Artists and Hackers

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April 4th, 2022

Ep. 12 - Art Tools: Winterbloom's Open Source Synthesizer Modules

Summary

Transcript

In this Art Tools episode we interview Thea Flowers of Winterbloom, an open source music hardware company producing hackable music modules and kits for synthesizers. And we try out the Big Honking Button.

Tags:

Tools
Hardware Hacking

Art Tools are our series of mini episodes with the creators of innovative and experimental software and hardware tools for creative expression.

Our guest today is Thea Flowers of Winterbloom. Winterbloom produces new, open source modular synth hardware modules for making music. These are devices that can do things like make far-out space synth sounds, act as a mixer, or an audio sampler. The world of synthesizers has a huge number of companies. Thea’s Winterbloom stands out for its beautiful designs, but perhaps even more notably, its commitment to creating beginner-friendly tutorials and using a hackable CircuitPython codebase, a friendly language for easily writing software for hardware projects.

In research for this episode we purchased a Big Honking Button, one of the first modules produced by Winterbloom. It is available as a kit of parts or complete. You plug it into a Eurorack modular synthesizer to make sounds with it. Eurorack is the name for an ecosystem of cross-compatible music hardware produced by hundreds of manufacturers, from large companies like Moog and Behringer to much smaller companies. Winterbloom’s unique open source hackable stance means that it publishes code and instructions on how to modify their hardware in order to tweak the music hardware to your own particular needs.

By default the Big Honking Button features a large arcade button that emits a punishing goose honk each time you press the button. We started by changing this sound. Following Winterbloom’s instructions we plugged our Big Honking Button into a laptop, where it showed up as if it was an external drive. The first step we took was replacing the honk sound file with a bell sound we had. Immediately the module restarted, and when we pressed the Big Honking Button our new sound could be heard. Next we added in more sound samples. We opened the code.py file, and using example code from Winterbloom’s website we modified the code to play a different sound sample depending on receiving different input voltage such as using a slider or a dial. At first, our module didn’t seem to work the way we had expected. We asked some questions on the Winterbloom discord, where friendly folks chatted with us and Thea pointed us in the right direction. We needed to update our Big Honking Button’s libraries to the current release in order to use the latest code features. This was simple, basically copying files over and restarting, and in short order our modified code and sound samples on the Big Honking Button were producing both cacophonous and blissed-out drones to our delight.

This experience of in essence changing the very nature of how the hardware works felt really incredible and unique. Doubly so as we started to jam with our customized music hardware. The fact that it’s possible to do this in the simplified Python-based CircuitPython, using easy-to-follow example code made this a straightforward and gratifying experience, and would be accessible even to those with a minimum of programming experience, especially with the helpful online community.


Thea Flowers
Thea Flowers
image description: Avatar illustration of Thea Flowers by Andrea Caprotti. Portrait of an illustrated white woman with blue curtain bangs and shag hair. She is wearing a black shirt and choker. Her eyes are blue under clear glasses and she is wearing small blue dot earrings.

Guests

Thea Flowers is a hardware and software engineer with a broad skillset and deep expertise in developer relations and technical writing. Her mission in life is to empower people of all backgrounds using open source software and hardware. She spends her time running an independent synthesizer company, Winterbloom, and was a Python Foundation 2020 Fellow.

Credits

Our audio production is by Max Ludlow. Episode coordination and web design by Caleb Stone. This episode was supported by Purchase College.

Our music on today’s episode is Lost by Metre, and RELB Eurorack Sesh 6 20 14 tapebounce by Russell Ellington Langston Butler. Original honking sample by Winterbloom.

Winterbloom’s Big Honking Button

Lee Tusman
You’re listening to Artists and Hackers, the podcast dedicated to the communities building and using new digital tools of creation. We talk to programmers, artists, poets, musicians, botmakers, educators, students and designers in an effort to critically look at both online artmaking and the history of technology and the internet. We’re interested in where we’ve been and speculative ideas on the future. I’m your host, Lee Tusman.

Our guest today is Thea Flowers of Winterbloom. Winterbloom produces new, open source modular synth hardware modules for making music. These are devices that can do things like make far-out space synth sounds, act as a mixer, or an audio sampler. The world of synthesizers has a huge number of companies. Thea’s Winterbloom stands out for its beautiful designs, but perhaps even more notably, its commitment to creating beginner-friendly tutorials and using a hackable CircuitPython codebase, a friendly language for easily writing software for hardware projects.

Lee
How did you get into making music hardware?

Thea Flowers
I’ve been tinkering with music stuff for most of my life now. I used to be the person responsible for managing all of our guitars when I was in a band. And I always like to tinker with midi stuff and things like that and then at some point I just decided hey this seems like something I might want to do a little bit more of and kind of kind of like slowly walked up to it and then jumped off the cliff kind of with with music technology.

Lee
And you manufacture eurorack music making hardware. what’s eurorack?

Thea
So eurorak is this niche of a niche. It is a format for modular synthesizers. So most people are familiar with you know a typical synthesizer that is like a big keyboard that makes all noise by itself. A modular synthesizer is a very like strange parallel universe version of that. Basically instead of one monolithic thing you have several distinct modules that you can patch together using audio cables. And these modules can communicate with each other and change the way that the sound is formed and shaped and created and generated and processed. It’s really, really neat.

Lee
And how did you get into eurorack? Were you, did you have a background in making like electronic music and things like that or some other route?

Thea
I was just interested in building some synthesizer stuff basically and I initially started doing eurorack just because it was a way for me to make smaller discrete projects instead of trying to tackle an entire giant monolithic synthesizer by myself. So that’s kind of why I got into modular. It was kind of like okay I can experiment with these little building blocks instead of having to learn all the skills to make a complete synthesizer with thousands of parts.

Lee
And the first module that you started making and then selling I believe was a kit, the Big Honking Button, is that right?

Thea
Yeah, so we did Big Honking Button and Sol at the same time. I’d actually developed Sol first and then on a whim like a month before I released Sol I ended up designing Big Honking Button so Big Honking Button was very much designed in like a week.

Lee
Can you describe how they work I mean I love the name Big Honking Button, like what is that?

Thea
So yeah, like I mentioned with eurorack there’s modules that do a bunch of different specific tasks and for Big Honking Button what it actually is is a sampler. It will play back a sample that you have stored on it. I’ve dressed it up in a very fun package which is it’s an arcade button and by default when you get it out of the box and you plug it into your synthesizer pressing that arcade button will get it to honk at you.

And you can take that that sample that’s being played back and you can patch it through the rest of your synthesizer and process it and do all kinds of interesting stuff with it.

And the intent was always for people to replace that default sample with something else. But I have been incredibly surprised at how many people keep the default one or like have one that keeps the default one and have another one for other things. It’s so funny to me that people love to have a goose honk in their synthesizer.

Lee
From the beginning you’ve been selling these as kind of complete modules that people can buy and to start using but also as kits something that someone with a little bit of soldering experience can pick up and and solder and build it themselves and then make music with it. How did you get into you know, kind of manufacturing and selling kind of kits as opposed to just like a complete product. Why was that important to you?

Thea
I mean it’s it’s important to me that anyone can approach this at whatever level they want because you know there are some people who just want to have the thing and use it. There are other people who want to feel like they’re involved in it somehow, they want to have put it together with their own hands and I want to you know help those people out too. The other thing is that everything we do is open source. So if you don’t want to buy a kit from us you can go and source all the parts yourself and get the PCBs made if you want. I want to support people who are that adventurous as well and the whole point of all of this is education, like the fact that we sell modules is kind of secondary to the fact that I am running an open source company and the entire point is that people should be able to learn from the things that I’ve made.

Lee
That’s that’s so cool. Can you can you say a little about what open source means to you, your understanding of it and how you got into it?

Thea
Yeah, I’ve been involved with open source for most of my life now. I learned how to program because of open source. And I’ve kind of always felt like that it just makes sense to me. I contributed to my first open source project when I was 14. Like, to me open source is basically our engineering commons as software engineers and hardware engineers. It is how we share and store and propagate our knowledge, and it’s empowering in a way that anyone can get to it because traditionally learning about computers or learning about electrical engineering required you to go to a university and that’s not an option for a lot of people, the majority of people actually, so having these resources on the internet, having open source available to let people learn and use and reuse and feel empowered by is extremely important to me.

Lee
On your website you have, I mean you even have a special website just dedicated to sharing code and providing a tutorial, very beginner-friendly tutorials for people that want to modify how your hardware modules work and I notice it’s with CircuitPython and as far as I know maybe the first manufacturer making music hardware that uses CircuitPython. Can you say a little bit about why you chose that and how you got into it?

Thea
Yeah, I’ve been using Python for most of my professional career and I’m obviously a big fan of it. When I was first looking at making modules and getting into hardware, you know, everyone’s played with an Arduino if they’ve dabbled in hardware at all, or Raspberry Pi. But at that same time when I was playing around with things I saw CircuitPython start to become something that was getting a little bit more attention and it just really sounded awesome to me to be able to give someone a module and they could change the code on it without having to install some IDE or some program or some compiler. And that was really compelling to me because with Big Honking Button if you want to change the way that it works you plug it into your computer. It shows up as a flash drive with a code.py file and you can just edit that in any text editor and when you hit save the module reboots and your code is running and that’s kind of a magical experience. So that’s why I picked CircuitPython, it was easy for me to prototype with but then it also just gave a very compelling user experience for these, you know, intentionally open source modules.

Lee
Okay, I’ve got the Winterbloom Big Honking Button plugged into my synthesizer and I’ve also got it plugged into my computer. I’ve just made some changes to the code and I’ve changed the sound sample. So I’ve changed it from a honk. Let’s see what it sounds like now. I’m going to hit the button. And I’ve also made some changes to the code here so that if I send in a different voltage I get a different sound out. Let’s see what that’s like. One second, let’s plug this in. Okay so now I’m plugging it into some of my other modules to randomize things automatically. So let’s see what that sounds like.

Lee
Have you seen like the rise of a community around your modules of people kind of remixing, editing, creating code and sharing? Is that something that you’ve been working on?

Thea
For sure. You know we’re obviously not like a gigantic open source community like Linux or anything but I often tell people that I don’t have customers, I have collaborators. And especially for something like Big Honking Button and Sol, which both run CircuitPython, people have contributed example code for Big Honking Button and Sol. For example, you know, Big Honking Button plays back one sample but you can change the code so that it plays back a random sample and people have like made a code example that does like a burst generator so that when you press the button it plays back several several samples in sequence which is really really cool. People have written stuff for Sol that integrates it with different audio software like Ableton Live and Bitwig studio. So yeah I mean, I see people contributing a lot to this just because they are using this for their use case and because I’ve made this open source they also have a place where they can tell other people about it and make their own stuff open source, right? They’re solving their own problems. But at the same time they’re putting it out there so other people could learn from it and I think that’s really, really awesome.

Lee
For people that are listening and interested but maybe not sure how to get started. Do you have any recommendations of things that people should look into if they were interested in either in your particular hardware or if they’re interested overall in kind of open source music making hardware and software?

Thea
If you’re interested in Eurorack at all a great person to look up is Andrew Huang. He’s a YouTuber. He’s a producer. He has incredible videos that introduce you to Eurorack and all the cool stuff that happens in there. For my particular hardware of course you can just go to my website. Everything is there winterbloom.com. If you’re looking to get into building open source hardware I highly suggest the Adafruit community. Adafruit is an open source hardware company that really does focus on education and they have a very large, very good community of people that are wonderful to just hang out with and talk to and learn from.

Lee
Awesome! Thanks so much for speaking with me, I appreciate it.

Thea
Of course.

Lee
You’ve been listening to Artists and Hackers Art Tools. Our guest today was Thea Flowers speaking about her open source music hardware company Winterbloom, who produces Big Honking Button, and many more open source synthesizer modules. You can find more information on Winterbloom and The Big Honking Button, a transcript of today’s episode, and our past episodes on our website, artistsandhackers.org.

My name is Lee Tusman. Our audio producer is Max Ludlow. Our web design is by Caleb Stone.

Our music in today’s episode is Lost by Metre and the Eurorack Sesh 06 20 14 tapebounce by Russell Ellington Langston Butler.

We’ll be doing many more segments on art tools. If you have any favorite suggestions or comments, you can always reach out to us by emailing hello at artistsandhackers.org, tweet at us @artistshacking, or message us on Instagram at artistsandhackers. If you liked our episode, please let a friend know and please consider leaving us a review on whichever podcast platform you’re listening on. Thanks.

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