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Covid Toe

Covid Toe © GPL3+

Building a "one man band" foot pedal to control Ableton Live so my hands can play instruments.

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About this project

I can't play music with other musicians because of Covid19. Computers are limitless but controlling them intuitively with feet is something I haven't yet found on the market, so I'm making a pedal. I'm not a programmer, I don't even understand MIDI. But I get the general idea of signal flow and I know what music I want to make. So here goes.

I am limited to scrap materials that can be found on or around my property as well as anything I can order online. As an out of work artist because of this virus, my funds are rather limited. So, after the Arduino and a few other cheep purchases, we're lookin at barn wood, speaker wire, and buttons ripped off of old components.

ALREADY HAVE: I built a box that I call the Covid Box, which looks like a small computer podium. Inside is an 18 channel audio mixer (also my I/O), a power supply, a high speed USB router, a DMX board and several RGB boards that connect to some DIY LED stage lights which follow along with the music (that was an older project that already works).

On top of the box is my laptop, launchpad, midi 8 channel mixer control, and a vocal mic stand.

INSTRUMENTS/INPUTS:

  • I have a djembe (hand drum) with a kick mic beneath and a contact mic on the edge of the head. Those get bussed into 1 input signal via my mixer for 1 ableton "drum" track. This African drum can sound very EDM the way I have it compressed/EQed.
  • I have a broadcast mic for other percussive junk like pots and pans, cans full of glass etc. That one input signal goes to 3 different ableton tracks which area ready to loop it.
  • Then there's acoustic guitar, banjo, mandolin, and ukulele all mixed to one bus and sent to ableton via 1 input (the STRING) input. In Ableton, I have 1 track always playing this input and 2 tracks ready to loop it.
  • Harmonica and vocals share a mic input which has a track always playing it and 2 tracks ready to loop it (just like the STRING)

So my Ableton setup looks like this:

1 DRUM, 2-4 JUNK, 5-6 STRINGS, 7-8 VOX/HARP (unimportant here is 9 always live STRINGS, 10 always-live VOX, 11 DMX lights, and 12 click track for metronome)

The problem is, my hands are busy playing instruments. Up until now I have been using very basic midi controllers as pedals. I can start and stop a loop with my foot, maybe a few other things. But eventually I need to use my hands to choose other instruments, choose parts of the song, etc.

Yes there are pedals on the market for this. But I don't like them. There's still too much concentration on managing what is essentially a spread sheet while trying to focus on the playing. It needs to be brainless muscle memory AND be more flexible than just one droning multilayered riff. I need buttons that do a few things in one press. And it need to be laid out in a way that I can step without looking. For this, I need it to create my own from scratch.

(note: I am from an improvisational music world including JazzandJam Bandsetc. We played some of the largest Jam fests and had a culty following on the eastern half of the USA. My pre-apocalyptic band of 13 years can be watched here if you're interested. There were some EDM and loop musicians on the scene too. But I feel that the lack of this pedal kept us in 2 very different genres.)

ENTER ARDUINO: I am going to build a 25 button pedal called the "Covid Toe" to go with the "Covid Box". I have a layout in mind. In other words, I know what I want each button on the pedal to do. And I know that some of these things will involve slightly more than just sending a simple command (multi commands, alt modes, targeting clips in a movable frame similar to how the launchpad does, etc).

The reason I chose the DUE is because I am already hubbing a ton of USB signals into each of my ports and I have use for a few more pedals after this one. The goad is to put this and all other future foot controllers into ONE usb jack. My plan is to hardwire a second petal to a CAT5 jack so I can connect the 2 pedals via cat5 cable (making it one big pedal). Maybe a third pedal to control the lights. I wont stop until I have run out of digital posts on the DUE. I mean, I can't use my foot for more than one thing at a time so why not have everything on the ground be 1 USB, right? There's also that second usb port on it. I don't even know yet how I'm going to use that but is sounds useful.

THE HILARIOUS PART: I'm completely ignorant to everything. New to MIDI language, all things programming, etc. I have severe learning disabilities which make it hard for me to learn via instructions. I understand the basic idea that electricity comes in from one direction and goes out the other way. I know a processor can sense that via a circuit board. I can write basic HTML code so I get what syntax is for. Thats about it. My genius vs shortcomings are skewed in the wrong direction for this project. My strength is in the performance and the conceptual function of the pedal. Everything under the hood is my nightmare. What a great reason to try it!

But I've gone up against my abilities before. I hand-built a stage lighting rig that follows the music and travels about as easy as a guitar. Ask me if you want to know more about that. It helped me cut my teeth on soldering and signal flow. There wasn't really any programming involved.

I wouldn't even bother trying this had it not been for the discovery of a vastly diverse and creative culture of people connected online through Arduino. I think the people at Arduino are F*ing heroes for making this exist. And I bet there are people out there who look at this as a very easy project. So here I go. Drill a hole in my head and try to pour it in there.

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