The Zynthian project

Recently I found out that I was not the only one trying to build a synth module out of a Raspberry Pi with ZynAddSubFX. The Zynthian project is trying to achieve the exact same goal and so far it looks very promising. I contacted the project owner to ask if he would be interested in collaborating. I got a reply promptly and we both agreed it would be a good idea to join forces. The Zynthian project has all the things that I still had to set up already in place but I think I can still help out. The Zynthian set-up might benefit from some optimizations like a real-time kernel and things like boot time can be improved. Also I could help out testing, maybe do some packaging. And if there’s a need for things like a repository, web server or other hosting related stuff I could provide those.

Protoype of the Zynthian project
Zynthian prototype

I’m very happy with these developments of our projects converging. Check out the Zynthian blog for more information on the current state of the project.

The Zynthian project

Two steps further

For my little synth module project I created the following systemd unit file /etc/systemd/system/zynaddsubfx.service that starts up a ZynAddSubFX proces at boot time:


ExecStop=/usr/bin/killall zynaddsubfx


/usr/local/bin/zynaddsubfx-mpk is a simple script that starts ZynAddSubFX and connects my Akai MPK:


zynaddsubfx -r 48000 -b 64 -I alsa -O alsa -P 7777 -L /usr/share/zynaddsubfx/banks/SynthPiano/0040-BinaryPiano2.xiz &

while ! aconnect 'MPK mini' 'ZynAddSubFX'
  sleep 0.1


/usr/local/bin/ in its turn is a small Python script that shows a message and a red LED on a 16×2 LCD display so that I know the synth module is ready to use:

# Example using a character LCD plate.
import math
import time

import Adafruit_CharLCD as LCD

# Initialize the LCD using the pins
lcd = LCD.Adafruit_CharLCDPlate()

# Show some basic colors.
lcd.set_color(1.0, 0.0, 0.0)
lcd.message('Raspberry Pi 2\nZynAddSubFX')

The LCD is not an Adafruit one though but a cheaper version I found on Dealextreme. It works fine though with the Adafruit LCD Python library. Next step is to figure out if I can use the buttons on the LCD board to change banks and presets.

Raspberry Pi synth module with 16×2 LCD display
The synth module test environment
Two steps further

Working on a stable setup

Next step for the synth module project was to get the Raspberry Pi 2 to run in a stable manner. It seems like I’m getting close or that I’m already there. First I built a new RT kernel based on the 4.1.7 release of the RPi kernel. Therefore I had to checkout an older git commit because the RPi kernel is already at 4.1.8. The 4.1.7-rt8 patchset applied cleanly and the kernel booted right away:

pi@rpi-jessie:~$ uname -a
 Linux rpi-jessie 4.1.7-rt8-v7 #1 SMP PREEMPT RT Sun Sep 27 19:41:20 CEST 2015 armv7l GNU/Linux

After cleaning up my cmdline.txt it seems to run fine without any hiccups so far. My cmdline.txt now looks like this:

dwc_otg.lpm_enable=0 dwc_otg.speed=1 console=ttyAMA0,115200 console=tty1 root=/dev/mmcblk0p2 rootfstype=ext4 rootflags=data=writeback elevator=deadline rootwait

Setting USB speed to Full Speed (so USB1.1) by using dwc_otg.speed=1 is necessary otherwise the audio coming out of my USB DAC sounds distorted.

I’m starting ZynAddSubFX as follows:

zynaddsubfx -r 48000 -b 64 -I alsa -O alsa -P 7777 -L /usr/share/zynaddsubfx/banks/SynthPiano/0040-BinaryPiano2.xiz

With a buffer of 64 frames latency is very low and so far I haven’t run into instruments that cause a lot of xruns with this buffer size. Not even the multi-layered ones from Will Godfrey.

So I guess it’s time for the next step, creating a systemd startup unit so that ZynAddSubFX starts at boot. And it would be nice if USB MIDI devices would get connected automatically. And if you could see somehow which instrument is loaded, an LCD display would be great for this. Also I’d like to have the state of the synth saved, maybe by saving an .xmz file whenever there’s a state change or on regular intervals. And the synth module will need a housing or casing. Well, let’s get the software stuff down first.

Working on a stable setup

Building a synth module using a Raspberry Pi

Ever since I did an acid set with my brother in law at the now closed bar De Vinger I’ve been playing with the idea of creating some kind of synth module out of a Raspberry Pi. The Raspberry Pi 2 should be powerful enough to run a complex synth like ZynAddSubFX. When version  2.5.1 of that synth got released the idea resurfaced again since that version allows to remote control a running headless instance of ZynAddSubFX via OSC that is running on for instance a Raspberry Pi. I looked at this functionality before a few months ago but the developer was just starting to implement this feature so it wasn’t very usable yet.

zynaddsubfx-ext-guiBut with the release of ZynAddSubFX 2.5.1 the stabilitity of the zynaddsubfx-ext-gui utility has improved to such an extent that it’s a very usable tool. In the above screenshot you can see zynaddsubfx-ext-gui running on my notebook with Ubuntu 14.04 controlling a remote instance of ZynAddSubFX running on a Raspberry Pi.

So basically all the necessary building blocks for a synth module are there. Coupled with my battered Akai MPK Mini and a cheap PCM2704 USB DAC I started setting up a test setup.

For the OS on the Raspberry Pi 2 I chose Debian Jessie as I feel Raspbian isn’t getting you the most out of your Pi. It’s running a 4.1.6 kernel with the 4.1.5-rt5 RT patch set, which applied cleanly and seems to run so far:

pi@rpi-jessie:~$ uname -a
Linux rpi-jessie 4.1.6-rt0-v7 #1 SMP PREEMPT RT Sun Sep 13 21:01:19 CEST 2015 armv7l GNU/Linux

This isn’t a very clean solution of course so let’s hope a real 4.1.6 RT patch set will happen or maybe I could give the 4.1.6 PREEMPT kernel that rpi-update installed a try. I packaged a headless ZynAddSubFX for the RPi on my notebook using pbuilder with a Jessie armhf root and installed the package for Ubuntu 14.04 from the KXStudio repos. I slightly overclocked the RPi to 1000MHz and set the CPU scaling governor to performance. The filesystem is Ext4, mounted with noatime,nobarrier,data=writeback.

To get the USB audio interface and the USB MIDI keyboard into line I had to add the following line to my /etc/modprobe.d/alsa.conf file:

options snd-usb-audio index=0,1 vid=0x08bb,0x09e8 pid=0x2704,0x007c

This makes sure the DAC gets loaded as the first audio interface, so with index 0. Before adding this line the Akai would claim index 0 and since I’m using ZynAddSubFX with ALSA it couldn’t find an audio interface. But all is fine now:

pi@rpi-jessie:~$ cat /proc/asound/cards
 0 [DAC            ]: USB-Audio - USB Audio DAC
                      Burr-Brown from TI USB Audio DAC at usb-bcm2708_usb-1.3, full speed
 1 [mini           ]: USB-Audio - MPK mini
                      AKAI PROFESSIONAL,LP MPK mini at usb-bcm2708_usb-1.5, full speed

So no JACK as the audio back-end, the output is going directly to ALSA. I’ve decided to do it this way because I will only be running one single application that uses the audio interface so basically I don’t need JACK. And JACK tends to add a bit of overhead, you barely notice this on a PC system but on small systems like the Raspberry Pi JACK can consume a noticeable amount of resources. To make ZynAddSubFX use ALSA as the back-end I’m starting it with the -O alsa option:

zynaddsubfx -r 48000 -b 256 -I alsa -O alsa -P 7777

The -r option sets the sample rate, the -b option sets the buffer size, -I is for the MIDI input and the -P option sets the UDP port on which ZynAddSubFX starts listening for OSC messages. And now that’s the cool part. If you then start zynaddsubfx-ext-gui on another machine on the network and tell it to connect to this port it starts only the GUI and sends all changes to the GUI as OSC messages to the headless instance it is connected to:

zynaddsubfx-ext-gui osc.udp://

Next up is stabilizing this setup and testing with other kernels or kernel configs as the kernel I’ve cooked up now isn’t a viable long-term solution. And I’d like to add a physical MIDI in and maybe a display like described on the Samplerbox site. And the project needs a casing of course.

Building a synth module using a Raspberry Pi