MusicMakers016: Dean Miller

MusicMakers is an interview series from Adafruit that explores the intersection of the DIY music and maker communities. We’ll be talking to some of our favorite musicians about art, tech, DIY, gear tips and more. Along the way we hope you’ll find some great new music as well as some ideas and inspiration for your own projects.

Photo courtesy of Dean Miller

With this edition, we’ll begin to explore different perspectives on music and sound, and set out on a journey through the expansive world of instrument and equipment making.

First up is the inimitable Dean Miller; an inspired maker of music and gear, and an absolute force of nature here at Adafruit. His handiwork can be found in our products, our custom PLM tools, and a litany of other places, but today we’ll take a trip to a corner of the Dean Miller multiverse that is of particular interest to us on the music team.

We’ve collected a few of his current projects here, but keep an eye out for more on the blog in the future!

Where are you based?
Brooklyn, NY

What was your introduction to music?
I started playing guitar when I was 13 years old and started some bands with my brother and hometown friends.

What was your introduction to making musical equipment/gear/instruments?
When I was 21 years old I had a few ideas for guitar-related projects and for some reason I got it in my head that I would try to build one of them. I did a little research and found out about a thing called ‘Arduino’ so I bought one, learned how to code, and converted an old guitar into a midi controller with ribbon potentiometer strings.

What impact has new technology had on your work since you first started out?
I took a music tech elective in high school shortly after I started out with music and took a liking to it. We used old windows based DAWs but I thought they were cool at the time because I could record strings and other instruments I didn’t even know how to play just by clicking around. As the school got newer programs like Apple Logic I found I could make better sounding music.

What have you been working on recently?
Recently I’ve been doing a lot of DSP (digital signal processor) work. I found a great opportunity to learn about the lowest levels of compilers, debuggers, and DSP hardware by adapting an old unsupported Analog Devices GNU toolchain to their newer chips and figuring out how to build a debugger for it. That way I can use these powerful chips for DIY projects without having to pay the non-hobbyist friendly $1k licence fee for their current proprietary closed-source tools. I’ve used this chip to build a cool FM synthesis and audio effects engine and hope to do a lot more with it.

Describe your production process:
Production usually starts with scoping out available components and tools able to accomplish what I want to do for the lowest price. Once I’ve found components that seem to be acceptable I’ll design the prototype hardware around them. Once everything has arrived I’ll build and (hopefully) bring up the board. This can take a while, sometimes I need to work things around under the microscope to fix things I overlooked in initial design, but usually it comes up. Then I get to play around with software and eventually enjoy the new creation!

Any tips for gear or customising your workspace?
I’ve recently been loving the Digilent Analog Discovery. It’s got a bunch of tools all in one place including a network analyzer that lets you test your circuits frequency response, making filter design a lot of fun. It’s also got 2 signal generators and 2 oscilloscope channels that are adequate for audio-range work.

What is a good first project for anyone interested in making their own musical equipment/gear/instruments?
I would definitely recommend a midi controller. You get to learn about the basics of programming, microcontrollers, and how digital devices communicate with each other and at the end you get a lot of bang for your buck! The quality and availability of midi-enabled devices and software plugins you can use with your new device nowadays is tremendous.

Who should we talk to next?
See if you can talk to Olivier Gillet from Mutable Instruments. He makes lots of great stuff.

You can follow Dean Miller on YouTube and GitHub to keep up with his videos and projects.

Photo courtesy of Dean Miller

You can find more music Adafruit is loving right now in our ongoing MusicMakers (feat. Frankie Cosmos, Jeffrey LewisBedbug, Cloud and more) and TrackTalk features (with Trust Fund, Haiku Salut and Shay Spence). Plus, our TasteMakers feature includes Q&As great bloggers and podcasters like with The Grey Estates, Various Small Flames and Stories About Music.

You can also follow Adafruit on Soundcloud and Hype Machine.

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