Two students interact with a Bed of Nails circuit.

This year, I have taught DIY musical instruments as part of the module MTEC2001 Presentation & Promotion. MTEC2001 is an open module in which the students can select one specialisation to undertake a short intense project. The four specialisations have been: DIY musical instruments, installation art, improvisation ensemble and advanced synthesis and sequencing. This is an L5 (or 2nd) level undergraduate course that is part of the programmes BA Music Technology and BSc Music Production at De Montfort University (DMU).

This module is in the context of DMU’s block teaching, which means that, for the electives, the students have 12 sessions of 3 hours each session distributed in 7 weeks. In this blog post, I will share how the electronics projects went and the lessons learned. Previously, I published two other blog posts on teaching audio electronics, Teaching Audio Electronics during COVID: Inventiveness and Opportunities (May 2021) and Teaching Audio Electronics Post-COVID - A Hybrid Project-Led Approach (July 2022). The main difference is that here we went back to on-site teaching, and the students voluntarily chose the electronics theme.

Course Ethos

Partly due to the availability of the electronics lab only once a week (half of the module), partly due to my previous teaching experience, I stuck to the following rules:

  • Go hybrid: Present two routes of the electronics world: using, and not using, a microcontroller: Arduino-based vs Arduinoless. The more options the merrier.
  • Let the students speak: Show previous works from DMU students and let the students be critical using a formal rubric.
  • Teach how to fish, not just give a fish: Show students where to find the resources and who to ask.
  • Open your ears and listen!: Inspired by Patrick McGinley and his Framework Radio introduction, invite the students to be open-minded, and open their ears to listening to other musical styles (bearing in mind that more than 50% of the students of this cohort are guitarists).
  • Promote group and individual work: Propose group activities as well as individual activities so that students can have both experiences.


Here’s the content of the module based on hands-on activities tailored for the electronics lab and in the classroom.

Day Class Content
1 Classroom Introduction to the workshop
* What is a digital musical instrument?
* The Victorian Synthesiser (John Bowers)
* Good versus bad circuits
2 Lab The tools
* Arduino hardware
* Arduino software
* Breadboard
* Tinkercad
3 Classroom Coil pickups & contact mics
* What is circuit sniffing?
* Contact microphones
*How to make a DIY instrument with a contact microphone?
4 Lab Sensors and actuators I / Sound I (basics)
* Demo of the oscilloscope (by Prakash Patel)
* Sensors and actuators I (push button, LED, LDR)
* Sound I (piezo buzzer)
5 Classroom Acoustic feedback systems & self-made cigar box guitars
* Acoustic feedback systems
* Cigar box guitars (by George Silver)
6 Lab Sound II
* The exploding capacitor (by Prakash Patel)
* Tone generator using 40106 chip (by Prakash Patel)
* Sound II (piezo and light sensor, digital oscillator)
7 Classroom Bed of Nails
* Get to know about John Richards (Dirty Electronics)
* Learn to read schematics
* Build a solderless circuit
* Build an electronic musical instrument from start to end
8 Lab Controlling your sounds
* Revision of the chip 40106 - how to scale it up to six oscillators for sound effects (by Prakash Patel)
* Revision of last week’s worksheet Sound II
* Organisation of projects and presentations
9 Classroom Pitching your idea + Manufacturing lab visit
* Be ready to pitch your project idea
* Visit the manufacturing lab at Queens (lead: Stephen Cliff)
10 Lab Working on your project
* Bloom’s taxonomy of learning
* Discuss your project (tutorial-style)
11 Classroom Working on your project
* Fritzing software for drawing a circuit of your project
* Discuss your project (tutorial-style)
12 Lab Presentations
* Setting up
* Presentations and video recordings of your proof-of-concepts


The objective for the eight enrolled students has been to create a simple musical instrument using electronics and produce a video of the operation of the instrument. Seven out of the eight students were successful with their projects.

The projects were varied:

  • an Arduino-based DIY synthesiser based on PWM using faders, a touchstrip, a 3D-printed enclosure and a piezo buzzer/amplifier,
  • an Arduino-based DIY metronome using a knob, piezo buzzer, small OLED display, an ADAfruit Neopixel 8-bit LED,
  • a DIY microphone using an old telephone handset,
  • an Arduino-based DIY theremin using an LDR, a force sensor and a piezo buzzer/amplifier,
  • a DIY Fuzz Face Pedal from scratch using transistors, capacitors, resistors, potentiometers, switches and jacks (which included the re-use of the components from another handmade circuit by desoldering the components), and
  • an Arduino-based DIY piano using push buttons and a piezo buzzer/amplifier.

Lessons learned

Taking a hybrid technological approach worked well: each student selected their path in the world of DIY electronics. Some students like to code, others prefer the analogue world. Taking different paths and succeeding was possible thanks to the constant support and advice from the electronics lab technicians. The students have discovered a new research/professional path through interacting with the lab technicians and realising their projects.

This has been a great student group (likely the best group) of audio electronics that I have had at DMU since I arrived in January 2020. It makes a difference if the students voluntarily pick the discipline they want to become experts in among a set of electives. Working with a small cohort is important here for a positive and customised learning experience. However, an open question is how sustainable is this approach if several modules are running in parallel in block teaching mode.


I am thankful to 3rd-year DMU student George Silver for giving a hands-on lecture about his self-made cigar box guitars, it was a blast for the students! Many thanks to Ashok Karavadra and Prakash Patel from the electronics lab at the Computing Engineering and Media (CEM) faculty for their constant help and technical support to both the lecturer and the students. Also thank you very much to Stephen Cliff from the CEM’s mechanical lab for showing the facilities and supporting the students with their projects. Thank you to Peter Batchelor for coordinating the entire module. Last but not least, thank you to the students for their constant engagement throughout the course.