Program your own synthesiser modules
We are proud to present Patchblocks, a modular synthesiser and signal processing system where you decide what the hardware does. You want a filter module? Turn your Patchblock into one! You want a crazy sounding bassline synth with built-in arppegiator? Make it so! We provide you with an empty canvas, your imagination fills it. Visit us on:
How does it work?
All you need is a Patchblock, a Mac or Windows PC and our free software. The software allows you to program your hardware module the way you want. This is done in a so called “visual programming language”, in other words, you don't have to go into 100% geek mode and write code to make it happen. Visual programming is easy, you choose from a variety of low level sound processing elements and combine their functions by connecting them with virtual cables – a bit like a modular synthesiser, but in software. Your library of software modules includes signal generators and processors (e.g. oscillators, filters, delays etc.), signal routing options and even modules for algorithmic composition. Our editor lets you emulate how your patch will sound and once you’re happy with it you can upload it to your Patchblock hardware simply by connecting it via USB. Once programmed you can unplug the Patchblock and jam away.
What can I do with them?
A lot, it's really up to you. Plug some of your other gear in and use them as a sound processor if you want. Make an awesome noise box that produces pure digital filth. Let them play a concerto of chaos based algorithmic sequences. But also don't forget to think outside the box! Because you can combine several Patchblocks, you can make them work together. One Patchblock could for example generate an LFO (Low Frequency Oscillator) that you plug into another block to modulate processes that happen in there. Or you can create a chain of audio effects and processes. You can do this analogue style, by connecting them with audio cables, or via a digital connection, by clicking the Patchblocks together directly. Or even both!
These examples have been produced with a single Patchblock:
This is an old-school Yamaha kids keyboard plugged into a Patchblock:
This is a little jam with two Patchblocks clicked together, nothing else:
( you can also listen to Patchblocks demos on SoundCloud )
- stereo audio input
- stereo audio output
- 2 channel digital input
- 2 channel digital output
- 2 assignable knobs
- 2 assignable illuminated buttons
- tough 5mm machined acrylic enclosure panels
- USB chargeable LiPo battery
- 10bit / 20K sampling rate audio - it sounds fatter than you expect!
Pick your colour
Patchblocks come in 4 different colours. You can choose between:
- White enclosure, white PCB, blue LEDs
- Pink enclosure, white PCB, blue LEDs
- Black enclosure, black PCB, red LEDs
- Yellow enclosure, black PCB, red LEDs
Share your patches online
Be a creator, not a consumer! Become part in our community. You can upload your patches to our website www.patchblocks.com. Other users will be able to download, rate, and discuss your work. Patches can be opened and edited in the software, so that everyone can see how they were built, and develop them further.
Our website also offers a forums section where you can connect with other users, get help, and get involved with ongoing development.
Dig into the nitty gritty
If you are a coder, great! All low level DSP blocks of the editor library are based on simple XML files that contain a section with C-code. If you want to, you can even code your own low level DSP effects. Excited? So are we! We need people like you to expand our library. Share your blocks on our website, and if we like them, they will be part of the next release.
What do you get?
You get a nice little box with a Patchblock, a mini-USB cable and a stereo mini-jack audio cable.
What do we need the money for?
So far the project was funded by an Arts Council programme here in Belfast. This funding allowed us to develop the hardware to its current state and produce a small prototype series. This means we already have a supply chain established and tested. Now we would like to go into production, but don't have the funds for it. In order to keep component costs down we would have to place a larger order in the region of 1000 units. Throughout the development our goal was to keep Patchblocks affordable. Therefore we have to build lots, so that you can get them cheap.
What is the project plan?
If we are successful, we will order components for 1000 units right away. We will ask our PCBA supplier to assemble 200 boards first. Once we receive those, we test the quality and give the OK for assembling the remaining boards. That means if you pledge for £35, you can get one in January. The remaining units will be shipped out from February on. This approach allows us to go through an additional phase of quality control, and if necessary, make design changes or inform our supplier of problems.
For those who pledge for £40, great! You are going to be a driving force in the development, because you will be able to play with Patchblocks before anyone else. Request features in the forums, upload patches and maybe DSP blocks. You can support us with more than just money.
Who is behind Patchblocks?
This project grew out of my (Sebastian Heinz) PhD research at the Sonic Arts Research Centre in Belfast. I was trying to find a way to combine the flexibility of software with the tangibility and collaborative aspects of hardware. I am originally from Stuttgart, Germany, where I worked mainly on software and database projects for print publishers. However, I wanted to focus more on creative technology. This challenge made me quit my job, get an MA in Design for Interactive Media and eventually brought me here to Belfast as a PhD student. I was lucky to get some Arts Council funding here in Northern Ireland to turn the Patchblocks idea into a commercial product.
The evolution of Patchblocks
I started to work on the project about 4 years ago, with only little experience in electronics, PCB design, embedded micro-controller technology, and desktop application development in C++. But I had a good understanding and vision of the interaction experience I was aiming for - some cross-breed between MAX/MSP, Arduino, Moog, and Lego. I had to learn that hardware development is a slow and tedious process due to long iteration cycles and difficult debugging. Particularly the audio input implementation took various iterations, in order to reduce noise levels. Once I received some funding support, I was hoping to be able to afford a proper injection moulded enclosure design. Unfortunately, the tool-manufacturing cost was still outside my budget. This might have turned out to the better though, as the 5mm machined acrylic panels give Patchblocks a tough, yet elegant techno-look, and a nicer and heavier feel than a cheap plastic enclosure. The Patchblocks hardware was ready in March this year, but lead-time delays of some components of the prototype series (due to an earthquake in Taiwan), intellectual property negotiations with my University, and eventually the determination of patentability delayed the launch until now. Patchblocks is currently being beta-tested by local electronic musicians, including Boxcutter. Have a look at the various stages of the hardware evolution.
Risks and challenges
We split the production into two parts. The first small series is to determine the quality of our supplier. Should there be quality issues with the first series, this might delay the production of the second. So, if you pledge for £30, there is the risk that there is a further delay. For the same reason we also offer only 160 units of the first series for January, despite ordering 200, so that we allow for 40 boards that would not meet our quality standards.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
Yes, we are currently developing a Midi-input and a Midi-output block.
Not out of the box, but there are ways to hack this. The analogue input and outputs are DC coupled, so you can send and receive a constant voltage signal. However, the voltage range is -1/+1V. A simple level shifting and amplifyng circuit could bring that into the right range. Another hack would be sending a constant -1V on one output channel, which is connected to ground on the CV device, the other channel gives you then a 0/2V range.
Its only Mac and PC so far. You might get it to run on Wine, but I haven't tested that. The software is written in Qt.
Yes you can. Simply read the audio-input and use 0 to positive transitions as trigger. So, for example read an impulse train sound that comes out of your soundcard (or some other gear) to sync Patchblocks to it. This should also work with CV-triggers, but haven't tested that yet. You can also trigger envelopes in the Patchblocks if it receives a sound on the input. (Just did that with the volume *blip blip* sound of my mac by pressing the volume keys).
Only minor changes. Two status LEDs instead of one. (one for the charger, one for on/off indication). Possibly 4 layer board, for better input shielding. That's about it. The units of the prototype series will be compatible with the ones of the series production.
Yes, it's just a template text file in a folder, with a placeholder for the dynamically generated DSP code. You can hack it, or simply replace it with a new version.
Yes, just turn them on, then plug them into a USB power supply charger / PC port. The battery will constantly stay charged. This should also work with no battery connected at all. That way you can use them for a sound installation etc. and let them run forever.
There will be a survey sent around to all backers after the Kickstarter finishes. You can choose your colour there.
Not directly, you probably need to amplify it. Simply grab a cheap headphone guitar amp off ebay (around 8 quid) and it works fine. Play some bitcrush guitar!
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