This post concerns a very interesting device which was made a few years ago by Radica, a Mattel company. It was manufactured for a very short time between 2009 and 2010, and supported only until 2011, but examples still appear on eBay, sometimes for very reasonable prices. I got mine for less than £10, which I thought was pretty good for a comparatively sophisticated machine.
The way it works is by playing loops, which you can choose from its memory – one each from 4 banks of 3 loops, in the categories ‘Back Beats’, ‘Riffs’, ‘Licks’ and ‘Runs’ – and apply effects to. You can also record two of your own samples to add into the mix.
This is how you would normally use it (ignore the toggle switch and sockets on the left-hand side: this and other modifications I made are described later):
There are two reasons why the UCreate captured the imagination of electronic music-makers. First of all, you could connect it to your home computer via a USB socket on the back and make use of software that would allow you to save recordings of songs, reorganise the loops and effects and download new loops from Mattel’s UCreate website. I’ll return to this topic later.
The second thing was the range of 8 special effects, and the fact that these are available not only to the loops played back by the UCreate, but also to any audio source connected to the Mic or Line in sockets. The effects – referred to as ‘FX and Filters’ – comprise Tremolo, Distortion, Flanger, Phaser and Echo, a variable low-pass filter, and two unique and unusual effects called Forward/Reverse Looper and Rewind Spin Looper. These work by recording very short samples and replaying them in various ways controlled by the user.
The way the effects are controlled is also highly unusual: a large Button on the front panel can be pushed and tilted left/right and up/down to vary two parameters of the effect – for example left/right controls the speed of the flanger, up/down controls the depth. If you find a setting you want to leave for a while, a ‘Hold’ button fixes it where you’ve set it until ‘Hold’ is pressed again. The fact that the whole Button is lit up when in use with flashing blue LEDs is just the icing on the cake.
Leaving aside the loop playback feature for the moment, this effectively makes the UCreate an inexpensive, but versatile multi-effects unit, playable in real time. Although only one of the effects is available at a time, the Forward/Reverse Looper and Rewind Spin Looper in particular, together with the ability to control these in real time with the Big Button, makes the UCreate a useful and unconventional device to have.
I began by using the UCreate in this way, making just a couple of small modifications to it.
First, I added a socket for an external power source; then, as I had done with a number of my other instruments, I added banana sockets for connecting a larger external 8ohm speaker and a DPDT switch to cut out the internal speaker when this is in use. There is a headphone/external speaker socket on the back of the Ucreate (which also cuts out the internal speaker when a plug is inserted), but this is a 3.5mm stereo socket, as you would find on a PC or mp3 player and is more suitable for use as a Line out.
These are the audio and USB sockets on the back of the device:
Next, imagining a situation when both hands might be occupied in operating the loops and effects and not able to control the volume, I added a socket for an external volume pedal. This was a 3.5mm stereo socket with internal switches, like the Line out socket. I used a small size socket purely because of the lack of space inside the case.
On the small circuit board attached to the on/off/volume control, I broke the connection to the centre of the volume potentiometer and rewired it to the socket so that when nothing was plugged into it, it was connected directly to the main Ucreate circuit board, as originally designed; when the volume pedal was plugged in, the potentiometer in the volume pedal was added into the circuit. This would enable the maximum volume to be set by the original volume control and the pedal to move between this and zero volume.
The pedal itself was simply a cheap second-hand Bespeco volume pedal. I removed the original sockets and the circuit board inside and connected the potentiometer to a 3.5mm socket, wired in a similar way to the socket inside the Ucreate. The tip was connected to the input from the Ucreate and the ‘high’ end of the potentiometer in the pedal, the sleeve to Ground and the ‘low’ end of the potentiometer, and the ring to the potentiometer wiper, the centre tag. (I should have built this before, as it would have been useful with many of the instruments I had made or modified, and I’ll have to consider retro-fitting sockets to them so it can be used).
I then decided to take a closer look at the big control Button. I tried dismantling the mechanism, but couldn’t seem to get it completely apart. This may have been because it was pressed or glued together after the circuit board was wired in, and I wasn’t going to risk breaking it by trying to prise it apart if it wasn’t meant to do that.
However, I got it apart far enough to see that it used a joystick for the left and right and up down movement. This was mounted on a small PCB, and on the bottom of the PCB there were three momentary switches, set out in a triangle. These were like the ones you often get on game controllers: they’re soft and squishy, and when you press them they join two contacts on the PCB; when you take your finger off, they spring back into shape and the connection is broken.
All three switches were connected the same, and later experimentation showed that they had exactly the same function as the ‘Hold’ button, except they were momentary instead of latching.
This gave me two thoughts: first of all, with essentially a joystick and a momentary switch under it, it would be possible to use the UCreate’s Big Button to control another instrument or effect that normally used a joystick or two separate potentiometers; and secondly, there was no reason why the UCreate couldn’t be controlled by two potentiometers or an external joystick.
The way to do this would be to put the Button back and separate the connection between the UCreate’s main PCB and the Button PCB, and then route these connections elsewhere.
The link was made with a 9 way ribbon cable; the names of these 9 connections were printed on the main PCB, and even where this didn’t mean a lot, it was easy to follow the the tracks on the Button PCB and see what their functions were. So I cut the cable.
From top to bottom, the connections were:
VCC_33 – which connected to one side of all three switches
IOA15 – connected to the other side of the three switches
GND_ADCVCC33 – connected to one end of the two joystick potentiometers (the ‘low’ end, presumably)
LINE 3 – the centre tag of one of the potentiometers (the ‘up/down’ one, which I called ‘Pot 2′)
ADCPVCC33 – the other end (‘high’ end) of both potentiometers
LINE 2 – the centre tag of the other (‘left/right’) potentimeter which I called ‘Pot 1′
R154_1 – one side of one of pair of surface-mounted blue LEDs on the Button PCB
R68_1 – one side of the other LED
V BAT – the other side of both LEDs (+6v, presumably)
Essentially what I did was to connect the end of the ribbon cable that came from the main PCB directly to a DB9 connector on the back on the case. This was marked ‘In’. The other end of the ribbon cable, the one from the Button PCB, was connected to another DB9 connector, marked ‘Out’.
In this way, if you wanted to control the UCreate from another device – a larger joystick, perhaps – all you would need to do was connect it to the DB9 ‘In’ socket; if you wanted to control another device with the Big Button, you would connect the other device to the DB9 ‘Out’ socket; and to use the UCreate as normal, just connect the two sockets together with a DB9 cable.
In order to make space for the DB9 sockets, which are quite big, I had to remove part of the bottom half of the case, which stuck up inside:
I think this was probably a carrying handle, but I didn’t think I needed it, so I sawed it off and created a lot more space in the back of the case.
In fact, I didn’t connect the Button directly to the ‘Out’ socket. Although the Button works brilliantly well for the Reverse and Rewind ‘stuttering’ or ‘scratching’ effects, there was a lack of precision when it came to such things as the filter cut-off frequency, speed and depth of flanging, and so forth. Apart from anything else, joysticks don’t usually use much of the possible travel of an ordinary potentiometer, so there was also a restricted range over which the Button was operating.
So I decide to squeeze a couple of potentiometers into the case, which would be selectable in place of the Button. The two connections for the centre tags of the potentiometers (‘Line 2′ and ‘Line 3′) coming from the Button PCB went to one side of a DPDT switch, and the poles went to the DB9 ‘Out’ socket. The wires from the other side of the DPDT switch went to the centre tags of two potentiometers, which I squeezed in the front of the case. The two connections for the ends of the potentiometers went to the potentiometers and to the socket.
In the event, I also added a 10k preset, set at about halfway, in the circuit at the potentometers’ ‘bottom’ end: it seemed to me that some parameters – e.g. the filter cut-off frequency, and the volume pot when using the tremolo effect – were going too low, at the expense of effects that could be obtained with higher resistance.
The way the UCreate works, the potentiometers - and the potentiometers under the Button, come to that – have no effect unless one of the ‘Hold’ buttons is pressed, so I needed to add a momentary button, preferably somewhere near the potentiometers. There was just about room, and what I decided to use was a toggle switch with a centre off position, momentary on in one direction, latching on in the other. This would enable me to engage the momentary switch, adjust a potentiometer, then when I had exactly the sound I wanted, latch the switch on. So the two connections for the switch went both to the DB9 socket and to this new switch.
In fact, they went to a third place: a standard (1/4″ or 6.35mm) mono jack socket to which a ‘Hold’ footswitch could be attached. I used a standard size jack in this instance because I had some nice ready-made footswitches: they’re apparently sold for use with tattoo machines, but come with standard jacks attached, which is very handy.
So that’s how I modified my UCreate, producing a versatile and quite easy to use multi-effects device. This picture summarises most of the changes I made:
I don’t know if they’re all the same, but the grille on the front of mine came off very easily, so I took the opportunity to remind myself of what the 8 effects are, and what order they come in.
The front and back of the device now look like this:
and here’s what it looks like in operation: