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DIY 26 Speaker Ambisonic Dome – Part 2

The audio

My vision for this project was to create an ambisonic dome for tinkerers and musicians who have a tiny budget but don’t mind putting in some DIY time. One of the biggest hurdles for keeping the dome design affordable was working out how the audio amplifiers and computer interfaces could be made or found cheaply.

Amplifiers can be very cheap when you need one or two channels – any Hi-Fi amplifier will do. If you want up to 6 channels you might be able to re-purpose an old surround-sound amplifier. You can’t get 26 channels of ready-made audio cheaply. Commercial power amps that handle over 16 channels are thousands of dollars. It was obvious that I would have to make something myself.

Digital amplifiers

I have been impressed by some of the small digital amplifiers available through Ali Express and Ebay. They can run from a huge range of voltages, deliver lots of power and are typically quite compact.

This is a Nobsound Mini Bluetooth Power Amplifier. You can find comparable models for ~$40-60. It even has bluetooth.

$20 per channel is still far too expensive for powering the dome – I’ll need 26 channels of audio. You can, if you look a bit harder, find digital power amplifiers sold in a very basic form, just a PCB and few support components. I found the PAM8610 stereo amplifier for $3.45

Digital amplifiers are very, very efficient and can operate without heatsinks for low power loads. The speakers in my dome are very small, but there are a lot of them. Sounds, even very directional ones, are represented in the dome by an array of speakers sharing the load, keeping the power demand on each speaker small. These little modules seemed perfect and my first test module seemed to perform OK. I ordered a whole pile of them and started on an enclosure.

The digital power amp. Each little module is two channels.

For each stereo module I 3D printed a mounting ‘sled’. The sled had push-fit fingers that held the modules in place, wire routing holes and mounting holes that could take an M3 bolt or a small cable-tie. It went together very quickly, looked neat and could be powered from a single 12V laptop power supply. It was also unusable.

I had noticed a small amount of noise during my individual module tests but I was entirely unprepared for the wall of noise that 26 channels of the PAM8610 would put out. It wasn’t only hiss – these units were interfering with each other, causing some very harsh noise components. I leveraged my years of experience fighting feedback squeal in valve amplifier designs and re-routed the grounds and power supply lines with a star-topology. A small improvement. I bypassed the power supply on each board with an MKT capacitor and added filtering at the power entry. Another small improvement but not enough. I had a week left before I had to exhibit the dome and I still did not have a working amplifier, so I needed to change course and try something different.

Old fashioned linear amplifiers are also available in chip form – though they can be annoying to work with at medium power, needing heatsinks or direct mounting on a metal case to keep them from destroying themselves through waste heat. I didn’t have time for all that, but I remembered that Jaycar stocked pre-made encapsulated amplifier modules. I bought every one they had and bulk ordered more than they probably would have sold in three years.

Not nearly as visually satisfying, but it did they job for the exhibition night. These amplifiers are now housed more neatly in a roomy 3U high case.

The amplifiers were sorted, but I still had to route sound to the dome from my computer. This is another area where a small number of channels is very inexpensive – stereo and even 5.1 surround sound is often built into motherboards or available on a cheap USB dongle. Finding 16 channels will probably cost you ~$2000, and 32 channels ~$4000. Although I would love to be able to justify buying an Orion 32+ from Antelope Audio, that is not suitable for this project. I also don’t have $4000 to spend for fun.

Whatever happened to FireWire?

FireWire equipment is available at bargain prices, if you are willing to take the risk. FireWire used to be the only connectivity choice for professionals – unless you had some kind of solution that came with its own PCI card and bespoke connectors. USB was too unstable, too slow and had an air of “Intel PC” about it when everyone was using Apple to get creative work done. Then everything changed. Windows became stable and Apple forgot that their professional users even existed, abandoning the Mac Pro and removing ports and functionality from their Pro laptops. It became nearly impossible to guess if your expensive interface would survive Apple’s next operating system upgrade.

There is still a lot of FIreWire hardware out there doing good work, but it is obsolete technology and the prices really reflect that. You also have to be very careful what hardware you buy, because it may restrict you to a few compatible versions of the operating system, preventing you from upgrading until you sell it.

Focusrite Liquid Saffire 56. You’re not supposed to be able to link them together – but you can.

I already owned a Focusrite Liquid Saffire 56 with a pair of additional 8-channel optical inputs. It was a great inexpensive system for recording live bands. I was able to find a second 56 for ~$600. Focusrite FIrewire interfaces have a special mode called ‘Twin Linking’ where the driver software ties two interfaces together as one unit. The documentation says that you can NOT link two 56s together – but you can. This configuration is not allowed by Focusrite because, with every input and output channel running, it is possible to exceed the maximum bandwidth of the Firewire 400 connection. Fair enough – but they don’t stop you from just doing it anyway. My only concern is to push 26 channels of audio out of the computer to run my dome and they are able to handle it brilliantly for a fraction of the price of a 32 channel interface.

DIY 26 Speaker Ambisonic Dome – Part 1, The Dome Structure

DIY 26 Speaker Ambisonic Dome – Part 3, The Software

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DIY 26 Speaker Ambisonic Dome – Part 1

This project seemed fairly simple when I started designing it around March 2020. 26 Speakers, 26 amplifiers, an ambisonic decoder and some simple arduino based controllers. It got out of hand very quickly and although I am happy with how the project has come together, I have spent more time than I would like to admit wanting to set the whole thing on fire and forgetting that I ever wanted this thing to exist.

The Dome Structure

It’s what everyone sees first – it defines the whole project. It turned out to be the easiest part.

The first test assembly, proving the viability of the electrical conduit and PLA printed hubs

The hubs are 3D printed from PLA using a very cheap little 3D printer from Cocoon Products. It’s branded ‘Balco’ and I think that this model was once sold through Aldi. Although it was cheap it has some features that I think a 3D printer must have in order to be genuinely useful.

  • A heated bed – if you print in ABS or other less forgiving mediums than PLA you will need a heated bed. Without one your prints will curl up from contraction of the hot plastic while the job is still being printed. Sometimes it still will anyway. Ambient temperature can have a big effect on the quality of your prints. On cold nights I’ve built boxes from styrofoam, cardboard and clear polycarbonate around to printer to keep the heat from the bed escaping. A ready-made fully enclosed printer would be great, but is three times more expensive than my Balco.
  • Standalone operation from an SD Card – I have CNC mills that are driven straight from the computer (via the parallel port). It’s great to have a cool animated display (from Linux CNC), but it requires me to have a monitor, computer, keyboard and mouse for each mill. Either that or have my laptop tied up for four hours during a cut. It’s great to just load a GCode file onto the SD Card, open it from the touch screen and walk away.
  • Moving bed gantry design – this is nice because the bed doesn’t move beyond the boundaries of the printer base. For messy people like me, this means that your printer won’t push things off the bench. (My CNC mills will do this all the time if I’m careless).
  • A cool little touch screen with utility functions built in – filament exchange, homing and bed-leveling are all built into the unit. This saves a lot of time and fiddling around.

Files are prepared for the 3D printer using the free software package ‘Ultimaker Cura‘. It won’t help you with modifying your designs, though it can expand or shrink the size – a function I’ve used in very small increments to make the caps fit better on my hubs.

The Dome Components

The dome is a 2V geodesic semi-dome, needing three hub types to complete. The clips are electrical conduit clips. Also shown in the picture are the 6cm speakers and the first version of the class D 26 channel power amp. There’s 100m of speaker lead on that top reel – it wasn’t nearly enough.

My original plans were to test print the dome using PLA (it’s faster and more forgiving to print) and, after verifying the design, to reprint the whole thing in ABS for better strength. I never had to. The dome has been set up several times in differing locations, been left out in a thunderstorm, and has undergone rapid unplanned disassembly several times (the first few times we tried to raise a finished dome onto its legs. I’ve had to re-print parts due to breakage only four five six times so far).

Each hub contains a single 6cm speaker held in place with a printed ring. They are quite small and don’t have a lot of power behind them, so they can’t handle low frequencies. Low frequencies are not very important for directional audio, so a single subs unit can handle the low frequency audio.

Structural test installation of the dome with temporary legs. The ring of computer controlled lights around the base give the performer information about the intensity and position of active voices, controlled by the wireless, Arduino powered gyro violin. The steel picket legs can be reversed and driven into the ground for a sturdy outdoor setup.
Audio rig test with 10 of the 26 channels active. The MAX/MSP powered control software is visible on the laptop screen.

DIY 26 Speaker Ambisonic Dome – Part 2, The Audio

DIY 26 Speaker Ambisonic Dome – Part 3, The Software