Learning to make pcbs

So I have earmarked a project to complete this year. Part of it will require designing a PCB. I have never did this before. Can anyone recommend resources for learning to design PCBs with a view to making a module?

I am trying to recall how I did this. My main tools were: looking at other people’s work; having a friend on hand who’d been through this process; taking a while. Lots of my first boards were just garbage - sometimes working garbage, but garbage nontheless. None of the software is user-friendly in the manner of most computer software; I tend to believe there is good reason for this now, but it makes the learning process painful. And the fab turnaround time of ~ two weeks means that it will take a while for mistakes you’ve not spotted to surface.

What’s your electronics skill in general like? Not formal training, but: can you draw a schematic of something you’ve breadboarded? The two parts to board design are, first, making sure the electronics is right; then it’s just the 2.5D puzzle game of layout.

Oh, one more question: are you designing for yourself, or for others? Are you expecting to make these by hand, or on a machine (ie pick/place)?

I’m happy to offer what assistance/coaching I can.

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I was in your boat three years ago. I went with Eagle at the time, but would probably choose kiCad now, just because it seems easier to share with others for their critique.

Start slow and small. PCBs are so cheap now that PCBway is worth it as a prototyping tool. Their screens can be a bit off, but the copper will work as printed. So I would suggest starting really simple with a multiple or something, then go active (something with power), and go bigger from there.

Thanks @infovore, @AIsynthesis. I plan on doing a lot of research of others designs and by no means expect this to be a fast process. Fortunately there are 2 big helps… (1) the circuit already exists in desktop form and has been shared. (2) my dad is a retired electronic engineer and is willing to help troubleshooting issues (he did the smd soldering on my monome kit years ago!).

If anything fruitful comes of this then I will share designs etc.

Cheers.

I suppose I would also recommend KiCad. Like Eagle, it appears to have been designed by a person who doesn’t like people, but it’s free and open source and uses plain text files for everything, so that’s something. This tutorial is decent.

You’ll probably want to install Eagle as well, though, if only to look at Mutable Instruments’ schematics, which are a great resource.

For getting boards made, I would recommend OSH Park:

Best of luck!

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Somewhat related: if I want to make an alternate faceplate for a small (4hp) module to have it match the black-and-gold-panelled Wogglebug next to it, would you recommend OSH Park for this? The only other option would be to buy powder-coated aluminum panels and have someone drill holes for the I/O jacks and LEDs, right?

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No - all OSH Park PCBs come with purple solder mask, as well as mouse bites along the edges, because of how they’re manufactured:

The quality of PCB panels varies a lot between different manufacturers. I don’t know which fab Make Noise uses, but would like to.

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Well, OSH only make purple. If you’re happy with purple, it’s fine, The ‘mouse bites’ described elsewhere are easily removed with a good file.

If you’re interested in black, you have lots of options. I’ve made production black panels at Eurocircuits, who are excellent, and not particularly cheap at all. But the quality of service is perhaps worth it. I’ve also made black panels at AllPCB, who are… the best low-cost Chinese fab house I’ve used yet. Boards that are fine for circuitry often aren’t OK for panels - at least one manufacturer delivered some very disappointing things - but the AllPCB ones come out really nice. Here’s one I made earlier:

Quality silking, nice finish. Not quite the top quality of Eurocircuits or MN but not bad. Their service is good as long as you want nothing too funky. And they’re great for making regular boards, I’ve been pleased with all their work.

The key to doing things like Make Noise do is, likely, having a good conversation with your fab house about precisely what you’d want - which is easier done when they’re in-territory or local, and they’re charging more. I’ve messed around with exposed copper, for instance, and getting that right is hard and takes multiple passes. But: if you’re doing a run of 250+, you should have the time/budget to do that.

(I’ve also done panels on a lasercutter before - 3mm acrylic is a tad thick and you’ll need 8mm, not 6mm screws to go through, but you can find 2mm acrylic if you hunt. For one-offs, that’s around as cheap as overseas fab).

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Start really simple - the first board I made was a 4xjack to breadboard adaptor. It worked!

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I got started doing layouts and PCB’s for guitar pedals (I have quite a few projects available over at the Madbean forum).

My first board was for an EHX LPB… about as simple as it gets for guitar pedals!

I use Eagle for board layouts, and inkscape for any graphics layout/panel drawings. I’ve always ordered boards from OSH park.

For eurorack I’ve complete layouts (and PCB panels) for passive mult’s, attenuators and a couple of simple LFO circuits.

Mutable Instruments and Music Thing Modular are very good resources to see how others approach eurorack PCB layouts.

The Madbean forum is also great resource for Eagle tutorials (it’s a very friendly place too). e.g.: http://www.madbeanpedals.com/forum/index.php?topic=9661.0

You can have 1-off (or more) aluminum panels made at Front Panel Express (https://www.frontpanelexpress.com/), including black anodized. This won’t exactly match the matte pcb panels used by Make Noise for their black modules, but should probably look closer than a powder coated panel. For reference I believe the black Expert Sleepers panels are anodized aluminum.

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Have you had panels made from Front Panel Express? I wondered how expensive they were? As I remember you had to submit a design to get a quote…

You don’t need to submit the design, their design software, Front Panel Designer, will show you the quote. The cost depends on the size of the panel, how many holes it has, the amount of graphics, etc. I had ordered a 4HP panel before and I think it was $30-35 or so.

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I see, thanks. I’m guessing the price goes down the more you order at a time?

Yea, there are price breaks if you order more of the same panel. I believe it is a 10% discount when you order 5, 20% when you order 10, 30% when you order 20.

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Loaded question, I know, but the more time I spend with my modular setup or posting on this forum, the more I find myself wanting to be both a user and maker beyond simply generating recordings or playing gigs. I’ve been chatting with people about some ideas I’ve had for a hypothetical “new” Walk and/or expander modules for it (based on this post from @tehn in another thread), but since I’m neither a programmer nor an electronics engineer by trade, I’m wondering where you’d recommend I start with learning to program and design modules so that I might make this hypothetical thing for myself at some point.

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Simple kits perhaps. Or if you would rather look into the programming side something like the Rebel Technology owl or Snazzy Ardcore or the patchblock module.

I think the programming side is trickiest on an original module, so looking at open source modules can give lots of info.

Thus far I’ve only investigated kits and passive utilities. (Radio music, Uraltone mixer were my kits and I’m building passive mults and an expanded for batumi - both based on schematics I found online).

I’d like to build a euro version of Look Mum No Computer’s Big Button Box but look to converting his design to a euro PCB. However the code is already written and available online to flash an Arduino nano.

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So the tricky thing in your question is that there’s loads of different components. There’s the circuit-design part; the manufacturing-boards part; and then if you want to make something digital, there’s writing code, writing code that works on MCU of choice, getting MCU into the world.

But: these are all components with small starting points. A breadboard and a bag of parts is not a bad way to begin; any Arduino starter kit will get you off the grounds in terms of thinking with voltages, and passive components, and beginning to write simple logic. The difference between ‘working on a breadboard’ and ‘now how do I make this work in Euro’ is not particularly high, the hard bit is getting the circuit right to begin with (and not screwing up the 'adding modular belt/braces).

I’ve prototyped stuff in software like Processing before turning it into firmware - ironing out the kinks in my logic. So you don’t necessarily need to dive into the whole dependency chain to start sketching the problem. Finding something you can think in is important.

The thing I definitely know, though, is having a goal makes this easier. Much easier to learn something if you know what you want to achieve. And foot-pedal interaction modules are actually pretty straightforward (I know, because I’m working on one). It’s basically just a button, and making a button do things is one of the first things you can learn. Massimo Banzi’s Getting Started with Arduino is really good on starting to think with microcontrollers and simple passive components like this.

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Well, it’d be quite straightforward to basically make a Euro-sized ‘shield’ that still connects to the same Nano outputs - then you could use the same firmware but with a differently sized piece of hardware. Although, it would also make a good candidate for putting a bare Atmel 32u4 on the PCB and basically flashing it with the Arduino firmware directly…

It’s definitely a good learning project, though, taking that circuit drawing and making a Euro-sized version. More than happy to offer input.

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(Kind of a bump here as this seems like the most relevant thread to what I’m asking.)

Seeing that the Bela Trill will be coming out at some point, I was thinking that this may be a good time to learn how to make some PCBs, but what I’m specifically thinking is making PCBs as an “interface” surface, not really as a functional/circuit thing. I’m thinking of something along the lines of the Stereo Field or Manta where the PCB itself will just be large copper traces with a small via (?) to the other side, where the electronics will actually be wired.

I imagine it would involve making some vector art in some other app then importing it into a PCB app(?), so with that in mind, what would be a good app(s) to look into for something “simple” like this. I had a quick look at KiCad and it looks understandably intimidating and super overkill for what I have in mind. I’m on a Mac (10.14) if that matters.

Also, a big part of this would be to have potentially non rectangular PCBs as well, as I’d probably have the PCB make up the shape of the controller I’m after, so that probably further complicates things.