Simple synth DIY/Getting started is a pragmatic guide to building your own weird sound machines without any electronics experience. This is not beyond the realm of possibility and it can be done for cheap. There are a lot of different ways to get started in synth DIY, everybody is unique and your mileage may vary.
It can take multiple attempts over the course of a few days to breadboard your first working circuit. When you finally hear the harsh droning of a square wave, it is the sweetest sound. Each time you fail, you get a little better. If you get discouraged, take a break. Remember to breathe. The most important things you'll need to get started in synth DIY are:
- A desire to make things that make sound.
- Plenty of patience.
- A willingness to fail.
You'll need a few things to get started. Here is the minimum:
- A breadboard.
- A multimeter.
- Small side cutters and needle nosed pliers.
- Various screwdrivers.
- Soldering iron (make sure it is for electronics, not for plumbing).
- Solder (also make sure this is for electronics). The thinner the diameter the better.
- Wire, stranded is more flexible and less likely to break, single core is easier to bend to shape.
- Passive components - resistors, capacitors, potentiometers, etc.
- Active components like diodes, transistors, and various ICs (integrated circuits).
- LEDs are especially helpful when you're starting out.
- Alligator clips for connecting things together.
- A power source - e.g. a 9V battery.
- Active computer speakers.
Some things that will make life easier:
- One of those "helping hand" tools that has alligator clips to hold things in place while you solder.
- A soldering iron stand - anything that can safely hold your hot soldering iron and keep it from falling or burning anything.
- A well lit work-space where you can leave your work in progress and it won't be disturbed.
- Ventilation to remove solder flux fumes.
- Other various tools, e.g. for making panels a saw and drill.
- Anti-static wrist strap and earth connection point (via a 1M5 resistor).
It's good to have plenty of passive components like resistors and capacitors, they are very cheap, and the more you buy the more the savings. Useful components to have a stock of:
- 1k, 100k, and 1M resistors (1/8 watt).
- 0.01uF, 0.1uF, 2.2uF, 10uF, 100uF capacitors.
- 40106, 4046, 4069, 4017, 4040, 4015 logic ICs.
- 100k and 1M linear potentiometers.
- 1N4148 diodes.
- BC547 transistors.
Careful purchasing components
- Be sure to buy 1/4 or 1/8 watt resistors, otherwise you might end up resistors too large.
- Make sure that nothing you buy says SMD or surface mount or anything like that. There are two main type of components surface mount (super super tiny) and through hole (manageable). Starting out, you definitely want through hole.
There are a few skills you'll need to acquire before you can build your monster synthesizer.
First, learn about the basic passive components and a very general idea of what they do. A full understanding of the physics involved is definitely not necessary. Even if you just learn their names and schematic symbols, that should be enough for now.
Then learn how to read a schematic. A schematic is basically a map of where the electricity flows, and isn't that different from reading a subway or railroad map. If you can read a schematic, technically, you can build anything for which you have a one. Of course reading a schematic and figuring out how to place the components and soldering them successfully is another matter.
Using a breadboard takes some practice, but don't worry: you'll get the hang of it.
What to build?
There are plenty of cool circuits out there on the internet, and you'll be ready to tackle all of them in no time. For starters, though, try something simple like a 40106 IC square wave oscillator. The Logic Noise series has a great write-up about using this IC. There's a lot of technical information in that article, but to make a square wave oscillator, you'll just need:
- 1 100k potentiometer
- 1 0.1uf capacitor
- 1 40106 integrated circuit
- 1 9V battery
- Some kind of speaker
- Getting Started in Synth DIY: First Steps by Chris Beckstrom, 15 November 2019, with permission of the author.
- Getting Started in Electronics by Forrest M. Mims III, Book Renter Inc, 2000, ISBN 0945053282
- Tayda Electronics have plenty of the basic stuff for making synths and not so many choices that it’s overwhelming. Their shipping costs are reasonable too.
- Logic Noise: Sweet, Sweet Oscillator Sounds by Elliot Williams, Hackaday, 4 February 2015 - for the 40106 IC square wave oscillator
- The Modular, Chris Beckstrom's blog, 1 January 2020
- Chris Beckstrom's Live modular techno on homemade synthesizer 1/2/18, YouTube