Archive for the 'Construction' Category


Piezos & Electrets Pt 4 – Electronics and a very, very simple PT2399 echo/delay

In the previous post in the piezo series I had prepared 4 percussion instruments, all based on making sounds to be picked up by piezo discs.  In the picture below, the one on the left has 4 lengths of piano wire soldered to a large (50mm diameter) piezo; the second one has a snare from a snare drum attached to a large, shallow tin; the third one has an adjustable rubber-lined clip designed to hold a Latin American-style rainstick; and the right-hand one is a circle of sandpaper with a piezo disc firmly superglued to the back.

In the electret series I had made 2 new instruments in which sounds would be picked up by electret elements, and had identified 2 existing instruments, a xylophone and glockenspiel, which needed amplifying in a similar way.  Each of the instruments had its own appropriate preamp, either a piezo type or electret type, as described earlier in the series.


Next, one of the things I felt percussion instruments would benefit from was a reverb/delay circuit, and I had been looking around for a long time for something suitable.  In particular I was looking for a circuit that would be inexpensive, simple to put together, and easily repeatable in different units I might construct or circuit-bend.

Once I came across the PT2399 chip, I knew I’d found the answer.

According to the datasheet, the PT2399 is ‘an echo audio processor IC utilizing CMOS Technology which is equipped with ADC and DAC, high sampling frequency and an internal memory of 44K.  Digital processing is used to generate the delay time, it also features an internal VCO circuit in the system clock, thereby making the frequency easily adjustable.  PT2399 boast very low distortion (THD<0.5%) and very low noise (No<-90dBV), thus producing high quality audio output.  The pin assignments and application circuit are optimized for easy PCB layout and cost saving advantage.’

I managed to get a number of them at about 11p or 12p each, and researched the simplest circuits I could find to make a suitable delay unit.  I found one here: and put it together.

I simplified the circuit even more, and adjusted some of the capacitor values to lengthen the delay time and keep the noise to a minimum, and ended up with this first version:

I haven’t labelled it, but the volume pot is 10k.  Ideally, this should be a log pot, although lin pots are usually cheaper and easier to come by these days.  The component values are all very standardised, as I bought these values in bulk – using either resistors or capacitors in series or parallel, you can get close to other typical values.  These values worked fine for me in this context, however.  The value of 50k (lin) was chosen for the ‘Delay Time’ control as it gave a very wide range of delay times.

In this configuration, the repeat function is fully on, but when the ‘Delay’ control is turned fully anti-clockwise, there are no repeats.


One of the slight problems with the PT2399 is its very strict voltage requirements: below about 4.5v it’s unlikely to work; above 6v and it will probably be damaged.  I tested it with three 1.5v batteries, which was my original intended power supply for the percussion instruments, and it worked fine.

I first wanted to build a stand-alone circuit, however, and for this I used the usual 9v PP3 battery and a voltage regulator to reduce 9v to 5v, which is the PT2399’s preferred supply.

The voltage regulators were small DC-DC modules I bought for about 45p each, so didn’t increase the cost of the device too much.  These modules will accept an input voltage of up to 28v, and the output voltage can be adjusted from about 1v to 20v.

This view of the finished circuit shows how I put it together: there is no circuit board, but most of the components are soldered to the pins of the i.c. socket holding the PT2399.

Made in this way, the circuit would take up very little space in, for example, the restricted space of a circuit-bent keyboard or toy.  The 10uF DC-blocking capacitors and the volume control might also not be needed in some applications.  It might be somewhat lo-fi, but should be fine in the situations in which I plan to use it.

I decided to house this stand-alone circuit in one of the plastic jewel boxes I had used before for the Active Tone Control and Low-Pass Filter, as mentioned above, and the Touch-Radio.  Because of the minimal component count and no circuit board, even with the voltage regulator module, there was no problem fitting everything in the box:

The completed unit looked like this:


After trying the circuit out in this way, I decided to put one of these units into each of the percussion instruments, and in the case of the piezo-based ones, I made up the preamp circuit boards with the PT2399’s included.

I wanted to be able to adjust the number of repeats this time, so I experimented a bit and came up with the following development of the circuit above.  Since making the drawing and further experimenting with the percussion instruments, I changed the ‘REPEATS’ potentiometer to 50k; in some cases, depending on the sound from the instrument itself, I increased the added resistance here from 15k to 20k:

In this case I experienced problems connecting the preamp output directly to the input of the PT2399 circuit; so I added a 2k resistor (actually two 1k resistors in series) between the preamp output and PT2399 input – point ‘A’ in the above diagram.

It was at this point when I noticed that the output sound of the PT2399 didn’t include the sound at the input! . . . So, in order to hear the original as well as the delayed version, I used the other half of the TL072 as a simple mixer – it’s a dual op amp chip, and only one of them is used for the piezo preamp.

The circuit looked like this:

Although, in fact, the PT2399 output required 200k-500k, depending on the device, to balance the volume with the ‘dry’ signal.  The power connections – 4.5v to pin 8, 0v to pin 4, and 2.25v to pin 5 – were already in place for the half of the TL072 used for the piezo preamp).


I added one of these boards to each of the four piezo percussion units, plus a volume control between the mixer and the output socket – the odd one out being the one for the rainstick, which was designed to be a stereo device.  This meant doubling up each of the elements of the circuit: 2 preamps, 2 PT2399’s and 2 mixers; and using dual potentiometers for delay time, repeats and volume.  As the stereo preamp used both halves of the TL072, a second one was needed for the mixer left and right channels.

Here’s a sound file of the ‘Snare’ instrument, the Piano String instrument and the Sandpaper instrument.  Bear in mind that these are not being struck with any force: on the contrary, they’re being tapped very lightly with a thin disposable wooden coffee stirrer.


I wanted to do one more thing with the Sandpaper instrument before moving on.  The scratching sound covered a wide frequency range, and I thought it would be interesting to vary the sound by putting it through a low pass filter.

I had made a couple of these filters before, in the Optical Theremin, and as a stand-alone unit, using the 741-based filter from the Music From Outer Space website.  These were so simple and effective, I thought I’d use the same one again.  Here is the circuit:

This circuit was placed after the mixer stage described above.  I added a 1k resistor at the input, and at the output a 1M preset and a 10uF capacitor.  The only change I made to the circuit as shown was  to use a 500k potentiometer in place of the 1M potentiometer for the cut-off frequency, and didn’t include a ‘Fine’ control.

This picture shows how few components are needed to make an excellent filter.  There are two circuits on this small board:

This filter proved very effective, and sounded like this:


I then moved on to the instruments with the plastic bottles and the electrets.  I glued the electrets to the acrylic tubes, and the tubes to the wooden bases, then connected the electrets to the circuit boards I had prepared, each containing both a preamp and a PT2399 Echo circuit.

This is what they sounded like:

I was basically satisfied with the sounds I’d obtained.  The next article in the series describes how I finished the instruments off.


Electret microphones Pt 2 – Practical applications

After constructing some preamp circuits for electret microphones, as described in the first article in this series, I started to look at different uses for them.

First of all, I had some conventional instruments to amplify – a xylophone and a glockenspiel; secondly, I wanted to make percussion instruments from some plastic bottles.


I had a collection of plastic bottles, which would be suitable for tuned (or semi-tuned) percussion.  I sawed the ends off, leaving them at different lengths – and therefore sounding at different pitches – and prepared a framework to attach them to.  This consisted of small square trays which I bought, and 2x2cm wood, which I cut to length.

I then glued the bottles to each side of the central post:

Each bottle would have an electret microphone inside.  The electret elements were salvaged from part of a job lot of voice memo recorders which I bought in bulk on eBay.  These were said to be non-working, but their only problem seemed to be that the coin-type batteries had run down.  The electret element can be seen in position at the top of the right-hand picture below.

The electrets were to be mounted inside the plastic bottles on short lengths of rigid acrylic tubing.

The pictures below give an idea of how the electrets attach to the tubes, and the tubes attach to the instruments’ bases:

Following on from this post, I will describe the xylophone and glockenspiel which also needed an economical method of amplifying; and then installing the electronics for all the new percussion instruments.


Dismantling a hard drive

Note that in the following post I’m describing taking a hard drive apart in order to reuse some of the parts, but have no intention of putting it back together, or making it work again as a hard drive!

This the 3.5″ hard drive I took apart as my first experiment:

Front & Back IMG_1515

I’m sorry the PCB side is rather blurry, but I was less interested in that than what was inside.

The tools required for the job were a small screwdriver set, from which I mostly used a Torx or ‘star’, which I think was size 8, and a very small Philips or crosshead for a couple of screws inside:

Tools IMG_1525

I also needed a large flat-bladed screwdriver, which I used two or three times.  If you’re going to do the same, you may find a few differences in the details – type and positioning of screws, differently shaped fittings, and so forth, but the principles should be the same.

I first removed the circuit board, and put that aside.  Turning it over, you can clearly see in the first picture the 6 screws round the edge of the ‘lid’ which needed removing.

Having taken these out, it seemed that the top was glued in place as well as screwed, so I went round with the large screwdriver, prying it open.  This almost freed it, but it was only after still experiencing considerable difficulty in getting it completely open that I realised there must be another screw somewhere in the middle, under the label.  I scraped away the label until I found it and took it out.  The arrow shows where it was.

Top IMG_1527

I was then able to take the lid right off and expose the inner workings – of which there aren’t actually that many.

Top removed Captioned IMG_1528

The picture shows the disk or disks, one on top of the other, like a stack of pancakes – except there are gaps between them, and the arm is actually several arms, one for each disk; the arm itself with the delicate heads on the end which read the data from the disks, and with its other end moving between two magnets (not visible at the moment); and finally a flexible plastic multi-way ‘cable’ which joins the arm – and some small circuitry on the arm – to a connector.  This would have poked through a gap in the case to connect to the circuit board  on the other side.

Later on, connections will have to made to some very, very tiny points on the arm, and it’s going to be a lot easier to trace these points back to the connector, so its important not to damage the plastic cable.  The connector could be poked out from the other side, once it two fixing screws had been removed.

The fitting obscuring the back end of the arm wasn’t – in this model of drive anyway – screwed in place, it was just slotted on some pins and just needed prising off.  I believe the magnets in hard drives are made of neodymium.  This is classed as a ‘rare earth’ (although it’s isn’t actually any rarer than, say, copper) and makes very strong magnets.  Just be a bit careful as you remove them, and think where you’re going to put them down as you can be surprised at how firmly they grab lighter metal objects.

This picture shows the top magnet fitting removed:

Top Magnet Out Captioned IMG_1529

Once the top magnet is off, it’s possible to move the arm out of the way and get the disks out.  This involves removing 6 screws around the centre (on top of the motor) and two screws at the side. the disks and the various fittings associated with them all come off in layers.  The disks – there were three of them in this drive, look very much like CD’s, with a large hole in the middle, except they’re made of metal.

I put the disks carefully to one side – I had an idea they might be good for chimes or cymbals – and focused on the arm.

With the top magnet out of the way, it was possible to see the so-called ‘voice’ coil’.  Two impossibly tiny wires connected the voice coil with the arm actuation circuitry, and to test that the arm was working I needed to attach a battery to these wires.

In the end these wires were just too small, so I traced them back through the plastic cable to the connector, where it was slightly easier to get at them.  Attaching the battery leads to the two points produced nothing at 4.5v, but at 9v there was a loud and satisfying clunk, which showed that the arm was working fine.


The procedure with the next disk I worked on, a smaller 2.5″ was exactly the same.  The top came off once I had removed the 6 visible screws and the 7th screw hidden under the label.  I needed a smaller Torx/star screwdriver – a size 5 or 6 – for this disk compared to the other one.


This exposed the single disk and arm:


A single screw in the middle of the motor housing allowed the disk to come out.


Removing two screws freed the unit in the bottom right, which connected the arm with the circuit board on the other side.


I prised off the top magnet (bottom left), just to make sure the construction was the same as the 3.5″ drive – which it was.

I replaced the magnet and tested the drive with a battery.  I’d already removed a plastic retainer on the right, by the heads at the end of the arm; I also had to remove the plastic piece which you can see on the left, which was restricting the arm’s movement.  However, once I had done this, applying 9v to the appropriate pins on the connector reliably operated the arm.

In fact, this smaller mechanism would also work with 4.5v, which was a useful discovery.  If parts of the circuitry which would operate it had to be quite low – say, 5v – it could be handy if the arm would also work at the same voltage.


So, I had verified that an arm from an inexpensive broken hard drive could operate as an electrically-operate striker, like a solenoid; that arms from both 3.5″ and 2.5″ drives would work; that the 3.5″ drive arm would operate at 9v; and the 2.5″ drive arm would operate at 4.5v.  It will be some time before I get round to the next part of this project, but the next thing will be to see how the arms could be set up to operate outside the hard drive housing.


Piezos Pt 3 – Amplifying and creating instruments

After preparing the discs and the buffer/amplifier in Part 2 of this series, I looked around for different instruments that could effectively be amplified and recorded with the use of piezo elements.

I also tried a few inexpensive commercial piezo contact mics, like these:

The top one (Cost: approx £1.50) has quite a large piezo disc inside a plastic cover and a sticky pad to fix it to the surface which is to be amplified; the bottom one (Cost: £1.25) is built into a (not-too-strong) plastic clip, with a foam pad to protect the disc.


The more solidly the piezo is connected to the sound-producing surface, the better the sound obtained.  In other words, it’s best if the disc can be glued to the surface.  I did this with some of the non-valuable items:

However, I wasn’t keen on making this permanent addition to my instruments, and  looked for different ways of making temporary connections.  Each of these could be useful in different circumstances:

This double-sided tape is described as ‘removable’, and is less likely to damage either the piezo element or the instrument it’s stuck to, so is a good choice – although, at about £7.00, was rather expensive.   I hope to make use of it elsewhere in the house!  It’s also more suitable for a one-off performance or recording.  I’ve also read that Blu-Tac works in a similar way, although my experience is that it can leave marks; elsewhere I’ve read that insulating tape can be used – that might also be less sticky than conventional sellotape, but unlike the double sided tape, would have to go over the top of the piezo disc.

I also bought some clamps of different sorts:

The spring clips were very strong, so I would guess I’d have to be careful using them so as not to damage the piezos.  I have read of people using soft pads – made of felt or foam rubber, for  example – to put over the piezos when using them with strong clips.

In this way I had a variety of different methods of attaching the piezos to items I wanted to amplify or record.  The items themselves could be either acoustic instruments that just needed appropriately amplifying; or items that were not musical instruments, but which could be amplified – perhaps changing their sound, or revealing a hidden sound in the process – by attaching a piezo.


As they are used to pick up sounds from vibrations in solid surfaces, the best acoustic instruments to work on would be those with sounding boards, such as guitars, zithers or other stringed instruments, several of which I had in my collection; as for non-musical instruments, this would be a matter of experimentation!  The advantage of using a piezo contact mic in these examples would be that, unlike a conventional microphone which picks up airborne sounds, the contact mic wouldn’t easily be affected by the nearby sounds of the player, other instruments, or external noises in the recording environment – e.g. traffic or the people next door.

First of all, the more conventional instruments.  These are just a few of the various things I tried the piezo mics with.  At the top are bells and a rainstick; at the bottom are a rattle (not perhaps, strictly speaking, an instrument!) and a zither.

The following sound file illustrates how these sounded:

In these experiments only the zither was recorded in stereo by using two piezos, but a stereo effect would certainly bring something to some of the others – for example the rainstick.


Next, some uses of the piezos that created new instruments in themselves.  Both of these made sounds that, when picked up by the piezos were very different from the way they sounded in the room.

The first one uses a small snare – normally used for a snare drum.  This was purchased very cheaply (about £1.30) and attached to a wide, flat tin.  A 50mm piezo disc was superglued to the middle of the tin.

The second one is just a 50mm piezo disc with 4 lengths of piano wire soldered to it.  I’m not 100% certain of the diameter of the wire: it said ‘G0’  (i.e. ‘G zero’) on it, and was bought from a (classical) music shop about 30 years ago.  If it means Music Wire gauge 0, this would make it about 9mm, something like a thin top E guitar string, which is about what it seems to be.  The 4 lengths are approximately 6″, 9″, 12″ and 18″.

This sound file illustrates first the ‘snare’ instrument, then the ‘string’ instrument:

It’s surprising how different the sound through the piezo is, compared to the natural sound, especially the one with the soldered strings, which makes hardly any noise at all.  The small preamp also plays a part in preserving the lower frequency sounds.

The picture below shows, on the left, the three – I don’t know what to call them – strikers or activators, which I used to make the sounds from the snare instrument: the one on the left is a home made beater or mallet, made from a length of dowel and a wooden bead; the middle one is a wooden coffee stirrer, much more delicate; and the one on the right is a small cleaning brush.

Activators IMG_1281

It’s a good idea to make a collection of these if you’re going to make piezo instruments, as the way you interact with the instrument can make a big difference to how it sounds.  The picture on the right shows some more things I use, as well as pipe cleaners, fire-lighting spills and small emery boards.  This writer has a very impressive collection:!


The instruments required quite a bit of physical construction, since a framework was needed to support the sounding parts.  I bought some small square trays to serve as the bases, and cut lengths of 2x2cm wood for the uprights.

After glueing and screwing these together, I was able to attach the sounding parts:

The two on the right are the ones described earlier; the one on the left is simply a sandpaper disc with a 35mm piezo glued to the back.  The narrow space underneath the base can be seen in this picture.  The batteries and electronics would have to fit in this space.


After the physical construction, it was time to add the electronics.  I’ll describe this in the next part of the series.


Electret microphones Pt 1- General

After starting my recent piezo project, I decided to look into electret microphones – there are many situations in which a piezo-type contact mic is less suitable than a mic which detects sounds in the air.

Electret capsules are very cheap, and need just a few additional components to get them to work.  I bought a number of these for about 10p – 11p each:

It’s possible to get them without any wires – long or short – attached, but I preferred these.  The smaller ones, illustrated at the top, were very small – 4mm in diameter; the larger ones were 10mm.  I also bought a few that were in between, at 6.5mm.

Most people working in electronic music will be aware of the importance of microphones, and  I have some quite expensive ones for different amplifying and recording purposes; but there are various situations in which a very low-cost method of picking up and amplifying sometimes quite small sounds can be all that’s needed.

One renowned electronic music composer for whom the microphone became extremely important for a time was Karlheinz Stockhausen.

In summer 1964, Stockhausen said, ‘I searched for ways to compose – flexibly – also the process of microphone recording. The microphone, used until now as a rigid, passive recording device to reproduce sounds as faithfully as possible, would have to become a musical instrument and, on the other hand, through its manipulation, influence ALL the characteristics of the sounds . . .’

At the same time, he had been experimenting with a large tam-tam (a percussion instrument very similar to a gong), ‘using a great variety of implements – of glass, cardboard, metal, wood, rubber, plastic – which I had collected from around the house.’

‘One day’, he continues, ‘I took some equipment from the WDR Studio for Electronic Music home with me. My collaborator Jaap Spek helped me. I played on the tam-tam with every possible utensil and during this, moved the microphone above the surface of the tam-tam. The microphone was connected to an electrical filter whose output was connected to a volume control (potentiometer), and this in turn, was connected to amplifier and loudspeaker. During this, Jaap Spek changed the filter settings and dynamic levels, improvising. At the same time, we recorded the result on tape.

‘The tape recording of this first microphony experiment constitutes for me a discovery of utmost importance . . . Actually, this moment was the genesis of a live electronic music with unconventional music instruments. On the basis of this experiment I then wrote the score of Mikrophonie I. Two players excite the tam-tam using a great variety of implements, two further players scan the tam-tam with microphones . . . Two further players – seated in the auditorium at the left and right of the middle – each operate an electrical filter and two potentiometers. They, in turn, reshape the timbre and pitch . . . dynamic level and spatial effect . . . and the rhythm of the structures . . .’

The score includes instructions for the placing and movement of the microphones, just as it includes instructions for the tam-tam players and the filter operators, so the microphones can be regarded as essential instruments in the performance of the piece.

One of the interesting features of the use of microphones in the piece is, as Stockhausen wrote: ‘normally inaudible vibrations (of a tam-tam) are made audible by an active process of listening into [them with a microphone].’ The reviewer Albrecht Moritz ( states: ‘There are several passages in Mikrophonie I where this process is exclusively employed, foregoing stronger excitement of the tam-tam which would produce the commonly heard sounds. A result is that, if you would play back these passages to persons whom you would leave in the dark about the source of the sounds, probably most or even all of those listeners – including musicians – would not be able to guess it.’

Elsewhere Moritz says that ‘the audibility of most sounds that are created on the tam-tam in Mikrophonie I appears to strictly depend on the microphonic amplification. Among these are scratching noises, produced by treating the surface with not only metallic, but also other kinds of objects. Strangely “rolling” sounds can be generated on the surface, sounds evocative of rustling of silver paper, and many other astounding sounds . . . Quite frequently there are dark, roaring, sometimes growling, yet in volume often rather soft, undercurrents of sound that appear to stem from only local resonances of the tam-tam plate, generated by gentle use of a beater or as a result of other treatment, a sound phenomenon most likely audible only because of microphonic amplification as well.’


These electret capsules won’t work, however, just by connecting them to a mixer or amplifier – they have a small built-in preamp inside them which needs power to operate it.  This means the positive lead to the capsule must have a few volts of power running to it – 3v to 9v, typically – for the capsule to work.   An interesting article on this topic can be found at

The minimum circuitry required to get a sound from the capsule is this:

Using a prototype of this circuit with the Taurus amplifier, the level of the signal was perfectly good enough without any additional circuitry.

Sometimes, however, more output is needed, and I found a suitable circuit which was simple but effective at  It was based on a single transistor, a 2N3904, obtainable at less than 5p each by buying a bag of 50, plus 3 resistors and 2 capacitors.   The circuit for one channel looked like this:

I made up a batch of them all at the same time on a spare piece of veroboard.  These 12 circuits cost no more than about £2 – £2.50 altogether.

I took some of these and made up some stereo circuits, adding an output socket, 9v battery clip and volume control pot to each one:

With this I was able to experiment with different microphone combinations. No other components were needed, except the electret capsules themselves.  In some cases I connected the two wires from the capsule directly to input and ground on the board, at other times I attached input sockets.

In all cases I was surprised at the quality of the sound I was able to get for such a low cost.  The circuit also worked with the piezo mics/pickups I had made earlier, although the output didn’t seem to have as much lower frequency content.

In the next article in the series I’ll describe some of the practical applications for which I used these electrets.




Piezos Pt 2 – Contact microphones

Continuing my experiments with piezos, which I began in Part 1 of this series, the first plan I had was to use piezos as contact microphones.  This would enable me to amplify small string and percussion instruments, and, with additional circuitry, create new ambient electronic instruments.

The first step would be to wire the elements to cables and jacks.  It’s best I had read, to use shielded wire to do this, especially where the cables are long, so I thought it would be easier to buy and reuse cables with jacks already attached.  These are generally only about £1.50 – £2.00, so I bought some 2m leads with mono 3.5mm and 6.35mm jacks, and cut them in half.

I soldered the stranded shield to the outside of the disc and the core to the centre, using lengths of different diameter shrink tubing to strengthen the connections and make sure the cut wires were kept apart.  The already-attached leads were colour-coded black and red to indicate their function.

At this point I tested the discs to make sure they were picking up sounds before moving on to the next stage.


The next thing I did – again, a procedure suggested by Nic Collins – was to seal and further strengthen the piezo discs with rubberized paint.

There don’t seem to be many of these on the market these days, and although – compared to the other components in these projects – it was rather expensive (having had to be imported from the US), I opted for the one Nic Collins used: Plasti-Dip.

There is a cheaper Ronseal product, which is advertised as a liquid rubber for sealing flat roofs, but I wasn’t sure if it would be the right consistency.  Ronseal has a very annoying website which doesn’t allow you to search for products by name, and I couldn’t find it there, but it’s called Isoflex , and you can get more details by searching suppliers’ websites.

The Plasti-Dip looked rather thick, but the piezo discs are very thin and it wasn’t at all difficult to dip the ends in and cover them to a level just above the shrink tubing – the tin, as can be seen in the picture, is tall and thin, presumably for this reason.

The Plasti-Dip did the job perfectly, and I’ll be looking for other uses for it in projects and around the house, as hardly any of it was used up!  I bought the 400ml tin, as, at around £18 it seemed better value than the small tin at about £14 for 250ml, but even 250 ml would be a lifetime’s supply at the present rate.

By the way, although there are many colours available, I chose black because of its lack of visibility, in case the microphones would be used in situations where they needed to be discreet – e.g. in the presence of wildlife.  This would potentially be important in one particular future project.

Nic Collins recommends putting a small piece of insulating tape over the solder connections on the backs of the discs to give them extra protection against breaking off – which would be a great shame after all the soldering and dipping – but I forgot to do this, so I hope the dipping is enough to keep them together.

After dipping them I hung them up to dry overnight and dipped them again the following day to improve the seal

After two dips they looked fine.  I was worried that too much paint would dull the sound too much: although there would be a number of applications where I would use the piezos without dipping – or with a single dip – Nic Collins certainly mentions two dips and says that three would cause dampening of the sound pickup.  I was thinking that these ‘stand alone’ piezos might be used in a context where they needed to be waterproof, and one dip didn’t seem to seal them enough, so I left it there.

The following picture shows two sizes of piezo mic, 18mm diameter on the right, 27mm in the centre.  The one on the left has two elements connected in parallel.  I thought this might be useful to record oddly-shaped objects or objects with a large surface area.


I had read in more than one place that, although piezos can be used as contact mics just by plugging them into an amplifier or recorder, they work much better if the signal is run though a buffer circuit first.  The buffer needn’t necessarily amplify, but the low-frequency response would in any case be significantly improved.

A very useful series of articles starting here or here gives much greater detail on this.  I adapted the low noise preamp from that site, here or here:

Features of the circuit: the two diodes protect the opamp inputs from damage by restricting the maximum voltage that they can receive from the piezos.  The TL072, which I used – or the lower noise pin-for-pin replacement, the NE 5532 – is a dual opamp, so two of these circuits can be built using the same chip.   (The TL074 is a quad version, from which four  circuits can be made).  The pin numbers in brackets are those used by the second circuit built around the TL072: the second circuit is identical, and the only place where the two circuits meet is at the point marked A, the half supply voltage point created by the voltage divider – these two 100k resistors don’t need to be repeated for the second circuit.

The majority of piezo buffer circuits I found seem to use FET transistors, but these are quite expensive in comparison to the TL072, TL074 or NE5532.  I also read in one of the articles referred to above that ‘the manufacturers of FETs don’t control their parameters well . . . The gate-source voltage needed to bias the transistor into the linear region can vary between 0.25V and 8V, which leaves a good 7.75V down to a hopeless 0.4V for the transistor and load if used with a typical NiCad 8.4V PP3.  You’ll have to get more FETs than you need and throw out the dogs . . . Design manuals get all sniffy about that sort of thing because selecting FETs obviously adds to the cost if you are mass producing something. That’s not the case here, and there’s just no way to cope with a manufacturing tolerance which can throw more than 90% of the battery voltage away in variations in manufacture without screening the bad ‘uns.’

So I decided to stick with the opamps – the most recent batch of TL072’s I bought were between 4p and 5p each; the NE5532’s were more expensive at about 20p.

So, as soon as the microphone assemblies were ready, I made up one of these circuits with a TL072 and tested it out.

I plugged it into the line input of my MacBook, and it seemed to produce little background noise.  I attached two of the piezos which I had prepared as above, and clipped them to a plate, recording the sound in the Audacity app as I tapped the plate with a pen. As a comparison, I turned off the buffer and plugged the piezos directly into the computer.

The following short sound file illustrates the difference the buffer makes.  The output was a little louder with the buffer than without so I adjusted the recordings to be more or less the same volume.  First heard are the taps with the piezos plugged directly into the computer; then the taps using the buffer.  The difference is quite striking.

The buffer does amplify the sound, but I’ve tried to minimise this in the recording: nevertheless, there is a noticeable increase in the lower frequency response when the buffer is used.  The sound is much fuller, so, although the small expense and time involved in making buffers does add to the cost and the effort of piezo projects, I think it’s probably worthwhile for the improvement in the quality of the results.

[Edit: Listening back to this recording just now, I realise there’s a bit of a buzz in the background.  I don’t know what was causing that on this recording, as the preamp is normally pretty silent and doesn’t create noise

In the end I used a simplified version of the buffer, looking like this:

This seemed equally effective, but with a lower component count].

In Part 3 of this series I’ll describe some particular projects in which I used the piezo elements as microphones, mostly with the buffers.


Piezos Pt 1 – General

Piezos, Piezo Sensors, Piezo Transducers, or Piezo Elements are small, cheap components that can be useful in several different ways to the electronic musician.  I had some ideas for ways I’d like to use them, and this series will describe some projects in which piezo elements were employed.

A transducer is a device which changes energy from one form to another – for example, tape heads and record pickup cartridges are transducers as they change magnetic signals on the tape or movement in the grooves of a record into electrical signals; microphones and speakers are transducers because in the first case they change movement in the air into electrical signals , or in the other they change electrical signals into movement in the air.

Piezo elements are transducers because they can transform physical movement into electrical signals like a pickup cartridge, or electrical signals into movement in the air like a speaker.  They do this not by sensing magnetic fields, like a tape head or guitar pickup, but by the movement of crystals, and this is what a piezo element has inside it.

Piezos work especially well when attached to something which will vibrate and produce electrical signals which can be amplified, or can amplify the vibration of signals fed into it.

In everyday life, they’re usually found in mobile phones, in buzzers or in place of speakers in smaller children’s toys.  This gives a clue as to the different ways in which they can be employed in electronic music circuits: as microphones, as speakers, or as triggers for switches.

Much of the information below was gleaned from Nic Collins’ book Handmade Electronic Music, and his series of videos on YouTube called Hack of the Month Club.

First of all, this is what piezo elements look like if you buy them from a components supplier, or take one out of a phone or musical toy:

or sometimes like this, if they come in the form of a sounder or buzzer – in this case, the element can be carefully removed from the plastic surround.

They vary in diameter from 10mm to 50mm.  I have used some of the smaller ones, but most of the ones I have are 18 or  20mm, and 27 or 35mm.

[Edit: I have usually got the best sound out of the larger diameter ones, so these are the ones I use for preference, unless space dictates a smaller one has to be employed.  This means I usually choose the 35mm, which cost quite a bit less than the 50mm ones; but I’ve occasionally used the 50mm ones for special purposes].

When I buy them, I prefer the ones with the leads already soldered on.  This saves a job – and it’s quite tricky to do the soldering effectively – and they’re still very cheap.  The last batch I bought worked out at about 12p each for the 35mm diameter ones, and just 6p each for the 18mm ones.

Perhaps the first piece of music to use transducers in its realisation was Cartridge Music by John Cage, composed and first performed in 1960. As described on the webite of the John Cage Trust: ‘The word ‘Cartridge’ in the title refers to the cartridge of phonographic pick-ups, into the aperture of which is fitted a needle. In Cartridge Music, the performer is instructed to insert all manner of unspecified small objects into the cartridge; prior performances have involved such items as pipe cleaners, matches, feathers, wires, etc. Furniture may be used as well, amplified via contact microphones. All sounds are to be amplified and are controlled by the performer(s).’

Another composer who famously used transducers was David Tudor. Tudor – who was closely associated with John Cage – created a piece called Rainforest – originally in the mid 1960’s, but it went through a number of changes during the rest of the decade as Tudor’s techniques and equipment developed. The piece was based on the idea of making objects other than speakers vibrate, picking up the sounds they made with microphones and then filtering and mixing the resultant sounds.

‘My piece Rainforest IV‘, Tudor explained, ‘was developed from ideas I had as early as 1965. The basic notion, which is a technical one, was the idea that the loudspeaker should have a voice which was unique and not just an instrument of reproduction, but as an instrument unto itself . . .’

‘. . . I eventually acquired some devices called audio transducers. They were first developed for the US Navy because they needed a device which could sound above and under the water simultaneously . . . I had them in 1968 when MC [choreographer Merce Cunningham] asked me for a dance score and I decided that I would try to do the sounding sculpture on a very small scale. I took these transducers and attached them to very small objects and then programmed them with signals from sound generators. The sound they produced was then picked up by phono cartridges and then sent to a large speaker system.’

‘Several different versions of this piece were produced. In 1973 I made Rainforest IV where the objects that the sounds are sent through are very large so that they have their own presence in space. I mean, they actually sound locally in the space where they are hanging as well as being supplemented by a loudspeaker system. The idea is that if you send sound through materials, the resonant nodes of the materials are released and those can be picked up by contact microphones or phono cartridges and those have a different kind of sound than the object does when you listen to it very close where it’s hanging. It becomes like a reflection and it makes, I thought, quite a harmonious and beautiful atmosphere, because wherever you move in the room, you have reminiscences of something you have heard at some other point in the space.’

(from An Interview with David Tudor by Teddy Hultberg in Dusseldorf, May 17-18, 1988,

A reviewer present at a performance of Rainforest described the appearance and sound of the piece as follows: ‘The entire piece sounds at first like an ethereal insect chorus, but the layers gradually disperse into patterns of jagged counterpoint, which in the performance seemed to harmonize perfectly with the movements of the dancers . . .

‘Most of the sounds are created by sine tones being reverberated through a forest of suspended metal containers, pieces of junk that function as “biased” loudspeakers imparting their own timbral colouration to the sounds which pass through them. These sounds are picked up by contact microphones, fed back into Tudor’s mixing and filtering controls, and then recycled back into the expanding forest of increasingly hybrid noises. The array of metal containers usually fills an entire gallery, and spectators are invited to walk around and put their heads inside the containers.’

(Roger Sutherland, Musicworks, Number 75, Fall 1999,

Some modern performances of Cartridge Music will use piezo elements instead of cartridges, although this might be considered cheating. Piezos, on the other hand, are ideal for achieving the kinds of effects employed by Tudor in Rainforest, and the different projects I planned with them will hopefully cover these uses and more.

Part 2 of this series of articles is here.




March 2018
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