Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Introducing...Apollo 13.

I love Sasha. Well his music really. I've never met the guy. I shook his hand at Spybar Chicago, but that was about it.
Do i really need to explain who this is?
His music is fantastic, the way this guy mixes music is on an entirely different level. But it helps when you have Ableton Live (DAW award winner 8 years running) and can hire a super secret team to build a custom controller for said software. What's more, a controller so unique and so Ableton specific that it lets him wield this software on a whole new level. A level in which all hardware manufacturers have thus far failed (in my opinion.) Sure generic MIDI controllers have been made but something specifically built around the Ableton Live software? The APC40 certainly counts, hell Ableton and AKAI partnered to build this thing. It's a fantastic little $300 device. But Sasha? What do you do when you are superstar DJ extraordinaire? You get a mystery team together, you chat, you plot, you develop, and then birth what has become known as The Maven.

The Maven is a one of a kind, unique, controller that you'll never be able to personally see or touch (or much less have access too). It's the one off controller that you only wish could play with. It's the kind of device you know there is absolutely no way you'll ever get to use. If you know what Ableton is and you see this controller, you should rightfully flip out over it.

I thought that way too, so I built one.

What's worth saying before I really get into this, is that I think the thought process that went into building this device can't and shouldn't be overlooked. It's really well thought out...i mean REALLY well thought out. Just look at the thing! Well let's look at each channel and what makes this board so special and tailored to Ableton.

Sasha's "Maven" controller

Looking at any one of the 6 channels we can see (starting from the bottom) A/B crossfader selection, then a volume slider accompanied by 6 LED pushbuttons each designated itself to the first 6 clips of audio within the Ableton Live software. Already, this thing is off to a great start you can launch clips in real time in a physical location that makes the most sense I've ever seen on a controller - right NEXT TO THE VOLUME. Now moving up there are two LED pushbuttons designated as Record and Cue for each channel. Above those are two FX Send sliders (A/B knobs for FX Send in Ableton). Then above that 4 stage EQ - lo, mid, hi, and gain (I'm assuming it's gain, but it's a MIDI controller. He could just as easily assign these knobs to anything he wants in Ableton (such as effects) - but he's gone for a pseudo-traditional mixer interface so it's a fair estimate. Finally, a single LED pushbutton for Channel On/Off at the very top.

Now to the right of these six channels is some added genius (again bottom to top). Dedicated knob for headphone volume, and a master/monitor selection. Above this is the standard master volume but incredibly overlooked on most controllers master BPM. Go ahead and let this thought just detonate in your brain for a second. A dedicated slider assigned to BPM within Ableton Live. I can only assume Sasha must have 5 bodyguards protecting this fader during sets. Either that or he sets the range of the slider from 125-130 BPM or he pulls an Apollo 13 and writes "No" on some tape. I digress. Above these two faders are 8 (what I assume to be) random effects knobs each with their own respective on/off function. Finally on the very top of this is master Play, Stop, and Record. 

It's a brilliant controller isn't it?

Again, I have to give credit where credit is due - absolutely the best and most straight forward layout for a MIDI (albeit Ableton specific) controller ever.

So what's a nerd to do?
Apart from ponder the various problems of constructing something like this when your background/degree is  network engineering/system administration (I'm an IT guy if these titles mean nothing to you)...I wasn't sure. But I'm a technical person, I just have to break this thing down into its respective parts. I'm sure I can figure it out. Ignore the fact no one knows how much this thing cost even though it's rumored at thousands upon thousands of dollars...It doesn't matter. It can't matter. These are just some buttons, lights, and faders. I'll build it from scratch. By myself. With zero help. and go only off whatever pictures I can find online. Simple.

Maybe, not that simple. But...
So I studied pictures - how big was the other stuff around it? The iMac? The Pioneer DJM 800 mixer? His arm from fingertip to elbow adjusting a knob on the board. The Pioneer CDJ's? other random mixers? The table it rested on. The external hard drives. These questions had answers that could be obtained in dimensions online, proportional estimates, and hands on manipulation of these objects that I could get a hold of at select music gear stores.

And there it is. What I've affectionately dubbed Apollo 13. It operates on a single USB jack and is just as worthy as its original counterpart in terms of functionality. For the sake of argument, here is a comparison shot.


Did I mention my buttons light up too? Cmahhn, I wasn't going to stop short on this project. Note here, there are no caps on the faders/knobs (in case you didn't already notice that). Just trying to show off the lights.

Needless to say, I'm rather pleased with how this turned out and I'm anxious in future posts to really dig into the step by step process as well as show off more photos. There is a dedicated OneNote notebook for this outlining every step and my entire thought process for this that I look forward to publishing shortly.

And truthfully, when I was drawing to a close on this project a few weeks ago I realized there was some left over jealousy but it wasn't aimed at the Maven's existance. It was instead aimed at what Ableton parterned with AKAI for a few years ago.

The Hunt for Red...
There is a feature I became particularly envious of Ableton/AKAI's APC40 and it's the infamous red box pictured below.

Sometime ago I came upon a photo observing Sasha's laptop, while he had music queued up into his set. He was hard set on the first six clips of audio in each row - either that or he was constantly re-assigning what button do what in a set. I can only deduce either I'm either looking at picture well before this software trick existed or he really didn't have it.

Over the should view of Sasha's laptop.

If he has 36 buttons (6 per channel) to trigger the first six clips of audio in each channel, those buttons are hard defined. By that I mean, he's assigned physical button to some space on his board. Whatever song he puts in that space, the button will trigger. But it seems massively inefficient. Either you are constantly swapping songs or constantly reassigning buttons. The whole "No keyboard no mouse" mantra slipped instantly.

The APC40 introduced a new trick for Ableton and that was "Bank Select." I'm not sure how much it overlaps with MIDI Bank Select, but it's seen in it's above form as the red rectangle. The advantage now being, you have a box that has buttons assigned within it, and as you move that box up and down...whatever should so happen to be "behind" the red box immediately assumes that button. Just push play on the following Ableton youtube video and it will all make sense.

Skip to 1:50 to see "Bank Select" in action.

Now, the problem is - I thought this feature was reserved for Ableton/AKAI and other partners. Or whoever. Like you need access to the source code in order to make this trick happen. Fortunately, in about 5 hours time I found that was not the case and taught myself some basic Python (that's a programming language in case you don't know). Because referencing several of my friends and their installations, there is a directory that stores scripts that execute on load to pre-assign information to the connected controller. After pursuing this directory and studying it's contents one Saturday afternoon I copied them to a flash drive and went about my re-engineering of them. The end result? If you plug in Apollo13, there is a script file you can associate to it and have the red-rectangle yourself (or any color really). This is really the only thing I think I can say one-upped on the original Maven.

forgot about this photo! updated on 7.12.12, 11:50pm central

Now, if you decided to just watch the entire video you may see additional tricks the APC40 can perform. I chose not to pursue them. The 2nd most attractive feature that I'm still pondering copying is as the bank select moves up and down the launch pads change color and designation. Unfortunately, I have single colored LED's rendering this potential idea incompatible. At the very least, I spose I could just have everything off but only light what is playing. Meh. Food for thought. The focus is the Maven.

So that's my story of the past 4 months and there is only one way to close this post of mine.

A brief thanks...
First - I want to sincerely thank Rukes photography, you not only do fantastic photography of DJ events but you helped make a lot of my estimates possible. I can only hope push button dj's don't start hiding their custom gear in fear someone is going to replicate it. Just don't do it. Someone will figure it out anyway.

Secondly - I absolutely must thank the following companies and people: Newark/element14, Radio Shack, Zeno, eBay, allelectronics, Pumping Station: One, my musically inclined friends who let me borrow their computers for hours testing and tweaking this, future electronics, Mitch, the tileworker I met for and the guy who wanted to fire up an angle grinder and in turn made me strive for a better box, Colin, but above all else there is one person I have to thank immensely for this...

A crazy awesome sincere THANK YOU to Alexander Coe (a.k.a Sasha) and whatever super secret team you paid to put yours together. Your music has been and is a pleasure to listen to and you have been nothing short of an inspiration towards constructing this.

Can I buy this?
This one specifically? No.

How much did this cost?
I'm still adding those numbers up. I think the thing overlooked in these kind of projects is "Crap, i don't have those tools. I need to buy those, suddenly I'm spending more than I thought on this project." So I'm going to create a few, insanely thorough breakdowns as soon is as humanly possible. My estimates right now put it on par with high-end market mixers. I just don't want to announce a number until I have something more concrete.

How long did this take to build?
It took me less than 4 months. I've been talking about it for close 5 years because I'm obsessed as all hell with this custom freaking build for one of my favorite musicians. But for some reason about 4 months ago I actually decided to seriously commit to this project and I went from 3 knobs to a full board in that period of time. If I had to do this again, I could do it in less than one month. Let's say two just to be safe.

Would you build me one? You did say "This one specifically..." I'm certainly open to the idea, but this is not what I do for a living so I'm not sure how it fits into my life just yet. For right now, I am interested in at least hearing numbers of what people would pay for this. So please, email me.

What's your box/case made out of?
The box is 16 gauge steel. I went with 16ga for the sake of intentionally adding weight to this mixer. The faceplate is 6061 aluminum and it's found in space shuttles and other types of aircraft. It's incredibly rigid/sturdy but weighs almost nothing. You probably have seen it because Apple uses it on all their products.

What about those fancy side things on his? Where are they?
They are purely aesthetic (but really good looking none the less) and as a result I didn't feel the need to put them into this build. The highest concern was function (which I've achieved). Second, which I hope to achieve relatively soon is some labeling and the side thingys. Maybe another month, I'm just in a mad rush to say "IT WORKS!" I'll leave it at this - I shot for the moon and fell short. But I did it on less than 5 volts of power.

So this is a replica? Isn't it just a midi controller?
Yes, it's a replica of Sasha's Maven controller which is more or less just another MIDI controller. Analyzing whatever shots I've seen on the back of his mixer it looks like some additional functionality was added (e.g analog output, thus suggesting an onboard soundcard for booth out, master out, and headphone out). One of the obvious glaring differences is that instead of a solid black faceplate with white lettering, I have a brushed aluminum faceplate with no lettering. Truthfully, I'm still plotting the best way to achieve this - screen printing, decals, laser cutting...I have a lot of options but am still wading these waters. Not to mention, I built the thing for myself, I know exactly what does what. Additionally, I removed three controls - knobs flanking the crossfader and a master/channel cue button. They can easily be added or just be assigned to something on the board.

I have more questions!
Awesome, I'm glad you do! I want to make contact with myself as simple as can be (and protect myself from as much generic spam as possible). So take my name and do one of the following - find me on facebook, or remove the space between "adam dzak" and then add a to it. I'll try my best to respond relatively fast, and you can most likely expect an answer in the evening after I get home from work. While I intend on being very thorough in some upcoming posts, I'm ok seeing if I get an overwhelming number of similar questions that would merit just a mass response via post.


I couldn't think of where else to put these.

This is (I kid you not) the starting point of the entire project.

Version 5 of my drawing cut from 1/8" plastic on a ShopBot Desktop. Version 5 you ask? I don't own Autocad and more importantly have no idea how to use CAD. I gave myself a week to learn on a 30 day trial. Versions 1-4 went from square to more rectangular as well as compressing items down. Once I started seeing the physical parts that were going to occupy this thing the math became more clear as to how much space I had to put things together. Learning + version 1-5 took 8 days total.

Testing out the cuts/mounts from the cut. Fits perfectly.

Looks like the buttons fit! I only ordered 8 initially, I didn't order the rest until about 3 weeks ago!

I wired 33 of these freaking things. Thats another thing. The number of inputs? Allow me to share the insanity...33 knobs, 8 big sliders, 12 mini faders, 71 LED pushbuttons.

Blue/Red LED test. These things are crazy freaking bright.

Bending the box and yes, I used Mountain Dew to do it. For all inquiring minds, this device is known as a "bending brake" and...well shove some metal in, clamp it down, grab the handle, and bend. Machine bends would have been far more perfect but I wanted the smooth corners/edges and I don't have access to a machine.

Initial box assembly. Poked two holes in the back for anything I'd initially need to test with. The box is intentionally angled, one because it makes sense and two because I'm trying to replicate the Maven which has a slight tilt to it. Initially I thought about cutting the sheet so as to "fold" a box together, but given the angles I knew it wasn't going to happen with a hand-bending-brake. As you can see the sides were separately cut and mounted to the main box. As the project neared an end, final bends were made and tiny gaps were closed. Additionally, given I didn't know how the board was getting mounted yet at this point I've added metal right angles (hammered to 90 degress with a vice) so the board has something to rest on once placed in/on the box.

Priming the sides and yes - i do own that knife set. I used two coats of regular flat gray primer. Nothing special.

This is a combination of a flat black coat, and then clear crystal glossy coat.

Panel is cut on 6061 aluminum. Glad i decided to hack off all that excess. Would have been a HUGE faceplate otherwise.

Some printing came with on the sheet of aluminum as you may be able to see above. Goof strong you can use tissue paper to clean graffiti (i'm guessing).

Top down shot of the blank faceplate resting on top of/in the box.

Neccesary items have now been mounted


Knobs arrived 7.10...

BUT! WAIT! The one physical object missing in the video and currently are the fader caps.

Delay in shipping! Weak sauce! Lame! Seriously. Even still, once I receive them either today or tomorrow, the fader caps are getting repainted (black cap, white line). But I am not going to delay the release of this thing, instead I'm delivering it about 6 hours early. The knobs are clearly different than the ones on the original Maven, but the caps...identical (scroll up and look, i dare you!)
Never the less I hope you enjoy the following video.

Q: Hey wait, those black knobs aren't in the video what gives?!
A: Filmed, edited, and finished sunday. Tight schedule this week.

Also! The series continues at...

"...maybe then I'll achieve the end of this exercise, but really if we're all going to 
be honest with ourselves I have to admit that achieving the end of the exercise 
was never the point of the exercise to begin with was it?"
- Adam Savage


Baidawi Ishere said...

dunno what else i can say that i have not said already... at the risk of sounding cheesy, i'm extremely proud of you man. for reals.

Philip Reaves said...

Wow, man. I tried this years ago and gave up on it. Maybe I'll have to bring her up from the basement...

harley said...

you sir are a complete BAD ASS!! Much respect for building this thing!

Anonymous said...

I take my hat off to you. Like you I've thought of doing it too but haven't been brave enough!

Adam Dzak said...

Baidawi - thanks yo.

Philip - i HIGHLY suggest you do that!

harley - thank you very much. it's insanely appreciated to hear.

ektronsavvy - It's totally possible. I encourage you to go for it!

To all: I'm going to try my absolute best to start the How-To series as soon is as humanly possible.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Sell me one!

Carpas Verdes said...

You're the boss!! Congratulations, amazing controller. I emailed you

levington said...

Awesome, an incredible project to pursue, thanks for sharing!

TBlank said...

Wow. Truly a beautiful controller you've created there. I can't imagine what a pain it must've been to troubleshoot a device with 124 inputs! Props on that only taking 4 months, man.

JMarler said...

Did you use an "off the shelf" USB MIDI controller board, or did you build your own board using an Arduino/homegrown/whatever?

DOGMA said...

Wow. Just wow. This is plain awesome, you inspired me to look into this and maybe do it also. I'd love to see your how-to series as soon as you upload them. Thanks!

Adam Dzak said...

Just a heads up to all who are seeing this post, the next one answers the two biggest questions.

Anonymous said...

You my friend are a freaking genius. I have always wanted to build a controller that suited me. You have just provided the inspiration to give it more serious thought. And you are just so open and giving. There should be more artists like you. Respect.

Adam Dzak said...

Thanks again to all and the extremely kind words you've all left. I wasn't expecting this kind of response but am extremely flattered by the outpouring of support.

New post folks!

Anonymous said...

Kudos to you, sir! What struck me the most is the colored buttons! When will I get done with my home computer repair so that I can start my version (ehem!) of this!

A. Catherine Noon said...

Wow. Awesome.

Wills Som said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.