plane anytime soon, but it will be great for some pop-up free improv gigs.

All fits inside this briefcase (Samsonite) – $5 at Goodwill

More to come on this and other electronic projects!

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