Firmware again, MIDI again

The Piggy’s firmware was updated to version 1.2. Download. It now features Decay time and Sustain level setting via MIDI. For the rest the ADSR quality checking has been improved with additional unit testing.

But speaking of MIDI.. one of the trickier parts in the firmware.. We did our own Software UART for the MIDI implementation. It just was the right thing to do. MIDI over USB was possible, but required fooling around with special drivers on every platform (Mac, Linux and Windows), and quite possibly also depending on the OS version. An unmanageable software thundercloud seemed to loom over our heads. So, the answer would have to reside with the Arduino itself. The Arduino’s hardware UART was already used by USB, and so the idea for a software MIDI UART was born.

The implementation wasn’t straightforward. And that’s typically the case where high speed interrupts (max 31,250 interrupts per second!) are involved. We chose to measure the time passed between rising and falling edges. Divide by 32 usec and you have the number of elapsed bits. For this to work, interrupt code has to be -fast-. And interrupt code is notoriously hard to debug. For that reason the interrupt only encodes runs: {bit-value, nr-of-bits}, {bit-value, nr-of-bits}, etc, etc. That’s the low-level layer. A layer on top of that, which is more complex, decodes the runs, which then gives us the real bits as they were communicated. Another layer on top of that strips away the start/stop bits and reverses bit order (crazy UART stuff). This is a very tidy way of doing things, and you wouldn’t expect it to work at such high interrupt frequencies, and with so little RAM (2k).

Software UART layers:

  1. interrupt: checking the time between signal edges and encoding runs
  2. decoding runs: we now have the bits as they were sent
  3. decoding bytes: strip off start/stop bits and reverse bit order to get the byte values

In the end, the communication took only a few percent CPU and manages to read all MIDI data correctly. It took a good couple of days, but it was worth it.

Recently, a friend asked. Hey.. software UART? Doesn’t that already exist? The blunder of dozens of wasted hours immediately crossed our minds. Checking what was already done on the Arduino:
NewSoftSerial library

This is actually already a follow-up of an original, which was said to make timers unstable and so forth. But still, we quote: “NewSoftSerial requires nearly 100% CPU time while transmitting or receiving data.”.

Ok, the stubborn folks at Tasty Chips apparently didn’t do too bad then.

With all respect towards the developers at Teensy, of course. They were brave enough to make a full-fledged UART including writing, not just reading. But for the Piggy, a dedicated, newly developed software UART was the best choice. 😉

Arduino performance

In the recent days we’ve been working on getting the Piggy’s firmware optimized to make squeeze out every last drop of performance and create even better sounds. Part of the optimization is to get the modulation frequency as high as possible, so that also at high pitch, fat FM sounds are possible.

The Piggy is part analogue (VCA, VCO, filter), but also has digital components. It has, for instance, a second digital oscillator (inside the Arduino) which is used for frequency modulation. The modulation oscillator has to follow the pitch of the analogue VCO, which can get quite high. A few kiloherz is nothing special.

In order for the frequency to be high, the code needs to run quickly. Typically, we want everything to be done in 300 microseconds, and then a new cycle can begin. But doing this proves a little harder than first thought. The Piggy uses the Arduino’s micro controller, the Atmel AVR. This baby runs at 16 MHz and has the potential to run instructions in a single clock cycle, so only 62.5 nanoseconds! This should be a walk in the park then, right? I mean, we’re only talking about a single oscillator and one envelope?

Well, it would be that easy, if it weren’t for the fact that the AVR is 8 bit. This means numbers (16, or 32 bit, which are typically needed for precision applications) need to be handled in multiple steps. For instance, a multiplication of two 16 bit numbers is actually 4 8-bit multiplies. Think A x B = (a + c) x (b + d) = ab + cd + cb + cd. That means 4 terms. for 32 bit numbers this is actually 16 terms, and all of those need to be added too. So, watch out with bigger numbers and multiplies. They can take a couple of microseconds in the worst case.

But even worse, the AVR, in the tradition of all 8 bit processors, does not have a divide instruction. Instead, it’s typically done by a software long division routine. It turns out a full 32 bit divide takes no less than 50 microseconds (!!). We measured this using GPIO on the oscilloscope and using a special benchmark program (run division 10000 times and print the elapsed time). This is completely deadly to the performance. In such cases the following optimizations may be in order:

  • Resort to shifts.. use powers of two (2,4,8,16..) and the compiler will replace the div routine by a simple shift. This almost completely frees up the 50 microseconds.
  • In case you cannot use a power of two, then you can perhaps pre-calculate the inverse and multiply with this at run-time. This will be 10 times faster or more.
  • Avoid division altogether. Sometimes there are smart algorithms for this (for instance the Bresenham line algorithm).

In case of designing a synthesizer it’s important to understand that division is typically required for envelopes. The rest is primarily linear signal processing, with perhaps a non-linear look-up table based operation here and there.. This can be solved with cheap operations. Envelope data does not need to be computed for every sample, it can be done at something like 500 or 1000 Hz.

So, you can put envelope processing in a background task, and let modulation run in the foreground. But that’s something for another post 😉

Superpiggy prototype

Just assembled and tested the follow-up of the Piggy. It’s the … yes, very obvious name here … “Super piggy”, or Super Arduino Piggyback Synthesizer.

Like previously announced it features an enhanced VCO, which can also do rectangle wave with variable duty cycle and 4 additional potmeters for hands-on ADSR control. The result is a bit “chiptune” like but with the low-pass resonant filter, of course.

Buttons and LEDs are used to select and display VCO mode, and loopable ADSR. See the screenshots below. Yes, there’s our logo on the PCB, finally 😉




New firmware / New synth design

Yet again another firmware version: the mighty 1.1.2. This one kicks the bugs out:

  • Pitch wheel doesn’t interfere with note on/off commands anymore.
  • Release time doesn’t get lost in space anymore.
  • Unit tests are added and expanded to safeguard the quality of all the state machines in the code: MIDI decoding, envelope processing, etc.

Bigger news: the direct follow-up of the piggy is already in the making. The code name is Super Piggy, remember it.


  • Next to the SAW oscillator it will get a PWM mode, with adjustable pulse width!
  • No less than four additional pots (pot lovers, rejoice!) for ADSR or LFO envelope.
  • Oscillator mode and ADSR/LFO controls are switchable by pushbutton and indicated by leds

The layout:

PCB’s are expected to be on their way from China to Tasty Chips headquarters in a week or two (planned to be earlier, but Chinese New Year tends to get in the way ;)) Stay tuned!

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