My First Project: A Box

I’m building a modular synthesizer. Modular synthesizers are comprised of many discrete “modules” that generate, shape, or otherwise modify analog signals. These signals might be within the audible frequency range, meaning if you hook an amplifier or headphones into them you will hear sound, or they can be above or below the audible range and work as “control signals” which can interface with other modules to change how they shape the signals passing through them. There are a lot of signals, and there is a lot to learn about audio synthesis. There are a lot of youtube videos to explore the basics of modular synthesizers if you want to learn more.

This isn’t a blog post about modular synthesizers. This is a blog post about a wooden box. The wooden box pictured above is one of the first projects I’ve worked on at the Makerspace, and it’s the first wood project I’ve worked on since making a wooden trinket in shop class in high school. If I actually used a table saw back then (or any power tools), I have no recollection of it. I’ve always been more adept with a keyboard, mouse, or soldering iron than power tools, but I have been trying to expand my horizons over the years. Still, this was a more ambitious project for me than soldering together the electronic modules contained within. Continue reading

The Milwaukee Makerspace Theater


Around 25 members have hopped in the new Milwaukee Makerspace Theater after the last two Tuesday meetings.  Its up and running in a “no hearing protection required” way!  The bass still goes way down to subsonic tones, but its being powered by a small & sensible surround sound amp.   Its a very immersive audio experience, and likely sounds much better than any 5.1 system you’ve heard because there’s only one seat!  The sound has been optimized for the single theater-goer: You!  The theater is hooked up to a DVD player, and is available 24/7  for any member to watch a movie in: no check-out required.   Note that any video source you have can be hooked up via the HDMI cable.  Alternately, you can follow the lead of JasonH, who used the theater with a portable audio player to rock out while he worked on his own project near by. See the photos below for the simple instructions on how you can start up the theater, and feel free to take a break from making by using the theater!


Laser Cutter Venting System, Version 5.0

Sometimes solving one problem creates a few new ones! As part of the Laser Cutter Room Reconfiguration, the exhaust system got an upgrade. A new, bigger, more powerful fan meant we needed a new way to control it. The previous system (Version 4.0) was a simple on/off switch. That just wasn’t going to cut it for this industrial grade blower. Tom G., Tony W., myself and others spent the holidays installing this new two-horsepower beast above the ceiling in the Craft Lab. Once it was hung from the roof joists with care, Tom got to work ducting it over to the Laser Cutter Room. Finally, when all the heavy lifting had been done and the motor drive had been wired up, all we needed was an enclosure for the switch.

The request went out on the message board. Pete P., Shane T., and I all expressed interest, but life got in the way and it soon became a matter of whomever got to it first would be the one to make it. I ended up devoting the better part of last weekend to this project (much more time than I anticipated) but I can honestly say I’m pretty happy with the result.


The goal was fairly straight-forward: make an enclosure for the switch Tom had already provided. It was a color-coded, 4-button, mechanical switch that had been wired to provide four settings: OFF, LOW, MEDIUM, and HIGH. The more laser cutters in use, the more air you’d need and the higher the setting you should choose. There’s four duct connections available for the three laser cutters we currently have.

There’s a saying: “Better is the enemy of done.” Truer words have never been spoken in a makerspace.

At first I wanted to build the enclosure out of acrylic. Then I remembered this awesome plastic bending technique that Tony W. and some others told me about. I found a video on the Tested website and got inspired. (If you don’t know about Tested, please go check it out. You’ll thank me later.) Unfortunately, my bends kept breaking and melting through, so after a few hours of tinkering I moved on.

Thankfully, we have a small cache of plastic and metal project enclosures on our our Hack Rack. I managed to find a clear plastic, vandal-proof thermostat guard. It looked workable.

I tried laser cutting it, but the moment I saw the plastic yellow and smoke, I knew there was probably some nasty, toxic stuff in it, so I moved to the CNC router. About an hour later I had my holes cut.

Then came the wiring. Up until this point I had been focused on the control box itself. Now I wanted to add a light!

No, two lights! Yeah!

One light to tell you when everything was off, and another that lit whenever the fan was in use. People could look at the lights from outside the room and instantly know if the fan had been left on. (It should be noted that the new fan, despite being twice as powerful than our last, is actually much quieter. Tom added a homemade muffler to the inlet of the blower and shrouded the whole contraption in 3″ fiberglass batt insulation. The best way to know if the fan is running is to open a slide gate damper and hear air being sucked in.)

OK, I totally got this.

Draw myself a ladder diagram and get out the wire connectors… Remember that I need to isolate the signals from each other so any button doesn’t call for 100% fan… A few more relays… Some testing… and done!

Wait a second… the motor drive doesn’t have a ground for the control signal.


Guess I can’t power it from the drive. I’ll just tie into the drive’s ground. Nope, that didn’t work.

I’ll read the motor drive manual. OK, it has a set of “run status” contacts I can monitor.
….and they’re putting out a steady 0.4 volts DC. That’s enough to light up a single LED! …except, no. It’s not lighting. Doesn’t seem to be any real current.

I’ll just use a transistor! That’s the whole point of a transistor!
….well nothing I tried worked.

I’ll build a voltage multiplier circuit!
….and this isn’t working either.

On Day 3 of this “little project” Ron B. made a comment about using a pressure switch of some kind.


We have a Hack Rack full of junk and I know there’s this old bunch of gas furnace parts. It couldn’t be that easy…


Yeah. So, three days (and a few frustrating epiphanies) later, this all came together. Press the beige button, get some air. Press the other buttons, get some more air. Any time there’s suction, the red light comes on. The indicator light is powered by its own 24 volt DC wall pack. The pressure switch has both normally open (N.O.) and normally closed (N.C.) contacts so it would be totally feasible to add another light at some point. The controller could display “OFF” or “SAFE” or whatever as well as “ON” or “FAN IN USE” or whatever. The text is just a red piece of paper with words printed on it, then holes laser-cut out to fit. We can trade it out with different words or graphics if we ever feel the need. I was just glad to have it done, so I called it. Better is the enemy of done, indeed.


You can learn more about the evolution of our laser cutter venting system on our wiki!

Home Theater with Insane Subwoofer

After the mediocre commercial successes of some of my previous audio products, I decided to pursue a project that has absolutely no commercial potential.  Although my Automated Gmail Assistant had a 0.1% view to purchase rate, they definitely delighted their new owners!   On the other hand, my novel audio surround sound processor, audio-visual processor and audiophile headphones did not produce any revenue, despite being manufactured in an exclusive edition of one each.  Not to be discouraged, the goal of this project was to expand on the core idea behind the aforementioned audiophile headphones, but to overcome the main two drawbacks of using headphones:  1) Many people find that headphones are too uncomfortable and impractical for long term listening. And 2) most headphones lack the concert-like visceral bass impact, which is that feeling of the kick drum shaking your chest that only rock and roll shows could provide.


Simply put, the Humorously Maniacal Milwaukee Makerspace Multimedia Machine (HMMMMMM) is a personal sized movie theater, with 5.16 surround sound.  That’s right, this theater is like a conventional 5.1 home theater, but with 15 extra subwoofers to delight the senses. While the bass in a live concert can be felt in your chest, the bass in the HMMMMMM can be felt in your soul(!).  In addition altering listener’s consciousness, the HMMMMMM will soon be used to screen our yet-to-be-filmed Milwaukee Makerspace orientation video as an integral part of our onboarding process for all new members. The HMMMMMM measures about 7 feet long and about 4 feet wide.  An eager movie-goer can simply climb up the integral stairs (shown on the left) and jump in through the 27” diameter escape hatch in the top of the HMMMMMM. Despite its crazy appearance, the HMMMMMM offers a surprisingly comfortable reclining position, much like that of a lazy-boy.  Check out this photo of the HMMMMMM under construction for a better idea of the ergonomic internal layout: There is a pillow for one’s head, and ones feet extend to the right.  The 27” display is mounted to the angled portion on the top surface, about 24” from the viewer.  Eventually, two 24″ monitors will expand the visual experience into the periphery.


The audio portion of the HMMMMMM is a 5.16 system.  The high frequencies are played by 5 uninteresting Swan/HiVi speakers that are arranged in a properly boring 5 channel surround configuration.  The more exciting portion of the audio system is the subwoofer – well, the 16 (Sixteen) 10″ high efficiency subwoofers that provide that TrueBass™ sensation the masses crave.  Its clear from the use of 16 subwoofers that one object of the HMMMMMM was to create an audio system that plays low bass.  Playback of really low bass typically requires an extremely large speaker box, and still notes as low as 20 Hz are rarely audible.  However, inside any speaker box the bass response is naturally flat to much lower (subsonic) pitches.  For more on the sound pressure level inside and outside speaker boxes, check out this link.  The graph below is a measurement of the SPL or sound pressure level (how loud it is) versus frequency (pitch) at the listener’s ears in the HMMMMMM.


The graph shows that with a sine wave input, the SPL inside the HMMMMMM is 148.6dB at 40 Hz.  That means the acoustic pressure on the 27” diameter escape hatch is 45 pounds.  Excellent.  Note that earplugs in addition to earmuff style hearing protectors are mandatory to safely experience the TrueBass™.   To understand this strict hearing protection requirement, lets compare the sound pressure level inside the HMMMMMM to other audio systems that may be more familiar.  Note that the loudness of these other audio systems are not visible in the graph above, because essentially all other audio systems (including yours) are inferior.  Adjusting the margins of the graph a bit produces the following graph:

SPL_of_many_systemsThe plot shows how loud typical audio systems are, and how low they play.  For example, cellphone speakers play only a bit below 1khz, and are ~90 dB if they’re 40cm from you.  When a Jambox-type bluetooth speaker is about 60cm from you, it plays ~10 dB louder, and another 1.5 octaves lower, to 200 Hz.  Typical bookshelf speakers can get another 5 dB louder if you’re 1.5 meters from them, but only play down another octave to 100 Hz.  OEM installed car stereos are a big improvement, but they’re still not in the same league as the HMMMMMM.  Yes, the IASCA record holding car is louder than this, but it plays only from 50 Hz to 60 Hz, which isn’t even really bass.

Note that the difference in loudness between a cellphone and a car is 20 dB, while the HMMMMMM is 30 dB louder than a high-performing car stereo.  Also note that the frequency range of a piano, with its 88 keys, is about the same as a bookshelf speaker – a bit over 7 octaves.  Surprisingly, the subwoofer portion of the HMMMMMM has a 6 octave bandwidth, but it plays the 6 octaves you’ve never heard before!  The HMMMMMM plays 6 octaves below what your bookshelf speaker or Jambox calls bass. The HMMMMMM has a +/- 6 dB passband extending down to 2 Hz, with the output at 1 Hz being nearly still above the 120 dB “threshold of pain.”

Disclaimers: For safety, the big 2000 Watt amplifier that drives the HMMMMMM to its full potential is not available when the author is not present.  Ironically, the author has taught 75-100 people, the eager early HMMMMMM listeners, how to properly insert earplugs, meaning that the HMMMMMM is actually a learning tool for hearing safety! Finally, the author has some hesitancy in having the HMMMMMM reproduce recordings with 5 Hz content at 140 dB, because typical hearing protection has little effect at these unnaturally low frequencies.

PS:  Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you’d like to help with the video scripting, filming or editing.