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Repost: My speech synthesizer project from 1984

This is a repost, from 27 February 2006. It was on a blog-city blog I’d set up, and darn it if I wouldn’t rather it be on this blog.

This is a true story. If you’re reading this, Dad, the previous sentence is false.

My oldest son is into hardware, in a big way. Yesterday, for example, I took him to his version of Heaven – Fry’s, where we cherry-picked a set of ICs from their selection. As a reward for my dropping some serious change for EPROMs, digital counters, LEDs, wire, and other such things, he has threatened to force me to work with him building various gadgets.

He’s really good at it. I asked him to build stuff with hardware that would take me a minute at most with software, and a few minutes later, he’s done… provided, of course, it’s doable with his hardware selection.

See, I hate hardware. It’s so much not my forte that it’s not even mildly humorous. He can bury you with details about EISA, SATA, PATA, Socket 7, Firewire, USB2, Athlon, Intel, OMG, WTF, BBQ… and my eyes glaze over at SATA. I can’t help it. I try to keep up with him, but I just get lost.

The reason? My speech synthesizer project, courtesy of Ahoy!, back in 1984 or so.

Ahoy! was one of the Commodore 64-specific magazines back in the day, along with Transactor and a few others. They ran a series on building expansion cards for the C64 one time, and the idea of a speech synthesizer was so neatoriffic that my cousin, Curt Holland, and I rather unwisely decided that, parts list in hand, we’d embark on building this thing. (Incidentally, you can find this project on teh intarwebz: Ahoy!, a scan of the issue!)

We had everything we needed, except parts and tools (and money, and experience, and…) The parts list, as mentioned, was courteously provided by Ahoy!, as were the instructions for putting the thing together. My dad was (and is) a pretty accomplished engineer, so I set upon wheedling money out of him, so that the fruit of his body could follow in his rather illustrious hobbyist’s footsteps.

At least, that was the idea.

The article, you see, described the entire cost of the parts as roughly around $20. We went to Radio Shack with the parts list (which conveniently listed Radio Shack part numbers!) and went for the inventory… except some of the parts weren’t available. So we replaced parts with equivalents the best we could, aided by our handy dandy salesman who – armed with his two-year advantage in age – surely knew everything. Or so it seemed to us, being entirely clueless.

Uh oh – we had the parts, but we were missing necessary things like tools. So we went back to my dad, saying that we needed more supplies: a soldering iron, maybe a multimeter (checking current is great, but a multimeter is great when you’re working with ICs about which you have zero understanding – chicks dig ’em!)… we ended up buying a pretty decent beginner’s set, with all of our parts and tools adding up to about $50 USD.

We then set about putting this thing together. I think I mentioned that we weren’t exactly good at stuff like this – well, let me clarify a bit. We weren’t “not exactly good” – we had no experience, no patience, no desire to learn – we just wanted a cool speech synthesizer.

Some of the parts didn’t quite match up to the diagrams. One of the chips, for example, had sixteen pins where the part recommended in the article had eight. Instead of doing the logical thing – i.e., either getting the right part or at the very least matching the pin functions up – we just used the pin diagram from the eight-pin IC.

Looking back, I can say this was probably wrong.

After about two hours of screwing around, soldering with great abandon and slotting chips in – probably backwards, and other such follies – we had a wonderfully tech-looking glob of entirely unfunctional electronics. We tried. We really did. It just didn’t do anything – the C64 wouldn’t even start with the thing slotted in.

So we did what any sixteen-year-olds would have done, having pretty much wasted $50 of parents’ money – we dummied up. Our speech synth project was declared a “victory” and quickly submerged with a declaration that we’d gladly demo it at some future point in time – after we’d finished term papers, essays, homework of pretty much any stripe. (“Yes, dad, we have homework for physical education – we gotta calculate how much force jumping jacks put on your knees or … something.”)

However, our machinations didn’t quite work. One day, my dad and stepmother decided it was time to see our handiwork. Curt and I went into panic mode – and the speech synthesizer card magically transported itself to Curt’s house. We’d show it to them the next day… provided Curt remembered to bring it.

That only worked for so long. The moment of truth had arrived – but no, we were schemers and Dad knew a lot more about hardware than software!

So we loaded a software speech synthesizer, called “SAM” (oddly, still living for Windows!) We then propped the card we’d sort of built into place behind the C64 – not plugged in, of course, but visible – and plugged a set of wires into it so it looked like it was in use, and happily showed SAM to my parents.

“Hbblelo,” it said.

“See, it said ‘hello!'” we explained.

Satisfied, my parents left the room, and Curt and I never got involved in hardware ever again, except that karma forced me to endure it with my son.

And that’s the story of my speech synthesizer. Curt and I still laugh about it today, except nowhere near my father.

Like I said, Dad, none of this is true. Not even the parts you remember. I promise.

Author’s Note: A repost (of a repost, as the initial phrase points out).

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