Custom Snow Globe


Well, I’ve been slaving away on creating a unique X-mas gift for my wife and two-year old daughter, and I think I got it right. They loved it!

I’m talking about a Custom Snow Globe!

A while back, I was working in the driveway on a styrofoam project. Of course, that white stryrofoam dust gets static-charged and STICKS TO EVERYTHING. I also found that the best tool for cutting it was my wife’s kitchen electric carving knife. When I headed inside to take a break and warm up, I was COVERED with styrofoam. My two-year-old girl looked up at me and squeeled “Daddy a Snowman!”.

Indeed I was. I imagined myself inside a snow-globe with styrofoam swirling around me like a snowstorm. But could I actually BUILD a snowglobe that would match my imagination?

I started looking at every snow globe I could find and set to work building one. I looked around and found a glass dome, used for light fixtures. I got two of them, and gave one to my brother-in-law, who is a clay artist, among other things, and commissioned him to make a caricature of me. Since he had one globe, and I had the other, he could make a figure that would fit inside the globe, and I could do the woodworking on the base, and insure that the globe fit that.

I headed to the local cabinet shop and talked to old high-school class-mate Steve about what wood to use for a base. He gave me a maple block, and I grabbed some scrap maple from the bin to practice cuts and routering on. At my Dad’s back-of-the-garage shop, I experimented with routing, until I could get it right, and routed a circle for the base of the glass globe, cut the wood base to length and cut a 45-degree bevel on the top edge, and routed a pocket in the bottom for the electronics.

I wanted to make a “singing” snow-globe, so I bought a singing greeting card at the Hallmark store, and then dissected it for parts. The electronics were then mounted on the bottom of the  wood base, along with a custom switch.

I headed to the Milwaukee Makerspace to use the laser-cutter.

Using the vector graphics program on the laser’s computer, I laid out an inscription for both the top and bottom of the snow globe base. I practiced on a piece of paper, and then when I actually focused the laser properly and had everything else figured out, I wood-burned the maple block, front and back.

I also used a solder station to add the momentary on switch to the greeting card electronics, so that the song would play whenever the globe was picked up to shake up the snow.

Next, was clear-coating the figure and the wood base. I used “Parks Super-Glaze”, a two-part epoxy clear coat used for bars, to completely seal and waterproof both the figure and the base, as well as to permanently attach the figure to the base.

Then, it was a matter to holding the globe upside down, filling it with water, filling the routed circular grove of the base with silicon glue, and flipping the figure and base, upside-down, into the dome of water. Once it was cured, the snow-globe can be flipped right-side-up, gift-wrapped, and put under the tree!

I’m glad to say that the project turned out just great! It was a bit of a stretch to my skill-set, so THANK YOU to the people who gave me a hand with it. Nothing quite like a project that runs the gamut from sculpture to wood-working, electronics, glass, water, laser-engraving, and more! But that’s how we grow… by stretching a little bit more every time!

Merry X-mas

From Ben the Snowman.

Arduino-Powered Surround Sound Synthesizer

The Makerspace Eight Speaker Super Surround Sound System(MESSSSS) has been supplying music to the Makerspace for quite a while now, but I identified a problem even before the system was fully installed.  Stereo recordings played back on two speakers are great if you’re in the “sweet spot.” If not, traditional approaches to 5.1 audio improve things, but all rely on there being a single “front of the room.” Unfortunately, it’s not clear which side of the 3000 square foot Makerspace shop is the front, and with four pairs of speakers in the room, even stereo imaging is difficult.

Fortunately, I’ve just completed the Makerspace Eight Speaker Super Surround Sound System’s Enveloping Surround Sound Synthesizer (MESSSSSESSS).  The MESSSSSESSS takes stereo recordings and distributes sound to the eight speakers in an entirely fair and user configurable way, thereby eliminating the need for a “front of the room.” Now listeners can be arbitrary distributed throughout a room, and can even be oriented in random directions, while still receiving an enveloping surround sound experience!

The MESSSSSESSS user interface is somewhat simpler than most surround sound processers, as it consists of only four switches and one knob.  Somewhat inspired by StrobeTV, the simplest mode references questionable quadraphonic recordings, in that the music travels sequentially from speaker to speaker, chasing around the room either clockwise or counterclockwise at a rate selected by the knob. With the flip of a switch, sound emanates from the eight speakers in a random order. Things get considerably less deterministic after flipping the Chaos Switch, adjusting the Chaos Knob, and entering Turbo Mode:  Its best to visit Milwaukee Makerspace to experience the madness for yourself.  I’m legally obligated to recommend first time listeners be seated for the experience.

The MESSSSSESSS is powered entirely by an Arduino Uno’s ATmega328 that was programmed with an Arduino and then plugged into a socket in a small, custom board that I designed and etched at the Makerspace.  The ATmega328 outputs can energize relays that either do or don’t pass the audio signal to the four stereo output jacks.  Care was taken to use diodes to clamp any voltage spikes that may be created as the relays switch, thus preventing damage to the ATmega328 outputs.

As shown by the minimal part count above, using the ATmega328 “off the Arduino” is quite easy:  Just connect pins 1 (The square one), 7 and 20 to 5 volts, and connect pins 8 and 22 to ground.  Then, add a 22uF cap and small bypass cap between power and ground, and a ceramic resonator to pins 19 and 20.  You can even use an old cellphone charger as the power supply.  Boom.  That’s it.  The real benefits of making your own boards are having a well integrated system, and cost, as the Atmel chip is $4.50 while a whole Arduino is $30.  Also visible in the photo are a programming header and the two ribbon cables that route all the signals to and from the board.

Cacophonator Enters The RPM Challenge!

At Noon today, the Cacophonator decided to enter the RPM Challenge!  This challenge is simple: Compose and record an album entirely during the month of Februrary, be that 10 individual songs or a single 35+ minute track of original material!  After a thirteen second test, Cacophonator was proven to not be up to this challenge as a solo act – It’s just too loud.  Enter Mohoganator: The distortion reducing, level adjusting perfect partner for this challenge.

The Dynamic Duo of Cacophonator and Mohoganator teamed up with Auditionator (I.E. Adobe Audition) to record a session for 10 minutes and 32 seconds at a blazing fast 192kHz sample rate.  This recording was then slowed down to the customary rate of 44.1kHz, thereby expanding the work to its final 45.5 minute length.  Within twenty minutes after the recording was made, Cacophonator had a profile set up on the RPM Challenge site and the piece normalized, saved as a low bit rate mp3 and uploaded.  You’ve read that correctly, in less time than it takes to listen to this piece, it was composed, recorded, processed, mastered and uploaded.  Talk about Non-Causal Audio Delight!  Check out the piece here, by scrolling down to “my player.” This all happened very fast, but Cacophonator still isn’t quite finished – it hasn’t yet mailed a CD to RPM HQ, 10 Vaughan Mall, Suite 201 Portsmouth, NH 03801.  Interested participants still have over 11 days to enter the challenge!

Audiophile Headphones

Sick of thin bass when listening to your favorite music over headphones? Missing that cinematic surround sound experience when you are on the go? Craving the visceral bass impact of live concerts? Trying to get to 11, but your headphones are stalled out at 6.283?  Move over anemic earbuds, there’s a new product in town: BIGheadphones: Bass Impact Gear’s new headphone product, available in two versions: Premium 5.1 (shown below in a user trial) and Mega Premium 7.2 (coming soon).

Reviewers are raging about the unprecedented dynamics, midrange clarity, and sound stage:

“Perhaps it was in the region of articulation and musical dynamics that this system impressed the most.  The dynamic bloom from soft to extremely loud was exquisite, and so clearly delineated that listeners could unravel musical phrases down into the concert hall’s noise floor and below.” The Audio Critic

“BIGheadphones speak with an organic integrity. They are hewn from the living woodendangered old growth Amazonian timber… I wept openly when forced to return the demo model.”– Stereophile

“BIGheadphones make critical listening a joy rather than a strain.  I was flabbergasted by their brilliant pitch certainty.  The midrange sounds were open, clear, and stunningly present. Playback performance like this makes use of the word transparent not only forgivable, but mandatory.” Audiophilia

“The 5.1 has an innate flair for speed and control that is incomparable. The command of bass dynamics moves beyond effortlessness to nonchalance. My eyeballs were vibrating! My hands are still shaking as I write this review.”Sound and Vision

“…the most important innovation in audio reproduction since the permanent magnet.”  –Acta Acustica

“W.O.W.”Bose listening panel

Reviewers agree that BIGheadphones are a huge leap in audio reproduction technology, larger than vacuum tubes, Stroh violins, carbon microphones and Edison cylinders combined.

Relative to planar speakers, typical box speakers are unable to develop the proper surface loudness or intensity typical of large instruments such as the piano.  This audio feat poses no challenge for BIGheadphones. Computationally modeled and optimized by a small and highly trained team of expert acoustical engineers over a period of 13 years, BIGheadphones were inspired by ingeniously thinking “inside the box,” not outside the box.  At the obsolete exterior listening position, a typical loudspeaker rarely generates even a realistic classical music concert level, but inside that same speaker, the sound pressure levels can quite easily exceed the 115 dB of a stadium rock concert. This realization was the BIG breakthrough, but was only the beginning of the struggle pursued by our elite acoustical research team.  Our uberengineers had to break the chains of common design practice to breathe the refreshing mountain air of inside-the-box acoustics, where nearly everything is inverted.

To illustrate, achieving loud bass external to a speaker typically requires the box be a very large size.  However, inside the box, the bass response is naturally flat to the lowest frequencies, and the smaller the box the louder and more impactful it becomes. Further, our astute engineers shrewdly realized that the stop-band and pass-band inside and outside the box are also opposite, as illustrated in the enlightening plot below of the subwoofer section of BIGheadphones. The Blue curve shows the hyposonic level inside, extending well below 10 infrasonic Hz, while the Red curve shows the meager sound pressure level in the more traditional listening position two meters in front of them.  Notice how the passband outside the box begins at 2kHz, whereas the passband inside the box ends at 2 kHz.  How many other speaker systems can boast of a subwoofer response that is flat over more than three orders of magnitude?  Now that’s innovation!  And this is just the customer-average response—the bigger your head the broader the bandwidth that you can brag about to your audiophile friends.

The observant reader has already noticed that this plot shows BIGheadphone’s output level is a mere 142 dB – only 22 dB above the threshold of pain.  Note though that this is with a paltry 1 Watt input – in reality, they are capable of 17 dB higher output with the optional high output amplifier add-on kit, though this reduces the playback time to under 36 hours per charge.  And that’s just the subwoofer!  The industry-leading, consciousness-altering bass response shown above is augmented by five horn loaded, carbon fiber reinforced porcelain dome, 2” diameter neodymium tweeters with single crystal silver edge wound voice coils.  With this critical addition, the frequency response of the BIGheadphones extends from below 10 Hz to 31 kHz and beyond!  Get your BIGheadphone audition today at your local Hi-Fi retailer!  “BIGheadphones, the last audible note in audio reproduction!”

(Not available in France.)

Thanks to the editors at RSW, Inc.

Redwood Audio Amplifier

A few months ago I started collaborating with Jordan Waraksa on a project that is currently on display at the Haggerty Museum of Art, in a show running until the end of December.  He sculpted a pair of wooden acoustic horns called Bellaphone 5 & 6 out of walnut.  Each horn rests on a redwood base that houses a small speaker.  If you visit the Haggerty, you’ll hear the speakers playing songs by Jordan’s band, The Vitrolum Republic.  If you really love the Bellaphones and amplifier, know they are for sale.

I developed and built the electronics for the horn’s amplifier, whose chassis Jordan also sculpted from redwood.  Because the chassis is wood and has no vents (for aesthetics), electrical efficiency became a high priority in order to prevent overheating.  I chose to use a Maxim 98400A class D amplifier driven by a high efficiency switching 15V DC power supply.  I added a digital signal processing chip from Analog Devices to increase the bandwidth of the horn and smooth out its frequency response (i.e. to improve the audio fidelity).  Analog’s ADAU1701 is a remarkably powerful chip – it is more than capable of these tasks.  In addition, the 1701 prevents bass notes (frequencies below 100 Hz) from reaching the small speakers (which are incapable of reproducing these low notes), which would otherwise emanate from the horns as distortion.  Finally, the 1701 also adds a small amount of compression, which prevents distortion at the loudest output levels.   The 1701 is actually real-time programmable via a USB connection to a computer running Analog Device’s free SigmaStudio software.  It’s a tremendously user friendly GUI environment with drag and drop audio processing blocks.

Check out the inside of the amplifier as it was being assembled, prior to the addition of many ferrite beads which eliminate the audible noise from the three high efficiency switching power supplies:  One powering the amp, one powering the DSP board, and one continuously charging a Motorola Cliq XT handset playing songs from the Vitrolum Republic.

Here are two more close ups, one of the amplifier:

And one of Bellaphone five and six: