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V-USB MIDI expression pedal with capacitance sensor

First version of the pedal

Third version of the pedal - with 10 programmable footswitches

polska wersja tego dokumentu
I wanted to built cheap, almost indestructible and smoothly working pedal manipulator which could be used as an MIDI expression pedal for guitar effects (e.g. in jack-rack, guitarix or rakarrack) or for synthesizer (e.g. in ZynAddSubFx or in LMMS).
The standard ones, which use potentiometers to sense the position of the pedal are usually neither silent nor durable. Therefore I have decided to try another approach - the capacitance sensor. It appears, that current microprocessors allow to easily build simple capacitance sensors with sufficient resolution and accuracy.
My variable capacitor consists of two copper plates (eg. non-etched PCB) with dimensions 60mmx90mm. They are connected with the hinge, so the mean distance between them may be changed (see the figure below). In fact the first plate is mounted inside of the plastic case, and the second one outside of the case, to prevent shorting.
I was not able to find smothly moving hinge, so I've built one myself, using the brass pipes - one with external diameter of 5mm, and the second one with internal diameter of 5mm.
SVG image showing design of the pedal
The capacitance is measured in a very simple way. The PWM in the microcontroller generates the square wave. The variable capacitance of my sensor creates the low-pass RC circuit with the external 1.5MΩ resistor. The integrated (and therefore delayed) signal is connected to the input capture system of the microcontroller, and the delay of between the slopes of the PWM signal and the ICP1 signal is measured (see the circuit diagram, or download the schematic sources in the KiCad format).
It appeared, that this approach provided reasonable resolution and accuracy for MIDI expression pedal, however it is necessary to calibrate the pedal before use. To perform calibration, a simple user interface, consisting of single push button and single LED was added to the system. The calibration procedure is embedded in the firmware:
  1. After the pedal is connected to the USB interface, the LED flashes quickly. You should press the pedal fully and press the calibration button (still holding pedal down)
  2. when the LED starts to light continuously, release the button, still holding the pedal down. The LED will switch off. After the first stage of calibration is completed, LED will start to flash slowly. Then you should release the pedal
  3. After a few seconds press the button again (with released pedal), starting the second stage of calibration. When the LED starts to light continuously, release button (pedal should be released all the time).
  4. The LED will switch off during the second stage of calibration. After the second stage of calibration is completed, LED will start to flash shortly every ca. 2 seconds - the pedal will be ready.
The calibration procedure may be repeated - just press the pedal, press the button again and repeat procedure from step 2.
Currently pedal operates quite reliably, however its characteristics is nonlinear (as C is inversely proportional to the distance between the plates). To improve linearity, you can either keep the ratio between the maximal and minimal distances small (by mechanical design), or you can add the linearization procedure into the firmware.
You can download full firmware sources of my design, available under the GPL license. The newest version of sources with the history of changes is always available on github. Please note, that my firmware is heavily based on the GPL'ed V-USB-MIDI project, which in turn is based on the V-USB project.

Version 2 - with footswitches support

I have also prepared the new, upgraded version which allows to use footswitches to select presets in rakarrack or guitarix (or in ZynAddSubFx). Three foot switches are connected to the connector P2 (see schematic diagram or sources of schematic diagram in KiCad format). When one pin (1, 2 or 3) is shorted to the ground (pin 4), the pedal sends the "program change" MIDI message with program number 0, 1 or 2.
The sources of firmware version 2, with footswitches support are available here.

Version 3 - with programmable support for up to 10 footswitches

To fully utilize the microcontroller used in the pedal, I have developed the 3rd version, which supports up to 10 footswitches (the schematic diagram is available as a PDF file and as sources in KiCad format. Please note, that in the new version of KiCad atmel.lib library the symbol ATMEL8-P is changed. Therefore to avoid corruption of the schematic diagram, please download the old version of this library to the same directory, in which you put the schematic file. ). Certainly you need to put the device in a bigger enclosure to mount 10 footswitches in a convenient way.
To make my pedal more versatile, I have added reprogrammability of the pedal controller and of all switches.
After the pedal is connected to the USB host, the pedal controller sends "control change" messages with control number set to 0x70, and pressing of each footswitch sends the "program change" message with program number corresponding to the number of the switch. The release of any switch does not generate any MIDI message.
You can easily modify MIDI messages sent at the change of position of the pedal controller, and at pressing and releasing of any footswitch. It allows you to use pedal to control different functions of the software (e.g. the "modulation controller"), and to use footswitches e.g. to control "looper" in guitarix and rakarrack or to switch on and off different effects.
Programming is performed by sending special USB packets to the endpoint 0 of the device. If you want, you can modify the software to use MIDI System Exclusive messages for that purpose, but I've decided to use simpler approach based on control transfers, as it allows mi to reprogram pedal with simple scripts, written in Python language, using the pyusb library.

To change the MIDI message sent at the change of the pedal controller position, we need to send the following USB control packet (with the pyusb syntax).
Then the device will send the USB MIDI event packets consisting of bytes B1, B2, B3 and the 4th byte, which encodes the pedal position in the following way. If B4 is equal to 0, then fully released position is encoded as 0, and fully pressed position is encoded as 127. If B4 is not equal to 0, then fully released position is encoded as 127, and fully pressed position is encoded as 0.
Possibility to change the position encoding allows us to decide e.g. if the fully released pedal should select the maximum or the minimum level of the controlled effect.

If pressing of the N-th footswitch should generate the USB MIDI event packet consisting of the bytes: B1, B2, B3 and B4, we have to send the USB packet of the following form (pyusb syntax):
If B1 is equal to 0, no MIDI event will be generated.

Similarly, if releasing of the N-th footswitch should generate the USB MIDI event packet consisting of the bytes: B1, B2, B3 and B4, we have to send the USB packet of the following form (pyusb syntax):
If B1 is equal to 0, no MIDI event will be generated.

Sample script allowing to reprogram functions of the pedal is available here (for pyusb 1.0) or here (for pyusb 0.x).

If you define the appropriate udev rules file in your Linux system, you can achieve automatic configuration of the pedal, when it gets connected to the PC, or when the PC is switched on. For example in my system I have added the following udev rule:
ACTION=="add", SUBSYSTEM=="usb", ATTRS{product}=="V-USB-MIDI-PEDAL+SWITCH", ATTRS{bcdDevice}=="0003", MODE="660", OWNER="root", GROUP= "audio", RUN+="/usr/local/midi/"
If you want to modify the setup program according to your needs, you should probably read the following documents USB MIDI class definition and table of MIDI messages.

The sources of the firmware allowing to use up to 10 footswitches in the reprogrammable way are available (under the GPL license) for ATmega8 controller and for ATmega88 controller. The sources, with the history of last changes are also available in the github repository.

If you connect e.g. two guitars to the same PC, you can have two guitarix sessions opened at the same time, and you can use two pedals at the same time. The similar situation may arise, when you want to connect both the guitar (working with the guitarix) and the MIDI keyboard (e.g. connected to the ZynaddSubFx). To support such configurations, I have decided to switch on the serial number support in the firmware. You should set the proper, unique serial number in the usbconfig.h file, before compiling the firmware for the particular device. Plese note, that the provided Python setup script makes use of serial numbers.

Mechanical design of the 3rd version of the pedal

The pedal's case was built from 2 Z37 enclosures mounted together. Joining of two enclosures is not a trivial task. I have simply glued them together with an epoxy resin, but I don't know how long this junction will survive.
The pedal controller is built in the same way as in the first version.
As the footswitches I have used the TL6520-112 switches, but it is possible to use e.g. PBS24-112 switch. The electronic circuit is simple enough to fit into a simple standard prototype board.

Inside view of the mounted pedal

My other MIDI related designs and programs
Wojciech Zabolotny