Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Problem With Midibox

I'm moving my posts from my old blog underabundant.com.
FROM MARCH 2nd 2009

I have finally setup my blog. Typically they are half-assed attempts at writing about different subjects that interest me. Unfortunately I usually peter out after some time. I'd like to think it will be different this time.

Before, I tried to make my own blogging software; where I would obsessively build and test the system, where by the end of it, I would not really not care much about the content (writings). In fact I would more or less abandon the project once it functioned within whatever requirements I determined at that point. I'd say that's my general MO in regards to a lot of development stuff that I've done.

Case in point : For years I have been building different Midibox synthesizers with varying success. Midibox is a DIY project for making MIDI compatible, PIC based, synthesizers and MIDI controllers. People who build one download schematics and board designs, buy the parts and proceed to build and debug their own unique and custom hardware. Many of the parts of Midibox are user configurable and have numerous options which I will neglect to go over here. The fact is that to build a Midibox takes months or years of dedication and though I did do this, when it really came down to it I haven't knuckled down and tried to learn how to use the device that I so painstakingly built.

Midibox FM - Case

This is pretty much the problem that I have with Midibox projects. I put a lot of effort into them and it took a lot of monkeying, but you don't really get much out of it. As of now I have two synths: the Midibox SID and the MIDIBOX FM. They are good synths that surely have a great deal of capabilities, but I have come to realize that I have lost my creativity and become more interested in building electronics than I am in creating music.

I walked down the path of discovering more about electronics assembly. I learned about getting scrap parts from the university that happens to throw out a lot of aluminum cases, switches, buttons, cables, power supplies and other components. I have boxes of stuff that I harvested for numerous projects I might do in the future. My mind was consumed with troubleshooting and debugging for years now and at this point, coming back to it with two synths in arm; I don't remember much about the music.

Midibox FM - Internals

Currently, I have about 60 tracks that I made over years of experimenting, but the last time I touched any of the files was actually May 2007! I even think that it has such a RECENT date because I might have copied them off a network drive when I got my new computer recently. I think it could be more than 3 or so years at least since I really hunkered down and worked on music. This is bad, because when I go back to Reason or Logic I get frustrated that I don't know what to do. Not just the controls but I really don't even know where to start.

I have come out of the Midibox journey with less than what I went it with. I could have 200+ tracks by now if I just learned to use soft-synths better or if I decided to just purchase a synth from Moog. I could have started learning how to manipulate a synthesizer immediately instead of taking up such a long-term project of assembling my own from scratch. I can't say which would be cheaper, but if I had opted for the former I think that I would have been able to continue on with my artistic endeavors instead switching gears and working on Midiboxes.

This is the problem I have with Midibox is how restrictive a community it is.

Let me preface this by saying that I don't have any problem with anyone in the Midibox community individually. The forum users there are probably some of the most helpful and friendly people I have ever dealt with. Thorsten and the other admins have always been almost overly willing to look into any issues and to help with troubleshooting. Generally as a community they are the most helpful and considerate people around. They help troubleshoot, organize group-buys and might even send you unused hardware gratis.

However, they are extremely restrictive in regards to allowing people to build Midiboxes for other people. Resales are discouraged and there is even a forum section where the any person selling any Midibox hardware must ask for permission. Whether it be some half-complete module or a complete unit they have to request permission. This hinges on the belief that anything that goes for sale has to be sold for the base price of the parts and no more. People even report eBay auctions and the forum members then contact the sellers and demand they pull it off the site. Everyone I have seen have agreed to repeal their auctions; so I can't really be sure what Thorsten would do in cases where someone refuses to take off a posting. However I can only assume there would be some kind of ex-communication and possibly even legal proceedings.

I'm not going to argue that TK (Thorsten) doesn't have the rights to do this. Apparently there is a license guarding the software (I believe) that is on the Midibox which restricts any kind of resale. This is unfortunate for pretty much everyone, I don't even think it's entirely crazy for the Midibox community to want to prevent such a thing. As stryd_one said:

as it is about respect for TK's work - because he does all this for free, it's not really fair for others to make money out of it.

This logic is tantamount to something like "Thorsten owns the land where he himself found a silver. It's his mine and he can mine it if he so chooses." With that reasoning you can only agree with stryd_one. Thorsten has done so much to design and implement so much in regards to the different Midibox projects. Generally the community works in a "Open Source" manner where all new information is shared and posted.

Truly, if anyone wanted to build a Midibox project, all they would have to do is read the instructions and build one themselves. However, as an open source project (of course it is not GNU licensed so the generic "open source" term is used) all the information is there and it only need be applied. It's as if he opens to silver mine to anyone who wishes to come, where they can take as much as the like. However if they do anything with the silver, like sell it, they are banished from the mine. So really it's not like a silver mine, it's more like teaching someone to fish. The Midibox community it teaching anyone who is interested to fish, but if you want to fish so much that you can sell your fish -- it's game over.

Midibox SID - Casing

But at the end of the day a Midibox project is no small task. A typical Midibox project involves building 4-5 different circuit boards with 20-30 individual parts per board. These Input boards, Output boards, CPU boards and Synthesizer boards all have to be assembled and interconnected together in order to make a working unit. They need a power-supply (which usually has to be built) and typically a control surface with an LCD and numerous buttons, LEDs, encoders, etc. Even for someone with intermediate experience these projects are a handful that would take a great deal of time and dedication to build.

Even with the skills to build a Midibox, a user has to navigate multiple pages of schematics, board diagrams, wikis and most importantly the forum. No information is particularly centralized and things are often unclear and clarified in some obscure forum post of wiki entry. I myself was frustrated several times when I could not get anything to work where sometimes it was recognized as a bug. This sort of thing struck me often enough, and work-arounds/fixes were only available in the forum where you had to be very active to really get anything solved.

But I get it. The community is designed in line with two separate beliefs:

  1. It is interesting and constructive to build your own custom electronic synthesizer made from retro synth microchips.
  2. The synthesizers are particularly well designed and built that they offer a unique and interesting sound as well as great interface.

The fact is that those two wishes are easily completely separate. I personally was interested in both at one time, and this got me into the scene so much that I delved into building a synth and had to leave behind my previous interest in music. I started my first Midibox project with a fairly low level of knowledge in electronics, and over the years I think that I've learned a lot about them; but I've also burned a lot of time on them too. I somewhat knew that it would be fairly painful and difficult to get it working and I expected to learn a great deal about along the way. I did not expect it to be SO time consuming as it was though. If I did, I hazard to say that I might not have started down that road, and would have moved on to do something else with my time that was more along the lines of the creative.

Midibox SID - Side

The fact is that it is no easy feat to build a Midibox. The type of person who might really use one (ex:artists) are not necessarily going to be able to do this type of work themselves. If they are smart they surely COULD learn how, but as an amateur it's going to take them a tremendous amount of time to get a project going. Midibox community members gloat that they are some of the best synthesizers around but their requirements that everyone be able and willing to break into it the hard way is going to cut out a lot of potential users. These users could contribute with suggestions and perhaps programming changes to the synthesizers.

The fact is that a lot of people just aren't willing to delve into this universe, for many people it just isn't inline with what they want to be working on (music!). So I think there is a large demand for people who build complete Midibox kits or complete Midibox units for users who are just are not able or interested in building one themselves. These types of skills are scarce have a steep learning curve. I myself assembled my Midiboxes on my desk in my one bedroom apartment, I did not have a lab and I guess I do now, but I think I'm the exception in terms of people who are willing to cram so much equipment in such a small space; we don't all have basements or attics to setup in.

Also, the Midibox community excludes those people who are very capable at building and exploring electronics and are perhaps not interested in making music. As it stands I don't even think that someone could build a Midibox in its entirety and be able to charge the cost of building plus the shipping from the electronics suppliers. Not to mention that small groups or companies would likely be interested in making short runs of these devices for the sake of having a really interesting project to do. For me personally I am very interested in electronics assembly and it would be very interesting to get the opportunity to make a business that would allow me to live off of putting together my favorite thing. Not to mention that a few experienced techs building Midiboxes could probably even come under cost compared to what amateurs building one from scratch come to.

Midibox SID Internals

I don't even know what's the loss for the community. Thorsten already approves several people making PCBs (circuit boards) and PCB kits with parts, they just don't assemble the boards, interconnect them, or install the final unit into a case. This makes it much easier as it does not force people to produce their own circuit boards or have to search out the parts. This might help out many people, but ultimately it's just not going to be so inclusive that everyone who's interested can contribute. If the Midibox is so great, shouldn't everyone get a chance to have one?

The problem is that the community expects a level of dedication which blocks many people who would otherwise become enthusiastic users and contributors. Thorsten is not in it for the money, none of the members of the community are either, but they could allow some builders to make adequate compensation by building Midiboxes for people who aren't going to do it for themselves. Or possibly he could allow people to make a few extra Midiboxes that they can then sell. This would even help a poorer Midiboxer build two units and sell the second to help pay for the first.

So even though the license is there to protect the Midibox platform from being used and abused by uncaring capitalist interests; it ultimately caps the size of the community of Midiboxers by forcing any and all users to be technically competent, musically inclined, and with plenty of time to dedicate to a complex electronics project. People who are just interested in the technical, or just interested in the musical, or who just don't have the time or space to do it need not apply.


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