If, like me, you grew up watching Charlie Brown cartoons on TV, then you may have also got your very first taste of classical music from the virtuoso hands of a certain blond-haired, Beethoven-obsessed kid hunched awkwardly over a toy piano. Though said toy piano has often been played far beyond its limited range, imagine the kind of sonic wonders Schroeder could perform if he sat down in front of Liam Lacey's Vintage Toy Synthesizer.
Software developer and freelance maker Lacey is admittedly as obsessed with toy pianos as Schroeder is with Ludwig van B. He's been reshaping, tinkering with and otherwise digitally-enhancing acoustic toy pianos for a few years, and last year turned one into a basic MIDI controller for MIDI Hack 2015. His latest project, the Vintage Toy Synthesizer, was created for the Music Tech Challenge organized by the element14 electronics community.
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At the heart of the two-voice polyphonic synthesizer in acoustic piano clothing is a BeagleBone Black Linux-based computer running a voice engine developed using an open-source C++ audio synthesis library. Lacey also created his own pressure sensors for the keyboard mechanism. The piano has 18 keys (the black keys you can see in the photos are not real, they're painted on for effect), with players able to alter scales using the knobs on top of the mini grand piano's lid.
Other knobs are used to tweak dedicated waveform oscillators, various filters and onboard distortion effects, and there's even controls to generate the kinds of sounds produced by old or broken analog synths. The mains-powered Vintage Toy Synthesizer can also be used as a MIDI controller to send velocity-sensitive messages and polyphonic aftertouch to music creation software such as Ableton Live, and Lacey has developed OS X patch management software to use when connected to a computer.
Sonic scientists thinking of building their own Vintage Toy Synth will no doubt be pleased to learn that Lacey's build is completely open-source. The video below describes the project in more detail.