Whittled Down Caravan in Popular Science Magazine

February 8, 2013


The canvas covered caravan my partner and I built as an experiment in affordable portable housing was recently featured in Popular Science Magazine. They did a really nice job documenting and photographing the project. We made the design ourselves and used a lot of salvaged materials. You can check out the article here:

You Built What?!: A Home for the Long Haul

and watch the video!

A Couple’s DIY Covered Wagon


Early December

December 5, 2012

Between The Forest and Frozen Lake to La Belle Dam Sans Merci

April 18, 2012

One of my photographs was featured in a music video for the up and coming electric classical guitar group Duo Orfeo. The super high resolution panorama was stitched together from several shots taken with a long focal length lens. I assembled the blizzardous scene using Hugin – an open source project worth checking out.

I discovered that due to the limited size and resolution of computer screens a “Ken Burns” view of the image is actually an ideal medium for appreciating these large images. I hope one day to have the resources to print this and several other composites I’ve been working on, but in the mean time this might be the best way to share these projects.

Cigar Box Ukulele

April 8, 2012

This is a ukulele I made out of a cigar box. I used friction peg tuners for an extra thrifty project. They are often called for in depression era cigar box ukulele plans so I thought I’d give them a shot. They are a bit challenging to use though, I will admit. I also chose to install only the first six frets, since anything past there seems silly on such a small instrument. I think if I made another one I’d put on one more fret, so you can get a 5th from the nut, but no more. It’s loads of fun to play, especially in the car, which you cannot do with a guitar. Here’s a video of it in action, with a low G string, which makes it play more like a guitar.

In a Landscape

February 28, 2012

In a Landscape, originally uploaded by Tristan Chambers.

Camera Obscura

December 28, 2011

I made a camera obscura as a gift this holiday season. While I was researching the principles behind the contraption I was drawn in by its simplicity and peculiar hybrid relationship with photography and fine art. Think of it as a camera, but instead of film or a digital sensor recording the image, you the artist with your pencil record it on a piece of trace-paper. I’m tempted to put it under the heading of “alternative photographic processes”, especially with all the recent interest in nonlinear tone mapping algorithms in photography, some of which are even based on brain neurology and old painting techniques. It’s also a good use for that weird beautifully patinad box you found at a junk sale.


Vodka Box Fiddle Demo

December 28, 2011

As promised, here’s a video of my home made fiddle in action played by a fellow musician at a party.

You can read more about it in my post Vodka Box Fiddle.

555 LCO & JavaScript Get Freaky Now

December 13, 2011

Perhaps the cheapest and easiest baseline synthesizer ever – made from a light controlled oscillator driven by the brightness of a laptop screen. A sequencer written in JavaScript varies the brightness of the patch, controlling the pitch of the synthesizer. Though it’s not included here the light controlled resonant filter I built in previous post could be added to this circuit – for next time! At a decimal fraction of the cost of a x0xb0x or TB-303, this open source hack could put transistorized bassline goodness in the hands of anyone with a hand-full of Radioshack parts.

The script varies the brightness of a patch on the computer screen, stepping through the values of the sliders. The sequencer has eight steps, and a tempo control. The patch of the screen is pointing at the CDS cell (light controlled resistor) which is shrouded by a piece of black heat-shrink tubing. You can play with a copy of the sequencer code here http://tristandabbles.com/SliderTraverse.html. WARNING at present it only works on Chrome and other web-kit browsers. Full screen (F11) to see the light patches. It’s JavaScript so you can hack as you please. I’ve done a bit to spruce it up. I added a second light patch to control a filter. It pulses with a simple decaying envelope every beat, which gives it that classic TB-303 sound. There are other features one could add to the sequencer, like buttons for accent or tying notes, LFOs etc.

I built the saw-tooth oscillator out of a 555. It can be done, contrary to what I said in a previous post. The trick is to supply a regulated current to the timing capacitor, which creates a linear ramp. This is done simply with a single transistor configured as a current source. Unfortunately you also have to isolate the output with a high impedance buffer. For the experiment I used a little Radioshack amplified speaker, shown in the video, which seems to have a very high input impedance as it didn’t effect the frequency of the oscillator at all. For a stand alone design an op-amp buffer stage would be required. So it’s a toss up as to whether this design is any simpler than the one I posted earlier which uses two op amps and a JFET.

Vodka Box Fiddle

October 4, 2011

I made a three string fiddle out of an old vodka bottle box. It sounds great – like a fiddle, and it’s loads of fun to play. I’m getting pretty good at chopping along to country and dance tunes. Everyone makes playing one out to be so hard.

For this project I challenged myself to resist the urge to buy parts. I could have used more appropriate tuners, but I didn’t. I could have bought a tailpiece but I used some scrap metal instead. It forced me to rethink my approach I think for the better. I’m really pleased with the final result. I carved the finger board myself from a piece of mahogany. It wasn’t too hard, though I can say it sounds fine when bowing when plucking however there are certain notes that buzz a little. I used a sound post but I did not install a bass bar. Maybe I’ll try a bass bar next time for reference. The bow is literally a bow as in the medieval style. It is made with fishing line. It works well for me but I’ve never had the luxury of a quality bow so I wouldn’t know the difference.

The box I used turned out to be very good acoustically. It’s made of solid straight grain soft wood of some kind. I used a set of tuners from a broken classical guitar rescued from a dumpster. The neck is a piece of mahogany rescued from a dumpster behind a furniture shop (where I get all my wood). The tail piece is cut from an olive oil can rescued from the trash behind a french restaurant in town (they throw a lot of them away). The bridge is carved from a thin piece of oak. The nut from a piece of maple. I closed the back up with a thin piece of oak. I finished the whole thing with raw linseed oil. I found this to be a great option for a simple and attractive no fuss finish. It also allows the wood to darken naturally which I like.


The Steiner Resonant Filter & A New Adaptation

June 15, 2011

I recently stumbled upon a document from the annals of 70s electronic music enthusiasm dedicated to the Steiner Filter. It’s a three mode (LP, HP, BP) resonant filter designed by the creators of the Synthacon, an obscure model of subtractive style synthesizer out of Utah USA that never went into large scale production. The synth itself never made a name for itself, and could have been lost to the tides of time and never to be spoken of again, if… it weren’t for its filter design, which due to its simplicity and unique sound has been floating around the DIY synth and guitar effects forums for quite some time. Here is the PDF N-Steiner VCF 1974.
The design is built around standard off the shelf parts – no special matched transistors are called for, or temperature compensated or precision resistors, or fancy transconductive op-amps from limited and deceased runs. And what’s more, the great simplicity and practical efficiency of the circuit in no way hinders it from producing some of the richest and most interesting tambers I’ve ever heard out of a VCF. This is I believe due in part to the influence on the Q or feedback of the circuit by the frequency control. That paired with a general unwieldy tendency to snap into oscillation makes it pretty grungy and slightly unpredictable – it’s almost instrument unto itself.
The Steiner filter is a perfect fit for my bigger over-arching project outlined here, which calls for simple designs using a minimum of components that are redly available off the shelf, and that highlight and carefully cultivate nonlinearities and manifold interactions, producing richer more interesting sounds, rather than compensating for and attenuating them into submission producing an auditory expression of perfected boring domestic sterility. But I digress…
I was especially interested in the concept circuit in the first part of the paper, because it is even simpler than the full fledged voltage controlled circuit. I fleshed it out in a circuit simulator to see how it worked, and it worked great. Here it is with a sawtooth signal going into the low-pass input. Note the ringing caused by a high Q.

And here it is with the sawtooth signal going into the high-pass input.

And here it is in oscillation with the Q set just at the point before it would start clipping as the signal maxed out at VCC.

I built the concept circuit presented in the first part of the paper, but modify it for light control so it could go with the light controlled saw tooth oscillator I still had kicking around from last time. Though the two variable resistors will change to vary the cutoff frequency of the filter they must be the same value. Whereas Moog or Steiner put a bunch of reversed biased transistors or diodes in place of the two resistors to make it voltage controlled, instead to make it light controlled, I replaced the resistors with a pair of CDS cells. The filter is then controlled with the shadow of the hand covering both CDS cells. If they are covered unequally interesting things happen. If R1 is covered mored than R2 the Q is increased. If R2 is covered more than R1 the Q is decreased. Here is the final schematic:

I added one more modification to the circuit consisting of two diodes set up in a clipping arrangement, which squelches the feedback when it reaches a certain magnitude (-+7V to be precise, luckily just a little within the bounds of the normal magnitude of the feedback signal) preventing the volume from increasing dramatically when the filter slips into oscillation. A side effect of this method of squelching is a rich harmonic distortion which sounds, well… awesome. The filter now also recovers from oscillation more quickly, making it more useful for playing “music.” Here it is shown in simulation:

The final result sounds pretty much like classic analogue synthesizer (for $10 in parts!). It sounds pretty great! Take a listen.

During performance the light controlled synthesizer exceeded all expectations. It turned out to be a powerful instrument suitable for beautiful music making. Please listen to this improvisation featuring the light controlled synthesizer accompanying an electric harmonium and electric guitar. The filter really starts coming in at around 2 minutes.

And if for some reason you can’t get enough, here’s another cut:

I think my next project will be to build an exponential converter which will make playing the light controlled synth a little easier.