Otona no Kagaku Mail Magazine #157

The mail magazine opens very perfunctorily this time, with a curt greeting and no mentions of the changing weather or approaching Fall activities. It just goes straight into the announcement of the “USB FX Camera” coming out on the 28th. The description states that you can use the camera anywhere to make small objects look big, via the pan-focus lens. Suggestions include hand-moving action figures, or shooting diorama scenes.

1 – The Latest Otona no Kagaku Kit, the USB FX Camera
2 – “Manga Science Selection” Now Out
3 – Won’t You Try the Petite Handmade kits?
4 – Can “World’s Most Fun Speed Reading” Turn Anyone into a Speed Reader?

1 – The Latest Otona no Kagaku Kit, the USB FX Camera
You, too, can enter the world of miniature special effects movie making. The camera offers a deep depth of field, realistic effects, and pinpoint focus on ultra-close objects. Although the kit may not seem appropriate for the Kagaku line, special effects are significantly backed-up by scientific methods. The mook includes an interview with leading effects master Shinji Higuchi (Gamera, Evangelion), plus articles on the process of making movie effects with household items and dioramas.

2 – Manga Science Selection Now Out
This is a collection of some of the Manga Science stories aimed at the lower end market, for release through convenience stores as well as bookstores. 312 pages, B6-size paper, 500 yen. Chapters include “Protecting Against Heat Stroke”, “Which is Superior, the Human Brain or a Computer?”, “Digital Cameras vs the Eye”, “Fat is the Fuel Tank for Living Things”, “Is Blood a Liquid or a Particle”, “I Don’t Understand Infectious Diseases”, etc.
Due out Sept. 27.

Other books by Yoshitoo Asari include:
Manga Science #14
The Making of a Japanese Amateur Rocket

Manga Science Tweet Feed
Manga Science Facebook Page

3 – Won’t You Try the Petite Handmade kits?
Basically, this is just a repeat of the announcement from the last mail mag for Fluffy Felt Woodland Animal Brooches.
Index of All Handmade Kits.

4 – Can “World’s Most Fun Speed Reading” Turn Anyone into a Speed Reader?
This one is a little strange. It’s an announcement for a 51-minute DVD and 132-page book. 1,260 yen, scheduled for an Oct. 1st, 2013, release. But there’s no shopping link. No URL for ordering it, or for getting more information on the product. It is listed on Amazon.co.jp, anyway.


The new kit page is up on the Otona no Kagaku site. The kit is pretty simple. The instructions give a 15-minute assembly time for the camera housing and handle. Most of the instructions involve downloading and installing the software app to your computer. It’s 43 meg, compressed, so does take a while to transfer (190 meg uncompressed). You’ll probably need to grab LHAplus also, to extract the files.

Next up, kit #41, the Autowriter doll. Expected some time in January, 2014.

Gakken news – new video ad

Gakken has finally released some information on the new Otona no Kagaku kit, the miniature special effects camera. Actually, they’s just uploaded the video ad for the camera to their facebook page. Still, it looks like it could be interesting. $36 USD, with a release date of Sept. 28 (I won’t see it in Kyushu until maybe the 30th). Basically, the kit is just a web camera on a stick. The main differentiator is that the lens is designed for close up shots of miniature figures, so you can make your own Godzilla movie. Ideally, you’d want to either remove the stick handle, or figure out a way to attach it to a tripod like a boom camera.

Not a whole lot of other activity right now. Most of the recent posts on FB have been for the new book releases (DIY rocket, Manga Science #14). The designer’s blog just has an announcement for a children’s event in Yokohama on Sept. 28th. Nothing else to report. I’m expecting the next email newsletter to arrive before Monday.

Controlling the Rockit from the Roland A300

I like the Roland A300-Pro keyboard, I do. But there are a few things that can be very frustrating with it. I like the feel of the keys and the fact that they’re velocity sensitive. The actual amount of sensitivity can be modified in software if desired. And I like having all the sliders, dials and buttons. When I was working on my Java synthesizer project, I made use of pretty much every control on the keyboard. I stopped short of adding a sequencer to the Java synth, but it would have been a simple matter to map the A300 “tape deck” buttons to make the sequencer controls. So, as a MIDI controller, the A300 is great. The price is even dropping now, so it’s down to about $200 USD from the original $320 list. And, it comes with Sonar X1 LE, giving you composition software and a small selection of instrument voices to play with out of the box (piano, guitar, etc.)

What I don’t like is the documentation. Stuff that you can kind of figure out on your own is well documented, but the things that you generally need to go to the manual for are missing. And if what you want to know is in some way related to the software you’re using (like delays from pressing a key to when the note plays), Roland refuses to get involved at all. The standard response is, contact the maker of the software for support.

Anyway, I have the Hackme Rockit 8-bit synthesizer fully up and running, and I wanted to see if it would play from the keyboard. Early versions of the Rockit didn’t work with some MIDI devices, and needed certain mods made to specific parts. Fortunately, there weren’t any issues with the A300 keyboard portion. I plugged the A300 MIDI Out port to the Rockit MIDI In with a MIDI cable I bought from a local music store. The Rockit doesn’t have a built-in speaker so I used headphones with a 1/4″ phono jack. Press a key on the A300, sound comes out of the Rockit. Cool! That was the entire point of getting and making it.

The next step was to map the A300 dials to the Rockit controls. The Rockit allows MIDI mapping to pretty much every parameter. And this is where things got dumb. The easiest way to assign MIDI code to the A300 is through the APro software that comes with the A300 CD-ROM. Here’s the first problem – APro treats control settings as “control maps”. When you click on the pulldown arrow, you’re able to select from control maps 1-19. However, you actually only have JUST ONE MAP. If you select map 1 and make a change to one of the controls, maps 2-19 get the same change. There’s nothing in the documentation that talks about this. Further, the A300’s default map is #0, which APro doesn’t let you access. So, if you assign MIDI messages to a bunch of controls in APro and transmit them to the A300, nothing seems to be happening correctly when you fiddle with the dials because you changed map 1, and the A300 keyboard is playing from map 0.

The thing to keep in mind, then, is that if you want multiple maps in the A300, you have to save the settings from APro to separate files. Say you want some dial assignments in map 1 for one song and other assignments in map 2 for another – save them on the PC as 2 different files: “rockit map 1” and “rockit map 2”. Then, open “rockit map 1” in APro, select “map 1” from the pulldown menu, and transmit the map to the A300. Close this file, open “rockit map 2” in APro, select “map 2” and transmit that. While the APro software app can’t figure out what’s going on, the A300 keyboard will at least store the maps individually internally.

(The PRM Mute left and right buttons, and the Value/Enter spinner.)

The drawback, though, is that when you turn the A300 off and back on again, it defaults to map 0. Every time you turn it on, you have to hit the PRM left arrow button twice to get the LCD panel to display “Control Map”, use the Value control to select map 1 or 2, and then press Value as an Enter key. Kludgy. I just wish the documentation mentioned all this.

Assigning MIDI messages is simple once you get to this point.

Just open APro on your PC.

(Yeah, I know the menus are in Japanese. I have Japanese windows. Just pretend that the menu reads: “File”, “Edit”, “Options”, “Help”. And that the current pulldown says “MIDI Device”, “Display Assigned Messages” and “Display Keyboard Panel”.)

Select Options -> MIDI Device from the menu bar.

Set Input Port to A-Pro 2, and Output Port to A-Pro, and click Enter.

Select Options -> Display Assigned Messages.

Click on the control you want to set (R1-R9 for the dials, S1-S9 for the sliders).

This will pop up the MIDI message edit window. The name you give the control will appear on the A300 LCD when that control is changed when you play the keyboard. For the Rockit, you want the “Assign Message” to be a “Channel Message”, and the “Type” to be “Control Change”. By default, the Rockit is on MIDI channel 1, but you can change that if you like. Next, specify the control number for the Rockit parameter you want to change. In the example, OSC1 Waveform is control message 5. Leave the min and max values as-is. “Output Port” is only relevant when the keyboard is connected to the PC through the USB cable, and is unrelated to what I’m doing with the Rockit. I don’t yet know what “Virtual Center Click” does, but I don’t care right now, either. Click on Ok, and repeat for the other controls.

When you’re done, use “File->Save” (or “Save-As”) to save the settings to a file. Finally, select the desired control map number from the pulldown menu and then click on Transmit. This will send your MIDI assignments to the keyboard to be stored for that map number.

As mentioned above, each time you turn on the keyboard, you’ll need to use PRM Mute left arrow twice to get the LCD screen to display “Control Map” to select the one you want. And now you’re done.

Note that you can have the A300-Pro plugged into the PC via the USB port, AND to the Rockit via the MIDI cable at the same time. However, the keyboard will be disabled. To play the keyboard to test your MIDI message assignments, you have to unplug the USB cable.

I have found that not all of the controls work right with the Rockit. From the Rockit, you have two LFOs, and you can only control one at a time. You have to select the LFO, and the LFO destination, before the LFO Rate, LFO Amount and LFO Shape controls can do their magic on the parameter you want (Pitch, Filter Frequency, Oscillator Amplitude, etc.) However, LFO Rate, LFO Amount and LFO Shape don’t do anything via MIDI, and assigning LFO Select to an A300-Pro button didn’t seem to be working, either. This is where I really wish I had access to the Rockit “open source” code so I could verify how it handles MIDI messages. Still waiting for Matt to get back to me on that. Anyway… The A300 has 18 controls that vary from 0 to 127, and that’s not enough to allow for individually mapping both rate, amount and shape for LFO1 AND LFO2 within one map. So, this is where I decide to have two map files.

Bottom line is that I do finally have MIDI messages running from the A300-Pro to the Rockit. I know the concept works. The sound from the headphones is a bit weak, so that justifies writing up another blog entry.

RockIt, part 2

In part 1, I mentioned that the LEDs were turning on and off really slowly, and that I was missing the two side panels for the case. I contacted the designer, and he replied back that he may have set a bit wrong when programming the Arduino EPROM so that it would run on the internal clock rather than from the external 19.66 MHz crystal. After about a week, I received the side panels and a new Arduino. My first thought was that I could desolder the current microcontroller and simply pull it out of the board, but there were two problems with that. First, the pin holes are too narrow and the solder sucker couldn’t get all the solder to set the pin free from the hole. Second, a couple of the pin paths, specifically the ones for the crystal connections, are wide enough to act as heat sinks, so the solder wasn’t melting enough for the sucker to have any effect at all. Instead, I had to resort to cutting the pins off the old chip and pulling them out of the holes one by one with a needle-nose pliers. Definitely sub-optimal, and it still took close to an hour for all 40 pins.

(The Rockit, fully boxed up.)

After replacing the Arduino, I still had the same problem with the kit running too slow. Thinking that the crystal was bad, I decided to first make sure that there wasn’t a hidden short or a broken path by ohming out the board around the crystal. That’s when I found the actual cause – three capacitors, C1, C2 and C3, are in a tight little cluster and the silk screening identifying them is very confusing. The marking for C2 is next to C3, and the marking for C3 is almost half an inch away. C1 and C2 are 22pf, used for balancing the crystal. C3 is 0.1uf and is connected to the Arduino reset pin, for initialization on power up. Since I didn’t have an ohm meter when I bought the Rockit, I had to guess which holes were for C2 and which for C3, and I had a 50% chance of getting them wrong. So, the crystal wasn’t running, and the Arduino wasn’t resetting on power-on. That was easy to fix, and the Rockit is now running more or less correctly. I say “more or less”, because there are so many parts that even if there is a problem with one or two of them, it may not become apparent right away.

(Side panel assembly system.)

As mentioned in part 1, the first version of the kit had a design flaw that prevented MIDI from working correctly with some instruments. The designer included a replacement chip with the kit just in case, but the original chip works fine with the Roland A-300 Pro keyboard. The Rockit has 3 operating modes: normal, drone and loop – selectable with the Drone/Loop button. In normal mode, the box requires a MIDI-capable keyboard to be plugged in, and all of the Rockit controls work as marked on the cover. In drone mode, you can still play from the keyboard, but the box generates its own Gate signal and the ADSR envelop controls get remapped. In loop mode, the keyboard is disabled, and there’s a 16-step loop that’s applied to all of the controls on the box; movement of any control is recorded and played back as part of the loop. The ADSR controls are then remapped to specify the loop rate.

(Close-up of the box assembly hardware. I’m tempted to epoxy the top cover down to the side panels, and then figure out a way to take the cover off as all one unit.)

Even with all of the pots on the box top panel, there are more controllable parameters than controls. There are 2 LFOs (Low Frequency Oscillators) that can be used to vary OSC1 or OSC2 pitch, the LFO cutoff frequency, Resonance, etc. Only 1 LFO is selectable at a time, and each LFO can only be sent to one destination out of 6 available. So, using the box to create the instrument voices is a bit restricted. On the other hand, you can save all of the parameter settings to 1 of 16 memory slots and restore them later, which is useful. But, the best part is that all of the Rockit parameters are accessible via MIDI CC messages, and the A-300 keyboard has 20 programmable sliders and dials. So, the Rockit and the A-300 should be a pretty good match (I need more time to figure out just how good the match is).

(Back panel.)

The Rockit is marketed as being open-source, for both the hardware and software. I’ve asked the designer for instructions on how to update the software, but haven’t gotten a complete reply back yet. He’d mentioned that several people have asked about hacking the software before, but he hadn’t heard back on what, if any, changes had been made to the code. Personally, I’d like to see an Arpeggiator mode added to drone/loop and available via the A-300, and a change to OSC1-OSC2 offset. Right now, OSC2 is tied to OSC1, and the OSC2 pitch is varied in integer note steps. If possible, I’d rather set OSC2 as a percentage of OSC1, which provides a lot more noise for the VCF (voltage-controlled filter) to work with, as well as adding more beat frequencies.


Rockit 8-Bit

While messing around on kickstarter one day, I decided to do a search on synth projects, and got a hit on Hackme’s Rockit 8-Bit kit. The bidding closed on the project in 2011, so I was curious whether it ever went forward as a finished product. With a bit of digging, I found the Hackme site, which has several open source projects. Along with the Rockit, there’s a stripped down version called the Sprockit. The designer, Matt, wrote on the site that there’s only 4 or 5 of the Rockit kits left and when they’re gone, that’s it – he’s moving on to another synth project.

The Rockit has analog oscillators, but all of the voltage controllers are digital and accessible through MIDI calls. Implying that I might be able to configure the Roland A-300 Pro to do whatever I want with it. The kit is open source, and based on the Arduino. Since I like working with the Japanino, it just keeps looking better and better. Plus, the price is about $200, including the case, and it promises to be much more flexible than the PAiA Fatman at 75% of the cost. Finally, my family was going to get it for me as a birthday present…

Building it is pretty much a breeze, compared to the Fatman. I do have some complaints, though. There’s two versions of the kit; the first version had the wrong-shaped holes for the DC power jack, and the MIDI circuit didn’t work with some devices. The second version updated the design, and resulted in some of the resistor values changing. Unfortunately, I received the older version with the wrong resistors, and had to go to the parts shop near my apartment to get the right ones. The kit was also missing 2 other resistors and the side panels for the case. Assembling the circuit board took about 6 hours, which included the time for me to go to the parts shop, and to triple-check my soldering work. I did screw up at one point, though – I wasn’t paying attention and didn’t realize that the MIDI jacks are supposed to be mounted on the bottom of the board. I had to de-solder both of those and put them in correctly. After that, I turned on power to the kit and nothing happened. No lights, nothing. After fiddling with the board and unplugging and plugging it in again, the LEDs turned on but flashed on and off REALLY slowly. I mentioned this to Matt, and he replied that he may have programmed the Arduino to use the internal clock rather than the external crystal. So now, I’m waiting for a new Arduino chip along with the missing case side panels.

The next step will be to unsolder the current Arduino, solder in the new one, and hope I don’t break anything. The kit does have a “drone” mode, which allows the oscillators to free-run independent of the microcontroller. I have to hold the front panel buttons down for several seconds for the kit to recognize them, but drone does work as-is, and it sounds pretty cool. I’m looking forward to getting the Rockit 100% functional and then plugging in the MIDI keyboard to see what I can get out of it.

Otona no Kagaku Newsletter #156

Just got the latest email newsletter. It starts out asking if the reader is enjoying their new pinhole planetarium, then adds that an order of the starfield sheets, and the custom grain of wheat lightbulbs have arrived at the company. Anyone that wants to order spare parts is encouraged to do so.

The editor then states that they’re busy producing the new miniature special effects USB camera kit, scheduled to come out on Sept. 28. With this camera connected to your PC, you can have fun taking photos where small objects look big. The magazine will include instructions for guiding beginners through the process of making their own effects, plus a lecture by SFX wizard Shinji Higuchi. Additional details about the kit will appear in the next newsletter.

The editor adds that the rest of the editorial staff is working on other projects outside of the Otona no Kagaku kit line, and that this newsletter will discuss these latest things.

Table of Contents

  1. Making Fluffy Forest Animal Brooches from Felt Kit
  2. Making a Space Rocket Book
  3. Understanding Particle Physics Through Manga Book
  4. Manga Science, Volume 14

1) Making Fluffy Forest Animal Brooches from Felt Kit

Nosoko, the artist that has been working with felt to produce various animals, has a few new designs for the latest installment in this kit series. Petit Handmade #5: Fluffy Forest Animal Brooches is now on sale. 1,680 yen ($16 USD). Materials, tools and accessories included for making 4 kinds of rabbit or deer head brooches. 35 page instruction book on A5 paper (5.5″ x 8″). Check the Petit Handmade Index for a complete list of all kits.

2) Making a Space Rocket Book

This is an account written by manga artist Yoshitoo Asari about the efforts of a local Japanese rocketry group to build and launch their own DIY rocket. The group was featured in the mook for the Pinhole Planetarium kit. 224 pages, now on sale. 1,365 yen. It’s got failures, it’s got laughs, it’s got explosions. Get it today!

3) The Manga Guide to Elementary Particle Physics

A5 sized, 208 pages, 1,155 yen, on sale Sept. 10th. Produced by Uruno Takuya. It’s priced right, so I may consider getting this book myself.

4) Manga Science, Volume 14

This book was mentioned in the Pinhole Planetarium mook. Yoshitoo Asari had been drawing the Manga Science chapters that had appeared in the Grade 5 Gakken science books, and most of them were collected into 13 volumes. Finally, the next batch of manga chapters is coming out in volume 14. A5 sized, 208 pages, 820 yen, on sale Aug. 28. Chapters include:

  • “What is Radiation?”
  • “The Fire of Atoms: Nuclear Fusion”
  • “What Can Space Do?”
  • “Visible and Non-Visible Stars, and The Sun”
  • “The Invisible Relationship Between the Earth and the Moon”
  • “What Shape Should a Rocket Have?”
  • “Is Air Resistance a Friend or Foe to Airplanes?”
  • “How Can Knives Cut?”
  • “The Sweet Taste of Mushrooms”
  • “What’s the Difference Between Sea and River Fish?”
  • “What Shape is the Galaxy?”

Some of these chapters have also appeared in previous Otona no Kagaku mooks. Specifically, “Air Resistance”, “What Shape is the Galaxy” and “Knives”.


There’s been a little activity on Facebook lately, too.

Back on Aug. 22nd, Gakken held a contest for high school kids to come up with science kit ideas. A couple photos of the Otona no Kagaku exhibit created for the event were shared on the FB page.

On Aug. 23, the Otona no Kagaku page announced that a lot of new info was posted on the Gakken FB page. Most of this new information is unrelated to the Otona no Kagaku product line.

Sept. 2nd, there was an announcement for Manga Science volume 14 going on sale.

At the same time, there was an announcement for “Understanding Elementary Particles” going on sale.

Tuning the Fatman

I doubt anyone is ever going to need this file, but since I’m doing this work, I might as well record it to have something to go back to.

(My set-up. The A-300 is on the floor to the right, propped up against the table.)

The PAiA Fatman has been around at least since 1999 (copyright data printed on the main circuit board), and the instructions really haven’t been updated since then. So, I’m assuming that I’m in the minority of new customers that don’t know how to tune it based on “C” and “octaves”. The instructions for tuning the synth tell you to press the lowest “C” key on your keyboard, set the pitch control to match a reference note from a tuned keyboard, and then tweak the trim pots to properly adjust VCO2. Then, go to the highest “C”, repeat the process for 4 octaves up, do the same thing for the “C” notes in the middle for the middle octaves, and finally either do the entire process a couple times to get VCO1 and VCO2 in perfect harmony at both ends of the scale, or not. While there’s a suggestion for using an oscilloscope or frequency counter instead, there’s no mention of the actual frequency numbers that are needed for each “C”. Since I don’t have a scope, frequency counter or reference synth, I’d look to be out of luck.

(Japanino in freq. counter mode.)

However, I do have the Gakken version of the Arduino micro-controller, the Japanino, with the LCD shield. I can hack together a very simple sampling o-scope and a frequency counter, as long as I’m careful about not applying too large a signal to the Japanino analog in pins. I could save myself a bit of worry by replacing the 3-AA battery pack with a 4-AA pack and get Vcc up to 6V (some of the signals in the Fatman are 7V) and then put a potentiometer in series with the analog in pin as an amplitude control. But for right now, that’s not really necessary.

(Jumpers on the pot. controls are running to the Japanino.)

The Fatman only recognizes MIDI notes in the range from 36 to 84. If you look at a MIDI to frequency table, you’ll see that the lowest usable key is generally note 21, which is A0, or 27.5 hz. Anything below this is really hard to hear with the human ear. C1 is note 24, at 32.7 Hz. For the Fatman, the lowest key is MIDI note 36, which is C2, at 65.4 hz. The PAiA tuning instructions refers to this as “C0”. The highest used note is 84, “C6”, at 1046.5 hz. This then gives us the other C’s as:

C# Note# Hz
C0 36 65
C1 48 130
C2 60 261
C3 72 523
C4 84 1046

We don’t need to be dead-on with the frequencies, “close enough” is good enough. PAiA suggests as an alternative to a reference synth to use the online tuning fork. I think having the freq. counter sketch on the Japanino will be fine. What does make a big difference is having Offset at the middle of the range, pointing to Unison, and most of the other controls also at midrange just to get an audible signal to the speakers.

(Finished Fatman all boxed up.)

The Fatman doesn’t have its own MIDI keyboard, so I’m using my Roland A-300 Pro. This is a 32-key MIDI controller with +/- octave shift keys. The easiest approach is to hook the A-300 to the Fatman MIDI IN, then press the -Octave button on the keyboard and depress the lowest keyboard key until there’s no sound out from the Fatman. Work up the keyboard keys until you get the first playable note, and that’s going to be C0 for our purposes. Follow the tuning instructions for the Fatman. Then count up 12 white and black keys to C1, and adjust the R13 trimmer to give a frequency of roughly 130 hz. Use the +Octave button to shift the keyboard and press the notes to get the highest playable one. This will be C4, and count down 12 black and white keys to get to C3, and adjust R18 to 520 hz. Count down 12 keys to C2 and adjust with R21, and again to C1 and adjust R24. The last step is to set Offset to Unison and adjust R42 so that VCO1 and VCO2 are at the same frequency.

(Back panel. The only thing I wish were different is having an AC plug-in jack, rather than having the power adapter permanently wired to the box. Note the Pitch, Vel. and Gate RCA jacks. These allow you to send voltage out signals to other equipment.)

I initially tried to connect the Japanino A0 analog pin to the H pin of the output speaker jack, with GND to the G pin of the jack, but the scope sketch wasn’t registering any kind of signal. Instead, I connected A0 to the leftmost pin of the R56 control (VCO1/2 Mixer), and that gave me a large enough signal to work with, without threatening to damage the Japanino. I think having straight numbers out on the LCD shield speeds up the tuning process a lot.

(Bottom of the box. The bottom panel has gaps at the front and back for cooling air flow. The cutout in the upper right corner lets you get at the DIP switch for setting the MIDI port number.)

I think I’ve got the thing tuned for my purposes. There are a few mods on the internet that I may add later, so if I do go back and open the case up again to put in a mod or two, I can always do some retuning if necessary. The next step is to just find out what it can do as-is.)