The Integer Amplifier

This post is an introduction to tintamp, the integer amplifier. The goal of the tintamp project is to build a free software guitar modeller for low resource computers such as digital music players or modern high performance microcontrollers. The focus on low resource devices defines much of the character of the project from its choice of implementation language to the relatively simplistic, and therefore CPU-friendly, DSP engine. These devices also mandate unusual features such as the no malloc() mode and the use of purely integer arithmetic operations (a.k.a. fixed point) from which the project gets its name.

To provide even more focus and to make it easier to ‘complete’ the project I have picked two platforms to be reference devices. These are the first devices I expect to port tintamp to. Both devices require a little hardware hacking as well as the tintamp software so there will be a substantial element of learning as I go.

Target 1 – Sansa Clip Zip

From a hardware perspective this is a simple mini-project to convert an off-the-shelf digital music player into a headphone practice amplifier. The digital music player in question is the Sanza Clip Zip made by Sandisk.

From the point of view of this project it has good many things going for it. In particular it has audio inputs that can be tapped into by de-soldering either the built in microphone or FM radio chip. It also has a colour display, a 250MHz ARM9 CPU and,crucially, a mature Rockbox port. The Rockbox port means I can concentrate on the signal processing code without having to work very hard getting the rest of the hardware to work. Even better, these devices are really cheap, so much so that I’m seriously contemplating buying a second one to keep and use for its original purpose.

The only problem with the device is the noise floor. The microphone is probably too noisy too use at all and even with the FM radio’s line in things are only 12dB better. Still, when finished this device will be a headphone practice amp so there’s little need for studio quality effects. It just has to be playable.

The most significant technical limitation of this platform is the absence of FPU making this device is the main motivation for (optionally) using fixed point arithmetic.

Target 2 – STM32F4-Discovery

This time around the mini project it to take a demo board based around a very powerful modern micro controller, combine it with a good quality codec chip and build a digital effects pedal.

The discovery board from STMicroelectronics[1] brings most of the pins of ST’s STM32F4 controller and brings them out to header connectors. This includes the I2S (digital audio) in/out needed to interface it to a codec chip. Alternatively the board has built-in audio output together with a USB on-the-go controller that allows a USB audio device to be connected up.

The STM32F4 is based around a 168MHz ARM Cortex M4 which, although restricted to only the Thumb2 instruction set, does have a floating point unit. Here the big restriction is that being a micro controller there is only 192k of RAM. This will have to be very carefully managed. On the other hand what memory there is should be very fast compared to the CPU so no performance will be wasted with cache misses.

In the interests of full disclosure I should probably mention that I work for STMicroelectronics. However I don’t work in the microcontroller group and I didn’t pick the Discovery board because it was made by ST. I picked it because the board is fast, cheap and has I2S pins. Likewise, however much I ask my manager, I don’t get the board for free; I have to pay for it like anyone else. While disclaiming things I should also add that nothing in this blog comes from my employer. I’m not authorized to speak on their behalf and all opinions expressed here are purely my own.