Jason Hotchkiss has been a Tindie seller for longer than most, with a diverse range of best-selling products for music making under his Sixty Four Pixels moniker. His devices have proven to be hugely popular and influential in the music tech world, with rave reviews flooding in and a customer list which reads like a who’s who of music! We thought it would be a nice idea to sit down with him to find out how it all began, what motivates his passion for gadgets and how he approaches their design.
Jason was a child of the 70s, where anything electronic tended to be well outside of a child’s pocket money budget. He would fantasize about owning a Nintendo Game & Watch or CGL Galaxy Invaders game with the colored VFD screen. At the time he didn’t ever consider it was something he might one day understand the workings of or be able to replicate.
As a child he enjoyed messing about with batteries, light bulbs, switches and wire, making a hobby of electrics rather than electronics. He says: “I was terrible for taking apart any toy or gadget with electrical bits in and using the parts to make other things, which I’d then usually take into school and get them confiscated by a teacher. A few electric shock makers and a motorized ballpoint pen scribbling machine went that way”.
Aside from electronics, he messed with sound too. His stepdad had a reel-to-reel tape recorder which he used to make a delay loop with, experimenting with feedback and pitch shifting. He also had an old calculator with an LED display that would interfere with AM radio signals and produce whistly tones depending on what key you pressed, which was, technically his first synth!
Jason didn’t get into serious electronic circuits until pretty recently (when he was almost 40 years old) crediting the late, great, Ray Wilson and his Weird Sound Generator (WSG) project for the start of that – “I was doing a lot of music collaboration projects online and someone had made one and it got me hooked. From there, it was on to Arduino and MIDI then there was no going back!”
Jason got his first computer at the age of 13 – a Sinclair ZX-81, followed soon after by a ZX Spectrum which he tried to program from the moment he switched it on, as he couldn’t afford to buy any games. In a time before tape-to-tape copies of games started doing the rounds at school, Jason was writing his own to play! Just about everyone with a home computer was trying to make their own games – it was a golden age where a schoolkid could realistically write a hit game on their own, in their bedroom.
“I spent most of my early teens shut away in my room with the Spectrum plugged into some massive old black and white TV set of dubious electrical safety, working on some DIY game till the early hours”. It turned out to be time well spent as Jason became a professional coder in his later life.
As a member of the local Hackspace in Brighton Jason would encounter local artists coming along for help on electronic projects for interactive art projects. He helped one artist out with a ‘Noisy Table’ installation using contact microphones, time measurement, and maths to work out where a ball hit a table tennis table surface. The result was then used to trigger and modulate sounds via MIDI!
From his involvement in the Hackspace, he was asked if he wanted to be involved in an Electronic Art exhibition, where he made his ‘Hammer Pong’ game/installation, using six 5 meter addressable LED strips. The game is played by hitting big foam blocks with big soft hammers to send the ball (a pulse of light) back along the strip, in a similar way to pong mixed with the old test-of-strength fairground game.
More recently Jason displayed two pieces at Fort Process sound art festival in Newhaven, where he exhibited a playable musical instrument that used two high voltage Tesla coils to make tuned sparking sounds that could be played by visitors using a MIDI keyboard. In the adjacent room, he had an exhibit where audio signals from a set of audio oscillators were fed into the clock and data lines of a large LED matrix, creating chaotic dancing patterns and hypnotic droning sounds!
Jason’s fascination is with sounds and controlling them; he loves the idea of generating electronic music in unexpected, random ways based on real world objects and interactions, stating that “MIDI is just the most accessible and sensible way of linking things up”. An early project of his used light sensors fixed on lava lamps to trigger and modulate sounds in synth software on a PC, with MIDI making a seemingly complicated setup relatively straightforward.
Jason loves MIDI for its simplicity and efficiency, while he enjoys having flexibility to add new features which the original designers couldn’t have anticipated. The fact it’s still the industry standard after nearly 40 years shows how great it really is.
Most of his Tindie products have some kind of firmware programming, which means there is a computer chip on board which runs the program that makes the device work. He’s mainly used 8-bit PIC micro-controllers since they’re reliable and come with useful on-chip peripherals. “I program these in plain old C and have got to know the hardware really well so can program them without any libraries or OS”. He’s recently started working with 32-bit ARM chips for some new projects, which he informs me are becoming a new favorite.
In terms of project satisfaction, Jason says that nothing beats a spark gap Tesla coil putting out half a million volts of 3 foot sparks! “However, the fact it sounds like the space-time continuum is being ripped apart and might quickly result in neighbors calling the police means run-times are short, but very sweet”.
Sixty Four Pixels
When Jason first started selling, it was a couple of sales via private messages from people who wanted to make versions of his YouTube projects. Someone eventually told him about Tindie and he got started here. “In the early days all the sellers used to have a Google hangout with founder Emile once a week!” so what started out as a hobby around his 9 to 5 coding job has soon become full time employment.
Going back a couple of years he was doing freelance coding 3 days a week, so utilized the days off to do his own thing – ramping things up and even starting to employ a couple of friends a day a week to aid the production process. This year, through the success of his MIDI devices, Jason has started renting a workshop space for the business. “I am still not sure how long I can go on before I need to get back to some proper work, but I hope never!”
Prototype to Product
For Jason, the most important thing is that the idea is exciting and is something that he would use himself. From there he thinks about the functionality he’d like, and the flow of using the device. He admits to spending a lot of time pressing imaginary buttons on paper sketches of control panels and thinking through how the device might respond! He thinks it’s important to realize some parts of the user-functionality will determine key points in the hardware design – for example what inputs and outputs are needed, how many components and how the user will interact with it, so it’s important to do so before getting an initial PCB design made up.
“Once I have an initial PCB prototype working I often spend months playing with ideas in the firmware coding. I like to try things out in a jam session environment and in some cases I’ve decided I don’t actually like a new idea and end up putting it on the back burner”.
He used to design PCBs and home etch the prototypes but nowadays he finds it cheap and quick to get factory made PCBs, so he goes straight to that while having a few projects in the pipeline at the same time so he can work on something else while waiting for PCBs to come back.
Jason will give a couple of friends prototype models to try out for their feedback. He also finds writing a user guide is a good way to verbalize ideas and see what makes sense – helping to streamline certain parts of the user work flow within the code, before it’s on sale.
Jason recommends starting with an Arduino board and reading the Arduino forums, Hackaday projects and places like Instructables for some basic LED projects to get started. Once you have the basics, a custom MIDI controller is a good first music based Arduino project.
After that, he recommends looking at the Teensy board from PJRC and the fantastic Teensy Audio Library which allows you to create your own digital synthesizers, samplers and audio effects – with seemingly immediate results. Alternatively, if you want to try the analog route, Jason recommends soldering synths and effects from DIY kits, and experimenting with your own circuits: “This stuff is still mostly black magic to me!”
Jason’s products reside in the studios of Jean Michele Jarre, Pete Townsend, Vince Clarke, Little The Freemasons, NZCA Lines and many more, which he puts down to the time he takes trying to pack features into his products. He likes to ‘feature creep’ as much as he can into one unit, with as many useful functions as he can think of. “Sometimes among the most unlikely set of features, a wonderfully novel gem of functionality emerges and I’d like to think part of the appeal is unique and useful features!”
We continue to be impressed, intrigued and astounded by Jason’s products, and like many in the music world, are anticipating his new gadgets for more melody, rhythm and fun in our studios. Keep an eye on his Tindie Store for all his goodies – thanks Jason!
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