Building a Portable DJ System into a Traditional Red Metal ToolboxFollow article
Part 1: How the “Red Tin” came about and starting the Version 3 build.
I started DJing when I was in my late teens, carried on into my early twenties and then I became a parent and life got in the way — until on a “significant” birthday, some years ago now, my partner bought me what was then a very early DJ MIDI controller. That, combined with the fact that I was helping out with a regular club night in Brixton called “The People’s Republic of Disco” got me back into it and after a few years I ended up doing a regular Friday night in a small bar.
Electronics and wine don’t mix
One such Friday I was asked to play a tune which I didn’t have and, as a result, got a glass of wine thrown over my laptop and MIDI controller. Ask anyone who DJs in small clubs and bars and I’m sure they will have similar stories. Luckily the equipment survived, but I started thinking I should protect it somehow rather than just setting up on a spare table (nothing as sophisticated as a DJ booth at this venue).
Birth of The Red Tin
I was sitting at home thinking about this and started looking round for something I could re-purpose. I had recently bought one of those red steel rolling tool chests to use as a TV stand – I like red things and it was half price in a sale in my local hardware shop. It had come with a tool box that I was not using, so I thought, why not use that. The laptop fitted in the top compartment, the MIDI controller fitted in one of the drawers and the other drawers were great for storing headphones, cables and other stuff. I drilled some holes so I could run a USB cable from the laptop to the controller and I had my first portable DJ set-up housed in a red metal tool box.
Somewhere along the way it got referred to as “The Red Tin” and it went on to become my DJ trademark. As has often been remarked DJ’ing from a laptop lacks the impact of using vinyl and turntables — for all the audience know you could be playing a full set you recorded earlier and be standing there checking your social media. The Red Tin does help counteract that by adding some presence and a bit of mystery, and it does help protect your gear from liquids, and at some of the wetter festivals I’ve played at, mud. Speaking of which it is a lot easier to carry across a muddy field than a big case of vinyl.
Over the years I have adapted and refined the design. In version 2 I went for a smaller, lighter toolbox, which meant I had to cut some bigger holes to fit the laptop in, and tidied up the cabling, including building audio out sockets into the lid.
I continued to tweak the design over the years and this is what it looks like today.
Version 3: Goodbye to the laptop
A few of the projects at work utilise a mini PC — first the Intel NUC and then the UDOO x86 — and I started thinking one of these would be ideal for the Red Tin. Building a computer into the toolbox rather than just using a laptop would be neat. I had also been looking at some Arduino-based DIY MIDI controllers and I thought I could build one of those into a drawer. So I first ordered an UDOO x86 and a new toolbox, and started to work out how everything would fit together. My first attempt did look alarmingly like a home made bomb.
I figured that having DJ equipment that looked like a bomb wasn’t going to help my chances of making it as an international DJ, so I needed to tidy things up. Having access to a laser cutter opened up some exciting new design options. I decided that the best plan was to make units from laser cut acrylic, that I could drop in to the compartments of the toolbox and secure in place with a wing nut or two. That way I could relatively easily move things about and adapt the design without having to cut new holes in the tool box, or buy a replacement.
The screen would obviously fit into the lid, but what about the other bits? I decided to put the UDOOX x86 in the top section, along with a hard drive, USB hub and a sound card. I would cut a hole in the side of the toolbox to provide access to an Ethernet socket, a USB socket and audio out.
I was not going to need Internet access or the USB while the Red Tin was in action, but they would be useful for updating software and, most importantly, the music collection.
The top drawer would house the MIDI controller, and the bottom drawer a power supply for the UDOO x86 and screen, plus some storage for headphones, cable adapters and Ibuprofen (all of which are DJ essentials).
The part that needs the most attention in terms of design and ergonomics is the MIDI controller. This is the bit that needs to feel right. The knobs, buttons and faders need to be arranged so you can reach out and adjust whatever needs tweaking without having to think too hard about it. I decided to keep it simple. I look at the high end, off the shelf, MIDI controllers and think “how on earth do you remember what button does what?”. I wanted something that harked back to the classic rotary DJ mixers of the 1970s, and I liked the idea of giving a piece of modern technology a slightly “retro” look and feel.
I had a look around at other open source MIDI controllers, such as the Aurora and an excellent article on Instructables. I decided to invest in a Dart controller kit, and add an Arduino Leonardo and then adapt the layout to fit in the drawer. Buying a kit meant I could get off to a flying start. I am hoping to have the tin up and running this summer to use at the music festivals I play at.
I now have plans to add to the technology and the retro feel with the addition of Korg Nutube powered pre-amps, and some Nixi Tube based level meters. We’ll see how that goes.
Electronics projects in tins
As I have been writing this it has occurred to me that this project fits in to a tradition of building “home brew” electronics projects in tins. The Tuna Tin Radio from the 1970s may be the most iconic, but do an internet image search for “electronics projects in tins” and you will see loads of different examples many of the using the tried and trusted Altoids peppermint tin.
I would like to think that I am part of this tradition.