Building norns shield(s)

I've always admired monome's work but never got my hands on any of their hardware. Like a lot of folk I was mostly drawn in by their grid controller ages ago...never pulled the trigger on one of those. Got very close a few times to grabbing a teletype, and still might some day – it would certainly make a lot of sense for me. The lines forum is a gem on its own.

What brought me first to norns though was the complete DIY spirit of the project both in hardware and software. You can buy an official machine from monome themselves (and it has many extra QOL upgrades over the raspberry-pi version I built here) but I was very interested in using this project as an excuse to try ordering PCBs from a manufacturer myself – I've never actually done that before!

Though no longer officially supported by monome as an open source hardware project, it was originally and the repo is still out there. It even has a few different hardware revisions – I chose the `210330` revision as suggested by the README and paired it with a Raspberry Pi 3B+ by the same recommendation. I should note, however, that the audio codec chip (CS4270) is marked as "scheduled for obsolescence" when I ordered the components from a supplier.

To my joy ordering the PCBs was actually very simple. The repo had EAGLE files and a quick web search walked me through creating the gerber files from those. Got those uploaded to some manufacturer's site, luckily they looked over it and helped correct a trivial drilling template issue, and then the boards showed up a couple weeks later!

I did have to order 5 PCBs minimum...gonna be giving away some norns I guess.

There was a sort of inherent trust at this point that the EAGLE files in the repo and the instructions I followed to create the drilling files were all accurate... but everything looked really good and clean and the right size and all that! The most reasonable way to know for sure (to me) was just to start soldering.

Though I've done pretty tight surface mount soldering before, this felt... tinier and tighter. The biggest and most obvious worry was that 24 pin codec chip

that's my pinky finger

And for the sake of honesty I did burn through one of these codec chips and had to order another...I also then waited for smaller solder tips and thinner solder to arrive which would prove very helpful – I did not burn another chip!

Finally got it. The other nice thing about having the EAGLE files for the boards was that it was very easy for me to see where the pins were connected and test to make sure everything was solid and nothing was shorted. There are a lot of snake bites on the board for that already but it was nice to just use the board file to be sure.

first try!

The rest of the work was pretty boring surface mount stuff, one particularly annoying clock...a lot of the tightness of the layout was relieved by the smaller tips & solder I ended up buying.

Even testing as I went I did have a few panic moments, though – the first norns I put together didn't seem to boot. I followed the troubleshooting section of the monome site and was able to deduce that the machine was booting, I just wasn't seeing anything on the display. A quick re-flow of the screen component and I was up and running!

The second I built didn't boot at all at first, which was certainly concerning. I did the typical thing – took a long break, came back, and very closely looked at every joint and re-flowed any suspicious ones. It booted! But it displayed an error message about the audio server (jack) not being able to start. Assuming this would be an issue with the codec chip, I went back to testing those pins again. Turns out the reflow that fixed the boot also bridged a subsequent connected pad to a (very) nearby ground snakebite. Sucked that up, carefully reapplied solder, retested, and we were good to go.

I whipped another up right after the first one worked because I was going on a little music-writing trip with a friend who's birthday was also coming up and felt he might appreciate some of the odd norns scripts/apps out there.

The case is 3D printed, maybe someday I'll make something nicer for an enclosure. To be honest, I'd like to get to writing apps for it first but even now my eyes are on other music-related projects so I'll have to come back to the norns to dig deeper.

Until then I'm really excited to check out the existing community scripts and I'm happy to have unlocked "using a PCB manufacturer."