Whether or not you realize it, there's a good chance that your life currently depends on open source software. The text that you're reading right now probably passed through numerous devices running an operating system with an open license, and a good number of you will view this web page in Firefox, an open source browser. Governments run on it, your phone probably uses it; the list goes on and on. But what about open source hardware? Up until recently, there wasn't much to speak of—costs were too high and many hardware vendors rely on trade secrets and patents to give them an additional advantage in the rest of the market. That has all started to change, however, with the advent of affordable and easy-to-use microcontrollers—the brains of any hardware device.
Within the music production world, one of the first devices to adopt the open source philosophy is a small desktop synth called the Meeblip. The creation of James Grahame (of Reflex Audio) in collaboration with Peter Kirn (editor of Create Digital Music), this device was first introduced back in November of 2010—along with an explanation behind their decision to go open source. Since then it has evolved with user input, and in March of this year the Meeblip SE (Second Edition) was released with an impressive list of upgrades.
To encourage people to learn about the hardware and to keep costs down, the Meeblip comes in three different formats, each requiring a different level of expertise when it comes to putting the unit together. The easiest of these is the Quick Build kit, which can be assembled using nothing but a screwdriver and your hands. We were intrigued by the affordable price and the open nature of the Meeblip, so we went ahead and purchased a Quick Build kit, put it together and put it through its paces.
The original Meeblip had a rather cartoony faceplate design, which has been replaced with a more professional silver layout in the SE kits. This is a welcome change both aesthetically and functionally—the silver background with black text makes for better readability on the small text labels. There are eight knobs and 16 slide switches to control the synth parameters, and one of the switches acts like a shift button, allowing four of the knobs to perform double duty. Along the right edge (above the knobs) you'll find three buttons that allow you to set the MIDI channel, and load and save patches in one of the 16 available slots. Pushing one of these buttons temporarily disconnects the switches from controlling the synth, allowing you to use them to select the MIDI channel or patch slot, respectively. This is a smart design that kept costs low by eliminating the need for an LCD display.
When it comes down to the business of actually making sound, the Meeblip offers up two oscillators, a four pole low-pass / high-pass filter with resonance control, envelopes for both amp and filter, and an LFO that can modulate either oscillator pitch or filter frequency. The main oscillator can produce sawtooth and PWM waveforms (or can be switched to produce noise), and the secondary oscillator can do sine and square waves at the same octave or one octave lower than the main. It sounds like a pretty standard subtractive synth, and in many ways it is, but with anything in this price range there are some concessions that had to be made in the name of affordability and interface minimalism.
For example, there is no way to mix the levels of the two oscillators—you can only enable and disable the secondary oscillator. This is a pretty surprising limitation that reduces the sonic window of the Meeblip by quite a bit in our opinion. Also, in order to have separate envelopes for both the amp and filter (the original version had a full ADSR envelope, but only for the amp), the envelopes are simplified to control attack and decay only. In layman's terms, this means every note you play takes up the same amount of time. To make up for this somewhat, the SE includes a switch called "amp env sustain" that converts the amp envelope back to an ADSR style envelope, with the sustain level and decay time stuck at 100% and release controlled by the decay knob. This is useful for longer pads and drones, where you want each note to last for as long as you're holding the key down.
It's not all austerity measures in the Meeblip world though, as they did include some pretty unique controls that contribute to its distinctive sound. The first is the "distortion" switch, which adds some harmonic overtones to your synth patch via some 8-bit digital wizardry. The SE's oscillators can create a more accurate and pristine sound by smoothing out the digital edges of the raw waveform but, if you like the sound of the original, this can be turned on and off via the "anti-alias" control. Finally, there is switchable FM (frequency modulation) that, along with the detune knob, can create some seriously impressive grit and bite.
In the end, we came away quite pleased with the Meeblip SE, and consider it to be well worth the money. Hardware has an edge over VSTs in many ways (sound character and longevity being two that come to mind) and the Meeblip is no exception to that rule. The fact that it is open source makes it even more attractive because it creates so much more opportunity for the instrument to evolve and grow over time than a closed device. Want to change the filter algorithm? Download the source code and get hacking. Even if you're not so technically inclined, for the price, the Meeblip makes a great addition to pretty much any studio.