Getting Started: DIY Synthesizer Kits

Building a synthesizer or synthesizer  module is one of the most enjoyable things in life.  At least to me. One of the things I noticed about many of the early synthesists, many learned on how to make. Daphne Oram, Laurie Spiegel, and many other synthesists were introduced to electronics very early in their childhood. I highly recommend if you have daughters, that you please introduce your daughters to electronics DIY. Especially if they have a crafty side. I know this may sound like a record on repeat at this point, but there are far too few women in technology and engineering. Building synths from PCB boards  and electronic kits is one only a great introduction to synthesizers, but also having a deeper understanding of how technology works and making in general.

This is a little bit of a warning, building DIY from synthesizers does entail some risk for some kits. DIY electronics often involves soldering, and all of these have an appropriate age and maturity level to get started. If you are doing this with your child, and  feel your kid is not ready for a soldering iron, there are alternatives I will list later in this post. As fun as it is, and make no mistake, soldering  involves a very hot device, and testing things sometimes that involve electricity.  With that being said, the kits I am going to be recommending to start are pretty simple and easy to get started on, they often include comprehensive documentation. If following the instructions in the documentation the risk for injury is low. Also some kits are explicitly made for a wide age range.

First off, if you are planning on building synthesizers from PCBs, you will need the following things: a Soldering Iron ideally with a temperature gauge and multiple tips, good solder (Kester No-Clean Flux 63/37 Solder), flux, a good multimeter (there is no reason to spend a ton), wire cutters, a wire stripper, a solder tip cleaner (non-wet), a solder wick, a solder sucker, and small screwdrivers. It is also good idea to have a decent lamp and magnifying glass with a gooseneck.  This may seem like a great deal but it will all last a long time. One option is to have an oscilloscope for calibration as well, but that is not necessary to get started with building.  It is a good idea to always do this in a well ventilated room with a fan. In terms of safety, safety goggles and a mask are recommended if you are soldering. The mask for the fumes, the goggles are for obvious reasons.

There are so many good guides on “how to solder” on youtube.  Instead of providing an explanation, I actually think that watching one of these videos is more helpful than anything I can explain.

It should be noted, that in general you should start by checking the board with the multimeter, and the components. Start by soldering the resistors first, then the rest of the smaller components like the caps and chips. This is called stuffing the board. Once you get those out of the way, then the other components come into play, with the LEDs, pots, and wiring usually being the last things that are done. During the last steps of the process you begin testing the device to confirm it’s functionality before mounting it to it’s case or panel. Again, this will be covered in the documentation for what you are building, or any online build guide.

While there are several companies that make appropriate DIY kits to start out with. I will be starting a page with all the resources for things such as DIY kits I can find. However, for this purpose I will start with the two which are both the most commonly found, but also the most beginner friendly.

Adult and Older Child Beginner Friendly

4MS

4MS has become known in the modular DIY community as one of the best starting points for DIY synthesizer modules. Their Eurorack modular kits have some of the best documentation for DIY electronics out there. These guides are not just good for building their modules, but as a general educational resource for getting started with modular synthesizers. The downside to the 4MS modular kits is you already have to be into modular synthesizers, since it requires you already have a eurorack case and power supply to start off. But if you are already into modular synthesizers and have a eurorack system, this is a great place to start.  With that being said, their guitar pedal kits offer a good alternative to their eurorack systems.

4MS also makes guitar pedal kits that are self oscillating in some cases. The pedals themselves in many ways are mini-drone synths. There are people in the experimental community that “play pedals” for drone and noise music. The 4MS pedals are appropriate for this. Some of these pedal kits can be used as stand alone devices, so even if you do not have a modular synthesizer this does not mean you will miss out on these great kits. The cool thing about pedals is in some ways you can create your own signal chains.

Kid Friendly

Moog Music

While the werkstatt-01 and the moog theremin kits are not the strongest start for adults as they do not introduce full component building, they do both provide a quick introduction to some of the very basics of both DIY and synthesis. These kits are highly recommended for people who are doing this with their kids, and want something that is both fun and educational. The best part of the werkstatt is it can expand outside just what is provided with the kit.

Korg Music and littleBits

Korg Music worked with littlebits for an introductory synth kits. littleBits is a beginner DIY electronics system that is meant for education and experimentation. The company was founded by Ayah Badier, a female engineer. I HIGHLY recommend if you have kids you introduce them to littleBits period, and the Korg kit is one of the most common and fun. The nice thing about little bits is if you feel your kid is not ready for soldering, they can still make with these kits. I should note, littleBits beauty is they are also useful for adults to get started and play with.

Other Notable DIY Resources:

Ken Stones CGS

Ken Stone is where one can get Serge and CGS PCBs. These PCB projects are considered rather advanced.

Electro-music forum 

The electro voice forum has been around for a very long time. It is one of the largest synth DIY communities on the internet.

Muffwiggler Forum Music Tech DIY Subsection

While I would not recommend spending time on some sections of the forum, the DIY subsection is an incredibly useful resource and the site of many new and interesting DIY projects. If you keep just to this section of the board your experience will be positive.

Adafruit

Adafruit is a source for DIY supplies and in some cases kits. It has all sorts of interesting DIY electronics projects and 3D printers as well. It is also a female founded business, Limor Fried the founder is also behind the legendary xoxbox project. Adafruit always seems to have some smaller DIY music projects worth exploring.

Mouser

mousercat

Mouser is one of the largest component retailers in the world. This is where you get resistors, caps, chips, and other fun stuff.

Synthcube

Synthcube is both a resource for rare parts, but also many pcbs and panels for synths

Thonk

Thonk sells various synthesizer kits and sometimes components. They are UK based and highly recommended for those in Europe.

Elby Designs

Elby designs sells both component kits, stand alone synth kits,  as well as Panther DIY modules. Panther is produces many of the IAN fritz DIY kits for Eurorack.

The Bridechamber

The bridechamber sells a large number of DIY kits for dotcom and MOTM 5U modular format.

COA Modular

COA has both DIY synth workshops in SF and frequently releases the serge panels that can be used with CGS PCBs. Dmitri can also make custom designed unbuilt serge panels if you have a specific idea, but do not have the resources to make the panel.