Built a Zynthian 4.2!


Constructing the incredible Zynthian 4.2 synthesizer solved a number of problems all at once. 

I had already had some good experiences experimenting with the Raspberry Pi3B for electronic music, which clearly showed the potential. However, for those early experiments, the Pi3B was used "like a computer," with attached monitor, keyboard, and some kind of pointing device (I happened to prefer an integral trackpad with the keyboard). The sound creation potential, and the amount of polyphony possible was enormous for a cheap little ARM-based Linux board. Having a computer-like interface for control of realtime sound though was not so thrilling: it was not like a "synthesizer."

So it was also clear that a Raspberry Pi could be hacked to provide realtime controls, switches, indicators, graphic displays, valuators, etc. And it even supported a touch screen. To do this would require engineering some kind of user interface hardware. More particularly layers of software too. It would also make sense to tweak the Linux implementation for lowest latency response. That just seemed like a lot of work, something that could take months and months for a solo person to do. A not small consideration is what kind of UI should be created, which takes a lot of effort to do well.

Enter the Zynthian Open Synth Platform. A community of like-minded people have constructed the layered software, including a tweaked Linux implementation. But they also provide hardware kits to expedite SDIY construction of a working system. You're not required to use these kits; the software can certainly be made to work on a stock Rasberry Pi, with new or alternative hardware. And the platform itself is hackable, designed to be expanded in both hardware and software.

I'd seen an earlier Zynthian based on the Raspberry Pi3B, but what pushed me over the edge to get a kit was that their new implementation was made with the Raspberry Pi4B. I had been kind of "collecting" sets of these little computers, for various tasks, including a CAD workstation and to support some Software Defined Radios. I much prefer Debian, which the Raspberry Pi's all use. This blends quite well with the Debian Crostini container I also use on a Google Pixelbook. The new Pi4B is a much more powerful computer, including support for more RAM. This latest RPi uprade motivated me to rethink about using it as an embedded computer for constructing an electronic music synthesizer. Then I remembered the Zynthian, and when I saw that it was based on the Pi4B: OK, that's it! Let's get one of these! 

I was ecstatic getting first boot out of this little box. Then I hooked up a MIDI keyboard, and began playing with it for some hours. Incredibly powerful box, and the UI is intuitive.

The fotos below show various stages of construction. It was completely solderless, just mechanical assembly. And not too difficult, I just followed the instructions on the web. I took my time, and I think it took maybe 4 hours, interrupted a bit with some rest breaks.