Breadboard Computers

In the early days of radio, you’d have what we now refer to as a “breadboard radio”.  You’d buy, say, the power supply, or the power supply and the detector, mounted on a wooden board that resembled a breadboard.  You’d then add an RF amp, a VFO once those came available, an AF amp and so on, until you’d built up your desired system.  You’d then assemble the A and B batteries and set about to hooking it all up and aligning it so it would work.  In other words, you had to be something of a technician if you were going to have a radio, or you’d have to know a technician willing to help you with the hours upon hours of component selection and set-up.

I’ve said for years that we’re still in the breadboard phase of computer technology.  It is changing, but we’re still there.  Similarly, in the early days of the automobile it was not uncommon to purchase your chassis from one manufacturer, and take it to the coach builder of your choice for the body work and interior.

Son got a computer yesterday, along with a multi-track recording interface.  We selected the computer for high processor speed, a large amount of RAM, and at least a TB of HD.  We had to add a firewire card, making sure the available slots on the motherboard would accommodate the particular firewire card with the particular chip we wanted.

The damned thing still won’t work.  Something about a 32 bit verses 64 bit Win 7 OS, and something about a sound card, or sound card driver (we still don’t know which) that doesn’t allow for something referred to as “direct audio input”.  Never heard of it.  Don’t understand why the sound card is even a factor, since it was my understanding that the recording interface, and it’s related software, took care of all those functions.

A thousand bucks into it (and that’s a screamin’ good deal) and we’ve only begun to spend.  The technicians at the computer stores are of zero help, so now it’s to the digital recording specialists we know (I grew up in the analog, magnetic tape days, so I’m of little use), and to the manufacturer of the interface.

All this of course represents a business opportunity.

ETA; actually, you’d get either the A and B batteries or you’d get the AC power supply for your “radio set” once the AC supplies came available.  It took several decades for the complete system being sold as a unit to become the rule.  I have a 1931 Atwater Kent system that came in basic form as the old breadboard unit, though it was a complete, functioning breadboard set.  It also has the optional wooden cabinet, into which the breadboard slides, with the control knobs and frequency display mating up into cut-outs in the cabinet front.  The “dynamic loudspeaker” is another option in this set.  This one is the alternate to the free-standing loudspeaker, or to a mere headset.  It hangs on two hooks inside the optional cabinet.  Then it also has the optional coil loop antenna.  All components were sold by the same company and complimented one another nicely.  That’s about where we are with tower PCs these days, except that the components don’t always match up or work at all together.  Hence, putting together a computer system for some specific purposes is a hobbyist’s or technician’s activity, rather than a simple consumer purchase.


7 thoughts on “Breadboard Computers

  1. I did a computer build a couple months ago. I phoned Microsoft and for $200 they allowed me to download ISO files of both the 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Win 7 Home Premium. The processor is an AMD 64-bit, so it’s a good thing I got both flavors for one price. In the end, I decided to install Ubuntu Linux 10.4 as the base 64-bit OS, and I installed Win 7 32-bit to run within VirtualBox. Works for me. I could have chosen to install 64-bit Win 7 as a “dual boot” option with Linux, but I wanted to access both OSs without rebooting.

  2. You should use Linux. Then all your problems will go away!


    (As a Linux user, I know that Linux ain’t a walk in the park…but I won’t go so far as to say that Windows is much better (although it *is* a bit better), because I’ve had my share of nightmares trying to get things to work on Windows systems, as well.)

  3. Well, with the proper hardware choices, building a Linux audio workstation isn’t exactly difficult. There are guides online for getting all the various bits going well.

    Anyways, what does this multi-track gizmo do? Does it do its own ADC? Is it trying to use the soundcard to provide monitor / playback functions? Is it trying to use DMA to send stuff to the DSP over the PCI? I can probably think of some other scenarios using TLAs. 🙂

    re. the automotive example, well, if you wanted something like going down to the showroom and picking up an Audi, you could have gone with Apple, ya know. As for the converse of that example, people do stick aftermarket parts in their cars, though it’s less common now. A more extreme example is putting a small-block Chevy V8 into a Volkswagen. But it’s what you have to do when nobody is selling what you want.

    BTW, you can still buy kit radios too.

  4. Usually Macs are best for this… A grand is a screaming deal. When you are setting up something like this it really needs to be matched together so that it works properly. Some programs are better than others in this respect, some much, much, harder to get working properly. (pro tools is one of the hardest…)

    Hera are some good rules of thumb that pretty much apply to all DAW setups:

    64 bits is better.
    At least 8 GB RAM (I start with 8, I wouldn’t go more than 10)
    Minimum of 2 hard drives are needed. The drive that audio is recorded to needs to be 7500RPM, (1 TB Digital Cavier blacks are what I’ve been standardizing on lately, DO NOT use an SSD for this). If you want to do video as well it also needs a dedicated 7500RPM drive. Don’t go over 1 TB for recording drives, some programs cannot handle them.
    You need a special audio interface, Firewire is better than USB.

    I have a number of systems that I use at work, Pro Tools HD and Ableton LIVE mostly. We use AVID/Digidesign, RME, MOTU, and M-Audio interfaces for various different systems. On my main Pro tools HD rig I record ~75 audio and one video track over 3 dedicated audio drives and 1 dedicated video drive internal to the Mac Pro.

    If you get into 32vs64 bit stuff with WIN 7 you’re past my experience level on windoze stuff, I maxed out at XP Pro on that side. I do know that there can be serious driver issues though.

    One big thing is that any bottlenecks in the system will completely shut you down and cause a crash, this is one of the main reasons you never record on your system drive.

    Good Luck

  5. This is a Phonic 808 recording interface using Firewire and the included Qbase software. Day three and we still can’t do a damned thing after multiple driver downloads and who knows what else Son has tried at who knows who’s advice. I’ll point Son to these comments and see what he can make of them. It looks like some of you have been down this road a few times.

    This Phonic 808 interface has the mic pre amps and audio outputs, and it is (or was) my understanding that it handled all the AD/DA conversions, and so I am at a loss to understand what role the computer’s sound card would play.

    The advice on using a separate HD for recording makes sense to me, but then I don’t know squat. See; in my ignorance, I believe there should be no such thing as a system HD – all that should be on a ROM (or something) so that a) it can’t possibly be corrupted unless there’s a hardware failure, and b) there’d be no “boot-up” process – Bam! But then that would be inconvenient for the developers. Or something. As I say; I’m dumb about this stuff, and those in the business will no doubt have multiple reasons why I’m talking pure crap.

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