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The brain therapy of making things: Synthesizer Kits

Pete Brown - 23 May 2012

I like to make things. Scott and I talked about it on a recent podcast. When I was much younger, I used to build model kits (airplanes, tanks, etc.). Later, when living on my own, I built a lot of LEGO kits as well as model railroad stuff. I've played with CNC, and have plans for a 3d printer. Building physical items lets your mind exercise something slightly different from what you use when you code. The added benefit of having an actual device in-hand at the end is huge.

One thing I really like these days is building electronic kits. I don't like any old electronic kit: the commercial LED blinkers and amps don't hold my interest for long. However, synthesizer kits really do. I've built a number of small synthesizer kits over the past year or two, and thought I might mention them here.

There are lots of "building block" PCBs you can get out there, as well as general noisemaker things like the Atari Punk Console and cool items from places like Synthrotek, but I'm going to focus this post just on kits that I think anyone who can solder can build and then make music with. Let's start with fun little tabletop synthesizers.

Tabletop Synthesizer Kits I've found

I prefer rackmount kits because they take up less desk space, but most DIY synthesizers are of the tabletop variety. Tabletop kits are more accessible to most folks, and easier to sit on top of a keyboard controller or other synthesizer at your home. You could, of course, build your own racks to house them, but I prefer to build them as designed, in their own little cases. Here are a few that I've run across or personally built. Most of them are Open Source Hardware, which is truly awesome.

Meeblip SE and Meeblip Micro (Open Source)




The Meeblip is a truly great little synthesizer. It's offered in two main versions: the desktop version with many knobs (yes, I have both), and a micro version which is quite a bit cheaper than anything else out there, and which is meant to be controlled via MIDI. The micro is what Andrew Duthie used in his Meeblipiator.

Of all the synthesizers, this is one of the easiest to assemble, and the simplest to use. There's no real memory (just a recall on the main SE), and you can choose just how much you want to assemble. It has a sometimes raw, sometimes fat, always fun and sometimes even lo-fi sound. You can hear some sequences here.

As a first kit, I can't recommend the Meeblip enough. Unless you're comfortable with MIDI controller messages, get the SE.

Shruthi-1 (and options) (Open Source)


Another really fun synthesizer is the Shruthi-1. This isn't a single synth, but rather a collection of main boards and filter options. There are some pre-identified kits with everything you need (minus some resistors and capacitors you'll need to order using their bill of materials), and some others which are just different filter boards you can swap in to work with the main board. It's very customizable. I recently ordered (and received) the 4-pole mission kit as well as the Polivoks PCB pair and an enclosure. That'll make it possible for me to build two different Shruthi-1s. The 4-pole kit will be easier because it contains the harder to obtain parts, and the Polivoks will be a good follow-on. They have an amazing number of different filter boards, but be sure to read the information on each one before ordering: some rely on out-of-production or very hard to find parts.

The Shruthi-1 sounds great. Listen to the sounds to see if it's what you're looking for. Remember that each filter sounds distinctly different.

Hackme Rockit (Open Source)


I recently purchased the case and PCB for one of these. I already had many of the parts, and have some of the remaining ones on order. This is another neat little AVR-based hybrid analog/digital synthesizer. Unless you already have a huge collection of some oddball values for resistors and whatnot, it'll be cheaper for you to just purchase the full kit with all parts. I decied on the larger Rockit, but they also have a smaller and less expensive (but also enjoyable, from what I see) Sprockit Synth.

This little guy sounds great, with a little bit of 8bit goodness mixed in with some classic analog. I love it. Speaking of 8bit goodness, you'll really love the next one.

SammichSID and MIDIBox SID (Open, with some restrictions)


image image

I have two SammichSID units. One is built (white/frost), the other (a black and green one from a second run) is in a box waiting for me to build it. These awesome little synthesizers each use two MOS SID chips from the Commodore 64 and Commodore 128 computers. The sound is awesome.

The SammichSID kits may no longer be available, but the larger MIDIBox kits, which can hold more than two SID chips, should still be available. Although not exactly Open Source Hardware, the specifications and source code are all available, and you can build them yourself. You can't do anything commercial, however. The sound of eight SID chips running is pretty epic, though.

MIDIbox isn't limited to SID synthesizers - they have sequencers, mixers, FM synths and much more. It's a big DIY community with great support.




The PAIA FatMan is another nice little synthesizer, specifically optimized for bass sounds in this case. This one can be built either in tabletop for or rack-mount form, depending upon which body you purchase for it. I don't have one of these yet, but it's on my list. You'll find lots of mods on the web by people who have come up with ways to add new and interesting features to this guy.

The Oakley TM3030


This is a midified Roland TB-303 clone which doesn't include a case or front panel or case. You can design a front panel using Front Panel Express or your own CNC rig if you have one, or even just with sheet stock and a step drill. I have one of these boards in my "to be built" cabinet.


There are lots of other cool synthesizer kits out there. x0xb0x, the Monowave, the AVRSynth and ASM-2 and ASM-3 synthesizers, vacoloco (but they're always out of stock) and many many more. Most of them aren't really "kits", however. They're still very cool. In fact, if the ASM-3 ever gets created (more of a semi modular synth) I'll be all over it. Unfortunately, it's been "coming soon" for years now.

This thread has a number of interesting ones, mostly commercial, but some kits and open source as well.

Another area of synthesizer development, one which has a DIY community far older than the MIDI synth module community, is in modular and semi-modular synthesizers.

Modular and Semi-Modular Synthesizers

If you want to go hardcore, you can get into building modular and semi-modular synths. These are generally not MIDI-compatible, meaning they use the older standards of control voltages (CV) for gate and pitch (and other) values. You can purchase a MIDI to CV converter for a couple hundred bucks, but it's an added expense. You can also build a CV keyboard or other controller device. Like I said, more hardcore :)

Instead of using pre-set routing on the PCB or in microcontroller firmware, modular synthesizers use patch cables to route sound from one component to the next. You can add modules to the chain as much as you'd like, giving you almost infinite sound possibilities. Most of the classic synthesizer gurus like Isao Tomita, Vangelis, and Jean Michel Jarre made good use of modular and semi-modular synthesizers. You'll even find Deadmau5 tinkering with them.

Ray Wilson's Music From Outer Space

One of my favorite places to start is MFOS or Music From Outer Space. Ray's kits aren't for beginners, but there are a couple on there that come close, given that they include all the parts you may need to get started. Most of his kits require you to source all the components from Mouser or Digikey or similar, but the Weird Sound Generator (not a musical synth) is available as a complete component kit. On the more musical (and slightly more expensive side) his Sound Lab Mini Synth is also available as a complete kit with components. In both cases, you'll need to build a wooden case or find something else to house it.

I'm personally building a large synth which includes a Sound Lab Ultimate, an Ultimate Expander, and a Sound Lab Mini-Synth MARK II. Here are a couple photos:

Here's one that Todd Fletcher built. He used two expanders and one ultimate, so the configuration is a little different from what I'll have.


And here's my own work in progress for one of the three modules that will be in my case:

image image

You can find all my MFOS build posts using this tag.



The Paia 9700 is a really need series of modules. They're FracRak (Fractional Rack) format small modules with decent sound and a really affordable price. The 9700s is the full kit shown here, but PAIA sells a number of individual modules as well.



Most Doepfer modules aren't kits. However, they do offer a DIY analog synthesizer core which you can use in your own synthesizer creations. You don't need to do any building of the board itself, just wiring to a lot of controls, patch bays, etc. Just look at this lovely synthesizer made with the synth cores, and a lot of hard work.


Doepfer has a number of other DIY parts for building your own devices. They sell many different DIN and USB MIDI interfaces, keybeds, controllers, and more. In the US, you can find most of their things at Analog Haven.

Oakley Modular


Oakley has a ton of different modules available primarily in PCB form. According to their site:

An example of a small but powerful Oakley modular system built into a 6U high 19" rack using natural finish Scheaffer panels. The system comprises of SVCO-B, VCO, VC-LFO, Multimix (x2), Transistor Superladder VCF, D-VCA, VRG and ADSR/VCA. The 19" wide module underneath the 5U high modules is a midiDAC rack.

Many Many Others

One of the best places to learn about new DIY kits is at electro-music.com, that's where you can also talk with others who have built kits, get support, and more. They even have a store which has a limited number of boards and other parts.

Hacking Commercial Synthesizers

There are also lots of commercial synthesizers that can be hacked and modified. Just about anything can be modified, but some were designed with that in mind. Here are a couple.

The NTH Open Source Hardware Music Synthesizer


This one isn't a kit, but it's Open Source Hardware. I didn't get in on this when it was on Kickstarter, but really hope it comes up for regular commercial purchases in kit form. Of course, it's open hardware, so there's nothing stopping me or anyone else from having a PCB made. Note that it is hackable and even includes prototyping areas on the board.

Korg Monotron, Monotron Delay, and Monotron Duo

I have a Duo and a Delay. They're fun little devices, but for your money ($50 each), you can do better with one of the other alternatives on this list. However, they are true 100% analog synthesizers, designed in such a way as to allow you to hack them with additional controls, and even MIDI.

Here are a few photos of my Monotron Delay hacked open. Click to enlarge.

image image image

The larger (and more expensive) Korg Monotribe is also somewhat hackable, mainly to add in MIDI support.

Go build something

A few evenings with a soldering iron and then you have a real musical instrument you can play or just mess around with. It's fun to build, and even more satisfying to use something you built with your own hands.

I'm always on the lookout for new kits. If you know of some that I haven't mentioned here, please let me know!

posted by Pete Brown on Wednesday, May 23, 2012
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