Nick Francis used our Builder series to create his first custom Ableton Live hardware instrument, the Choppertone. We are always really excited to see what people are building with our DIY controller building products, and the style, layout, and craftsmanship of the Choppertone really captures the spirit of why we created our Builder series in the first place. The Choppertone is unlike any other controller we’ve seen, and is clearly designed for a specific use and user, something we really encourage and feel is the driving force behind the advancement of electronic music performance. Nick had a clearly defined interface he wanted use to make electronic music which simply didn’t exist, so he created his own. We had a chance to catch up with Nick to get some insight on the inspiration for his controller.
Why did you decide to create your own controller?
I got interested in controllers from a rather unique set of experiences and interests. I’ve been a radio broadcaster for almost 30 years, focusing on production & programming. And chopping up audio has been a passion of mine since the days when using 1/4 inch tape and razor blades was the method of chopping. I really love & appreciate the craft of sound collage & sampling and have been making tracks on my DAW since around 1998. I started using Ableton in 2006 (replacing Acid) and found the whole “session view” element so compelling with regard to live performance. I think it was 2008 when I saw a video of Moldover mashing up stuff in his NYC apartment with Ableton and a controller. From there, my interest got more focused. I bought an Axiom 25 and played around with it but never really connected to it. Early last year I got a Launchpad and that was a lot more fun and interesting…but I missed the knobs. So from there, the idea of a DIY controller took shape.
What did you want your instrument to have that the controllers you were using were lacking?
Warmth and tactility; a controller where the buttons and knobs actually face the audience; and …wood. I wanted a piece you could pick up and hold; something that presses into you while you play, like a guitar, violin, autoharp, concertina. Everyone knows the joke about electronic musicians performing as if they’re reading email. I just wanted a warmer, more intimate vibe; a smooth all-wood enclosure.
Why did you choose this layout?
I played around with a lot of shapes and sizes and it really came down to visualizing how I could play it sitting in a chair with the instrument on my lap, how it would sit on my legs, how my hands & arms could move around it. The shape would have to fit within my own body-type (which, when you think about it, makes the whole feel of the instrument more personal & unique). Because of this particular limitation, I knew that the piece couldn’t be thicker than 3″, and couldn’t be taller than 10″. The last major adjustment from my original drawings was to make the body longer & narrower. Originally It was around 20×9″, and it ended up being 29×8″. The layout of buttons and pots basically follow a symmetrical horizontal mirror pattern from the middle, just like the human body. It seemed to be the right & natural way to design it.
What kind of experience did you have with building instruments or anything else for that matter?
This was my first major electronics project, with soldering & the whole thing. (And I’m not particularly a handyman type, though when forced to deal with stuff like plumbing problems or basic home repair, I’ve done ok.) If I can do it, so can anyone else, as long they stay focused, pay attention to detail, and do it step-by-step, taking your time.
Why did you choose the Builder series?
I saw a posting on the Create Digital Music site. Then I strolled over to your site and checked it out. You presented the whole package in a way that gave confidence to newbies; you stressed that even people with limited electronics experience could do it. You were right.
What resources were the most helpful in the entire process of creating the controller?
The Livid Brain video tutorials were the most helpful. I watched all of them numerous times. The wiki was helpful too, though sometimes a bit dry to read through. (I tended to use it more often for reference when I had a question). I visited the Livid forums from time to time; my most helpful post came from someone who wanted to understand how to wire a button matrix for arcade buttons. Finally, I was fortunate to be able to chat up an engineer at the radio station I work at. He really got off on the fact that I was really serious in doing this, and mentored me a bunch. He was really proud that I pulled it off.
What was your biggest challenge in building this controller?
Several challenges—Believing I could do it, particularly in regard to the soldering and wiring. Finding a woodworker who could really make my enclosure design a reality. And dealing with the fear that after all the time, money and effort, the damn thing wouldn’t work.
How do you plan on using it? What’s next?
Besides the ever present learning curve with both the Choppertone and Ableton (I’ve had the program for 5 years and still feel like I’m scratching the surface), I have all kinds of projects in mind, mostly centered around performing and playing around town (Tacoma, WA). There are a couple of coffee house venues that do open mikes and stuff and I want to do some kind of “folktronica” thing with it; also my wife is well connected with the art community here and there are events going on where I might be able to contribute. I also want to jam with other controllerists; improvisation is something that’s waiting to be explored in the digital music world. Finally, I plan to leverage this work into my day job. (I’m the Music Director at KPLU-FM; an NPR/Jazz affiliate serving the Seattle area.) I want to do some videos deconstructing and mixmashing old jazz tunes. I’m actually working on one right now. Stay tuned!