Ten-Tec Rebel Ham Radio

I’ve been an active ham radio operator, writing about the hobby for over thirty years and I have seen many advances in technology in that time. The Ten-Tec Rebel low-power amateur radio transceiver is a modern return to the era where hobbyists would routinely modify, change and improve their equipment. But now, in addition to modifying the electronic circuit, the ham hobbyist can further enhance this radio through re-programming the processor.

Generating 5 watts in the 20 and 40 meter CW (Morse Code) ham bands, as shipped, any properly licensed amateur can get on the air immediately by simply connecting an antenna, key, and 10-15 VDC power. As a standalone, low-power (QRP) transceiver, this unit is already a useful tool. But this is only the beginning of the adventure. It is built around the Arduino-compatible ChipKIT Uno 32 processor.

Using the open-source Arduino programming environment, the user can adjust and modify the existing functions of this unit, or go further to add features beyond its basic design. Internally, the transceiver contains direct pin-outs to all connections on the processor board, making it possible to design “shields” to enhance and improve the radio’s performance. Active online groups supporting the Arduino, the ChipKit Uno 32, as well as the Rebel itself are already building a base of user ideas and experiments to take this rig far beyond its basic platform. Many of these resources can be found here.

Electronic hobbyists who want to join the world of amateur radio will find this $199 unit an excellent way to get on the air. Hams who want to experiment with Arduino hardware and software now have a great place to start.

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-- Thomas "Skip" Arey  

TEN-TEC Model 506 Rebel Open Source QRP Transceiver
$199



MP32Tube

I’m always interested in free software and web tools that allow community members to become digital storytellers. If you have the skill to send an email file attachment (by choosing a file on your computer), you have the skill to create a YouTube video — for free — by marrying an image file and an audio file of your choosing. The web site I use for this is called MP32TUBE.com. (Below is a sample digitl storytelling project I created using this free service.)

I recorded the audio using the free audio recording/editing software called Audacity. The graphics in this video was created in the AppleWorks draw program — after scanning the two photos of my mom and dad. These days I would use the LibreOffice Draw program — or maybe Inkscape — both of which are free.

To record the highest quality audio, I suggest using a USB microphone, such as the Logitech Clearchat USB headset — or the Blue Snowball microphone. You can easily edit out the uhms, ahs and pauses in your audio recording by selecting the short segments and pressing the delete key on your keyboard. Make sure the sound level (sound volume) of your recording is good. That might mean visiting the Sound control panel on your computer to adjust the Sound Input slider.

Your Gmail login is all you need to create a YouTube channel. Surprise your friends by becoming a YouTube producer — without owning a camcorder. Possible digital storytelling projects? Interview a family member or friend. Tell an amusing story from your childhood. Record some a capella singing. Make up a funny tall tale. Surprise us with what you make.

I sure hope YouTube buys MP32TUBE.com and folds it into their digital storytelling tools. I love showing this tool to people, but cringe to think that one day it might just disappear.

-- Phil Shapiro  

MP32Tube
Free



OP-1 Portable Synthesizer

Musicians beware! The OP-1 is a synthesizer that some may love and others may dismiss as a mere overpriced toy.

For myself, Teenage Engineering’s OP-1 has been an indispensable addition to my synth arsenal: partly because it produces sounds I can’t find elsewhere and partly because it’s so incredibly easy (and yes, even fun) to use. (See video below.)

The color-base interface took me by surprise! There’s practically no learning curve for adjusting the eight separate sound engines (and effects) — the machine is highly visual in this regard. In fact I love handing my OP-1 to non-musicians and watching them as they almost instantly begin “programming” a sound. For a performer, this kind of ease-of-use is power: to effortlessly turn a few knobs and get to the sound one is after. No fiddling around. In this regard, the OP-1 is a musician’s instrument.

The portability is a nice plus. I can throw it into a backpack, take it anywhere, sketch out an idea for a song anywhere (using it’s built-in “four-track recorder” which operates much like a reel-to-reel tape). They advertise the batteries to last 16 hours… I haven’t tested that, but I have no frustrations in that regard.

More coolness about the OP-1:

* It has four intelligently designed sequencers that I absolutely love and continually use.

* Teenage Engineering occasionally releases new system updates with added functionality (new synth engines, new drum machines, etc…) And new new accessories, such as pitch bending knob and crank wheels for added functionality.

* It features both a built-in microphone and a built in FM-radio for sampling.

Is there anything bad about the OP-1? Yeah, its price. $849 is a lot to spend on any hardware synth where software synths are beginning to cost less and less.

I do wish the keyboard was more substantial. The Korg NanoKey midi controller is just a little larger and it has a nice resistance (and is velocity sensitive), whereas the keyboard on the OP-1 feels a bit cheap.

Is is a toy? I don’t believe so. I just produced a movie soundtrack and I often used the OP-1 for sounds I couldn’t achieve with any other synth. As an electronic musician, I now depend on it. It may not be for everyone, but it’s a great machine for use in the studio and, because of its small size and ease of use, it’s probably an even better instrument for use on stage.

The interface of the OP-1 is entirely color-based and very intuitive. For
example: the knob changes the blue number on the screen, the white knob
changes the white number. The above video (about one of the
sequencers) demonstrates this.

-- Robyn Miller  

OP-1
Portable Synthesizer
$850

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Teenage Engineering



Homemade Musical Instrument Guides

Here are three great guides for making your own musical instruments. Advantages of making your own: 1) Personalized, 2) Cheaper, 3) Types no one else sells, 4) Satisfaction of making.

There is not much overlap of instruments featured between these three books.

The coolest of the three guides is Making Gourd Musical Instruments. It has very explicit step-by-step instructions for making 60 instruments using lightweight gourds as the sound amplifiers. Gourds enable wind, string and percussion instruments — so you could make an entire orchestra. This book has the most variety of musical options and great examples of world-wide traditional instruments for inspiration. If you can get only one of these three books, this should be it.

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Making Musical Instruments by Hand
Jay Javighurst
1998, 108 pages
$9+, used
Available from Amazon

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Sound Designs
John Scoville, Reinhold Banek
1995, 224 pages
$8+, used
Available from Amazon

-- KK  

Making Gourd Musical Instruments
Ginger Summit, Jim Widess
2007, 144 pages
$12

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

Sample excerpts:

>From Making Gourd Musical Instruments

rake

Cut keys (lamella) from an old leaf rake.

bridge

Position the keys in the bridge and tighten the screws. If you need to adjust the length of a key slightly, loosen the screw, then readjust it.

gourd

Completed kalimba.

*

drill

Drill the peg holes precisely at the marks.

*

lace

As you tighten the lacing, make sure each loop is brought around its peg and that the bead is next to the peg. Later on, the peg may be pushed up on the lacing to further tighten the head if needed.

>From Making Musical Instruments by Hand

Tip: Stretching Thicker Skins

Thicker skins may require more pressure to tighten before stapling. Use a pair of locking pliers with a thin rope attached through the handle. Make a loop at the bottom so you can step onto it. Apply tension firmly with your foot, without tearing the skin, and with the staple gun held vertically upside down, fire the staple. Then follow the stapling instructions in step 9.

staple

*

trio

>From Sound Designs

Dimple Gongs

Simply, mark the center point on each plate or disc. Place it on the end of a fairly wide piece of soft wood, say 4 by 4 inches. Put the round end of a ball-peen hammer on the center mark and smite it hard several times with a small sledge or heavy hammer.

hammer

*

The resulting dimple gives the plate not only a distinct pitch, but its name as well. Though if you look at it from the other side, it becomes a pimple gong. We found by experimenting that generally the smaller the dimple the lower the pitch would be, so tune yours accordingly.

*

drums

Tube Drums

*

skin




The Soundscape

The sound of modern life has a 60 hertz hum in the background because that’s the frequency of electricity (in North America). Add to that all the other vibrations of technological artifacts and all the sounds made by nature and you get the soundscape of the world. I learned to hear this sonic environment from this master observer. He gave me ears. Once heard these vibrations can be tuned, altered, muffled, amplified.

-- KK  

The Soundscape
R. Murray Schafer
1993, 320 pages
$12

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

The Flat Line in Sound

The Industrial Revolution introduced another effect into the soundscape: the flat line.

A few years ago, while listening to the stonemasons’ hammers on the Takht-e-Jamshid in Teheran, I suddenly realized that in all earlier societies the majority of sounds were discrete and interrupted, while today a large portion — perhaps the majority — are continuous. This new sound phenomenon, introduced by the Industrial Revolution and greatly extended by the Electric Revolution, today subjects us to permanent keynotes and swaths of broad-band noise, possessing little personality or sense of progression.

*

soundscape1sm

*

The best way to comprehend what I mean by acoustic design is to regard the soundscape of the world as a huge musical composition, unfolding around us ceaselessly. We are simultaneously its audience, its performers and its composers. Which sounds do we want to preserve, encourage, multiply?

*

Another continuous rhythm is that of breathing, which also varies in tempo with exercise and relaxation. Normal breathing is said to vary between 12 and 20 cycles per minute, that is, 3 to 5 seconds per cycle. But breathing may be slowed down during relaxation or sleep to cycles lasting 6 to 8 seconds. Part of the sense of well-being we feel at the seashore undoubtedly has to do with the fact that the relaxed breathing pattern shows surprising correspondence with the rhythms of the breakers, which, while never regular, often produce an average cycle of 8 seconds.

*

Another biological tempo which relates significantly to the acoustic environment is that of the resolving power of the sense receptors. In humans this hovers around 16 to 20 cycles per second. It is in this frequency range that a series of discrete images or sounds will fuse together to give an impression of continuous flow. Film employs 24 frames per second in order to avoid flicker. As far as aural perception is concerned, a rapid rhythmic vibration will gradually assume an identifiable pitch at about 20 cycles per second. Thus, as the tempo of human activities increases, the rhythms of foot and hand are mechanized, first into the rough, “grainy” concatenation of the Industrial Revolution’s first tools, and finally into the smooth pitch contours of modem electronics. The resolving power of the senses makes it possible to turn some of the nervous agitation of the soundscape into drones which, being less turbulent to the ears, tend to have a pacifying quality.

*

In Turkish cars, horns are tuned to the interval of a major or minor second. While in some cultures this is considered an exceedingly dissonant diad, there are examples in the Balkans, for instance from certain regions of western Bulgaria, of folk singing in which two voices sing together in major or minor seconds, the singers considering this a consonant interval.




iLuv Earphones

I’m writing a review about that goes against the spirit of Cool Tools in a way. While I love these headphones, the price is very reasonable, they aren’t necessarily “the best” of their kind. What I really want to evangelize is the idea of the flat headphone cable.

I love earbuds. I hate dealing with tangled cords. I would stuff my headphones in my bag, and they would come out in a Gordian knot. All the solutions proffered seemed just as labor intensive as untangling them afterwards, involved wrapping them so tightly I couldn’t help but think it was going to damage the wire or give it a memory (so it would revenge-tangle itself when I turned my head for a moment), or both.

Flat cables don’t “feel the need” to twist, and so drop them in the bottom of your backpack, pull them out and they’re ready to go.

I simultaneously bought MEElectronics flat cable earbuds and the iLuv on Amazon. I didn’t like the former as much; weird static-y shocks when I walked on my treadmill; the latter have the remote to pause/play/skip ahead, turn volume up and down and take calls w/integral mic.

I’ve noticed flat cables featured on SkullCandy and other brands; I’m sure an audiophile can buy $300 noise-canceling flat cable headphones. The main point for me is that the no-tangle principal worked great, look for it, then figure out what else you need and go from there.

-- Taylor Bryant  

Available from Amazon



Bose QuietComfort 15 Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones

I’m a test engineer for large tape libraries in a noisy lab. (It’s one of the best jobs in the world — making robots crash into each other at high speeds may not be the sine qua non of computer manufacture, but it’s just plain fun.)

Between the HVAC, the server farm, and the bot wars, it’s noisy. Needless to say, this affects my hearing — so much that my wife thinks my favorite phrase is “Would you say that again, honey?” After many false starts, I finally found a set of noise cancelling headphones that I can wear all day without making my ears sore, and are durable enough to last two years (so far).

With 20 test engineers in the lab using these, the bar is set pretty high. Collectively, my group has bought a lot of hearing protection, and these are the only ones that are durable, effective, and comfortable. The old adage “cheap, comfortable, effective – pick any two” applies here — Bose QuietComfort’s cost $300, but cheaper ones just don’t cut the mustard.

The signal processing in QC15s is excellent, but cheaper models come close. The real secret sauce is the comfort engineering – nobody else comes close to Bose. They are suitable for enjoying music, but that’s a secondary benefit. You can wear them for a full day, and your ears aren’t sore — that’s key.

If your employer won’t pay for these, buy them anyway. You’re worth it.

-- Robert Hastings  

Bose QuietComfort 15 Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones
$300

Available from Amazon



How to Build a Guitar: the String Stick Box Method

I’ve been making cigar box guitars for about five years, and this is the DVD that taught me what I needed to get started. Bill Jehle is a traditional guitar maker, and he made this video as a way to introduce people to the art of making more complex stringed instruments. His delivery is calm and orderly, and free of hype.

The video helped me over the hurdle of installing frets, which I had previously assumed was a monumentally difficult thing to do. I also learned about neck profiling and how to make the headstock. When I built my first guitar, it had plenty of problems, but it would have been much worse had I built it without the knowledge I’d picked up from viewing the video.

-- Mark Frauenfelder  

How to Build a Guitar: the String Stick Box Method DVD
$20

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

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LinkeSOFT SongBook

If you like to sing songs and play along on your guitar, banjo, ukulele, etc. at a campfire, bar, church, etc., the tablet revolution has been a boon. No more binders to carry around! Instant access to lyrics and chords for approximately 1 bazillion songs!

The downside, though, is that the quality of the song transcriptions you find online are of widely varying quality. Additionally, the web pages that contain the transcriptions are chock full-o-ads, and as a rule, the best campfires are found where the internet access is the worst.

The answer to these problems is to curate your own collection of song transcriptions. The best tool I’ve found to do this is LinkSOFT’s cross platform SongBook.

SongBook allows you create and manage files for songs in the simple, plain text based ChordPro file format. It is easy to start with the transcription of a song from one of the online archives, and then correct / customize it within SongBook. Once the song is set up, it is easy to do things like change keys and display chord fingering.

SongBook has versions for both desktop and mobile platforms, and the mobile versions support DropBox for syncing. This makes it easy to utilize the strengths of each. I use the desktop version to create and edit song files, and the mobile versions for performances. That said, if I need to edit a song on the go, those edits get automatically synced thanks to the magic of DropBox.

The app does cost a few bucks. However, I have found it to be a good value. There are new functions being added regularly, and when I have had (rather minor) problems, the developer has been very responsive.

-- Clark Case  

LinkeSOFT SongBook
$6 – $19, depending on operating system



KRK ROKIT 6 Studio Monitors

I’ve been a recording engineer for a long time. I’ve used Yamaha NS-10s for many years and Meyer HD-1s in many studios (which were the first pro self-powered monitors). For my home studio I use the ROKIT 6 Studio Monitors. They are excellent, transparent, self-powered monitors and they give me a sense of pro sound in my home studio. I do all my recording and mixing “in the box” [doing all the sound mixing on a computer, as opposed to "out of the box" -- using a mixing board and traditional equipment] and these monitors allow me to create mixes that often sound superior to mixes done in “real” studios.

-- Greg Remillard  

KRK RP6G2 Rokit G2 6-inch Powered Studio Monitor
$200

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by KRK Systems