…how to build a DIY video synthesizer on the cheap
*Disclaimer: Do not read any further, and especially do not attempt any of the procedures described below.
Didn’t listen, ok, you asked for it.
The CHA/V (CHEAP, HACKY, A/V) is a #DIY, #audiovisual, #A/V, #video synthesizer, that has inexplicably been built by civilians around the world, as well as in international workshops and fancy art schools. I also will never shut up about the fact that it was included in Handmade Electronic Music, one of my all-time favorite books. Now that all my impressive-sounding words and hashtags in there we can begin communicating like humans. If you are new to video synths, fasten your seat belt. You just opened up a huge can of wormholes.
This project has grown a lot since I launched it in 2016 (under the title “how to make a crap video synth for $10), so much so that it unfortunately requires a table of contents now.
VGA Signal Conversion
The Original Tutorial
“What if I don’t want to use VGA?”
- Scroll up a few inches, and then click on the VGA Signal Conversion link.
“I’ve never soldered anything in my life. Am I crazy for thinking I could try to build this?”
- Absolutely not! You can totally make this. Check out the Tips for Beginners page. There’s some motivational stuff there (anyone can do this!), but also some practical things, like which tools I like to use, and where to start.
“I really don’t want to build this. Can I just pay you to make me one?”
- Yes, I’ll make you one, but I wouldn’t recommend going down that road. I charge $120 for a built unit, which isn’t worth it in my opinion. The retail parts cost for a full CHA/V + VGA4EVA build is roughly $50, including the PCBs. I designed this stuff to be the best DIY experience I possibly could. It’s incredibly inexpensive, pretty easy (and hopefully fun) to build, and for such a dumb (and incorrect) circuit, it’s a surprisingly good platform to experiment with some of the basics of DIY video synthesis. In my opinion, it’s a 10/10 DIY project, and I don’t want to rob you of that experience. As far as how I feel about it as an instrument, I’d give it maybe 4/10. The controls are small and fiddly, it’s unreliable, and it would be a nightmare to try to use in a live performance setting. Many many people have found CHA/V stuff to be a friendly gateway into the world of DIY video synthesis, but that’s all it’s intended to be, a gateway.
“Is there a Eurorack version?”
- There was, but ultimately I decided that a Eurorack module doesn’t fit the philosophy of this project. In my opinion, a modular synth should have certain standards for precision that a CHA/V (or any other thing based on VGA hacking) doesn’t meet by definition. I get routinely encouraged to release the Eurorack stuff with the words “people would totally buy it” to which I respond, “yes, but that doesn’t mean they should”. If your goal is a Eurorack video system, just save yourself some pain and misery and begin investing in an LZX system. A CHA/V based Eurorack system is not something I’d ever try to encourage. A house needs a solid foundation, and VGA hacking is a “lol” foundation.
“Can I use a CHA/V to process video from my camera or computer?”
- No. For the moment, CHA/V stuff is just for making weird glitchy patterns. I have some CHA/V based personal projects that are capable of real-time video VGA input processing, but they haven’t been publicly released because they could potentially damage or destroy whatever’s plugged into them (one guess how I learned that). I’ve made some safe ones too, but they’re more expensive to build than they’re worth. There are some tutorials out there on the internet that talk about VGA signal hacking and how to use it for video processing. I’m not going to link any of that stuff because I find the whole thing a little irresponsible. Again, it’s also easier and better to just use an LZX system if that’s what you’re after.
Note: Don’t be a jerk and take advantage of a small DIY project. This information may not be used to rip people off in whatever crapitalist scheme you’ve cooked up. The information provided here is meant for personal use only, using anything here commercially is dumb and also legally prohibited. Don’t be one of those idiots who sells CHA/V synth ripoffs on eBay for $200. Also, don’t be an idiot who buys one of them. You can make one yourself. Really, you can do it. I’ll also do commission builds if you really, really don’t want to build one yourself, but, fair warning: I’ll probably try to encourage you to do it yourself first.
Here’s the legal mumbo-jumbo:
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.