The SoftPot Stylophone

Ever since I found out about the ‘SoftPot’, I wanted to use one to control a stylophone.

A SoftPot, if you’ve never come across one, is a type of slider potentiometer – but not a metal one with a knob, like a fader on a mixer: it’s a wafer-thin piece of flexible plastic, and you operate it by pressing on it with your finger, or an ‘actuator’ – something like a pen will do, but it’s better if it has a rounded end not a pointed one, as that won’t damage the thin plastic. It looks like this:

(This is one which still has its backing sheet.  The SoftPot itself is transparent, and sticky on the back).

The normal SoftPot value is 10k. When I looked at stylophone circuits, I realised that in most cases 10k isn’t going to do much. The pitch pot I added to The Alien – a modern reissue stylophone – was 2.2M, and although that amount of variation in pitch wouldn’t really be necessary, 10k would only represent a few notes.

So I looked at one of the original 1970s stylophones, and saw more possibilities there, so I bought one from eBay with a slightly damaged keyboard.

The definitive guide to the sounds and circuitry of the original stylophone is at http://www.waitingforfriday.com/index.php/Reverse_Engineering_the_Stylophone, but the particular circuit variation of the one I had was not quite the same as the one they had. The circuit of mine was like this:

The values of the resistors are a bit blurry in this scan, but you can see that 10k isn’t going to affect the pitch very much if connected to the resistor ladder on the left – along most of the scale, this would represent only about 2 or 3 semitones.

So I concentrated on the area where there is a tuning pot and a resistor to +v and resistor to ground. The tuning pot, which was 25k, allows the stylophone to be tuned, but doesn’t really cover more than about half an octave – still not enough to play tunes effectively.

At first, I tried varying the 470Ω resistor to +V and the 820Ω resistor to ground, but to little effect: adding a 1k variable resistor to the +V end, in series with the 470Ω, and turning it down a bit did seem to help, but in the end the effect I wanted to achieve – a variation between top and bottom of a couple of octaves – was achieved first of all by reducing the tuning pot value to 10k, the magic number, the same value as the SoftPot.

Secondly, the stylophone version I was working on had a resistor in parallel with the tuning pot – a very small one of about 270Ω. Replacing this with a resistance of 1k seemed to do the trick – and in fact I added a 1k potentiometer, as this would function as a narrow-to-wide control of the note range, in tandem with the 10k tuning pot.

A 3.5mm stereo switched socket on the side of the stylophone would allow the stylophone to function normally, when required, but anything plugged into the socket would replace the tuning potentiometer in the circuit. This is how the SoftPot would be attached.

That part of the circuit now looked like this:

and the SoftPot Stylophone looked like this:

The next thing was to make a unit for the SoftPot which could be plugged in when required. This was quite a minimalist design, and was put together like this:

The SoftPot, as previously mentioned, is sticky on the back, so was stuck to a piece of 2mm acrylic sheet cut to fit on top of the keyboard, just clear of the power and vibrato switches, and nestling inside the lip on the right hand side. Underneath this was stuck a smaller piece of 2mm acrylic which fitted inside the keyboard cut-out, and stopped the whole thing from moving as it was played.  These three layers were stuck together, but weren’t stuck down to the keyboard.

The soft pot terminals came attached to a 3 pin socket, the same size as the ones you get for PCB headers. I had some of these, so made up a lead with a 3.5mm stereo plug on one end, and a 3-pin PCB header plug on the other.

You may be able to see from the back of the attachment how it was put together to fit firmly into the keyboard recess:

The SoftPot assembly fitted in place, and was ready to go. All it needed was an actuator – like a pen, but with a rounded end. And, of course, the stylophone has one of these already: the stylus which gives it its name! So the SoftPot Stylophone can still be played with the stylus in the traditional manner, but moving up and down the SoftPot, like a ribbon controller.

There was just one more change to make to the circuit before this could happen. The Stylophone sounds when the +V in the stylus contacts a key, which is in turn connected somewhere within the resistor ladder. Now that the keys had been covered up, there would be no sound without a connection between the resistor ladder and +V – the stylus only pushes the SoftPot together, and the connection is made internally.

As with The Alien and The Hedgehog, I simply made an internal connection between +V and one of the resistors in the ladder – the highest note – operated by closing a switch. Try as I might, I couldn’t arrive at a situation where the SoftPot Stylophone was silent until the Softpot was activated, but still gave a good note range.  So I added a volume control – a feature which any stylophone would benefit from – and when you play, you can turn the volume down when not sounding a note with the SoftPot.

Before finishing up, I added a socket to allow the SoftPot Stylophone to be operated from an external power source, a switch to cut out the internal speaker (this is not done automatically when the lineout socket is used), and a switch to cut out the low-pass filter in the line-out circuit.

These original stylophones are famous for having a simple resistor-capacitor tone control on the line-out circuit which is not in the circuit to the internal speaker. This is the main reason why stylophones sound so different when the line-out socket is used. When you see pop musicians who use the stylophone at live gigs holding their instrument up to the vocal mic as they play, this is not mere theatricality: it is theatricality, of course, but it’s also the only way to get an unmodified stylophone to sound the same to a stadium or festival audience as it does to you when you play it ‘unplugged’ at home.

The other end of the circuit now looked like this:

Finally, I made a small modification for the benefit of a future project which I haven’t yet started on. I added another 3.5mm stereo socket configured in a similar way to the SoftPot input socket. In normal or SoftPot operation the resistor ladder is connected into the circuit; but anything plugged into this socket replaces the resistor ladder.


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