For my Embedded capstone project, we ordered and are us using the ATSAM2195 Atmel synthesizer chip. This chip comes in a 44-pin QFN (quad flat no leads) package, and with this chip, you input MIDI commands using 31,250-baud serial communication, and the chip simply provides the output analog signal. The chip is only 7 mm × 7 mm × 0.9 mm large, and the pins on the chip are only 0.3 mm wide, making it is virtually impossible to use a soldering iron to attach the chip to a PCB.
Three ATSAM2195 synth chips
Since we were prototyping on a breadboard, we had to order an adapter, which converts a QFN-44 case to a DIP-44 (dual in-line package) case. Searching online, I found a kit with adapters, a stencil, alcoholic wipes, a tube of solder paste, plastic tab, tin headers, and a header spacer.
QFN-44 to DIP-44 adapter kit
The first step of the process is to apply the solder paste to the minuscule pin plates on the adapter. To do this, we taped the QFN-44 stencil to the PCB, then wiped a layer of solder paste over the holes using the plastic tab.
If we were lucky, when the stencil is taken off, the PCB would then look something like this, where each pad had just the right amount of solder paste on it, and there were no solder past bridges between pads.
The next step which required perhaps the finest motor skills was placing the QFN package on the PCB, without smudging the solder paste, and aligning the pins just right.
Once we felt the chip was aligned squarely on the pads, the next step was to start our ‘reflow oven’. Actually, it’s more of a ‘reflow skillet’. Strangely enough, the Electrical Engineering department at the University of Washington doesn’t have any tools for PCB printing, so we had to think of something else. So we found a tutorial on SparkFun for using an iron skillet for doing reflow. So we got the exact same model skillet as used in the tutorial, from Target, and put it to work.
Our reflow skillet
After a few minutes, the solder will melt and turn shiny, and after that, we removed the PCB, and inspected for bridges and continuity.
The final step is to solder the header pins on, which is the easiest part. The header pin spacer is used to ensure the header pins are the correct distance apart, so it will easily fit into the solderless breadboard.
Abofe, we show the chip connected up to the bread board. The oscillator is there just for show, since unfortunately, the ATSAM2195 chip runs off of a 3.3 volt 9.6 MHz oscillator, but I’ve been finding it impossible to find one in a DIL package, so we’re sticking to the function generator until we find one. Below is another one we made, just for backup.
So, right now we’re crossing our fingers that the chips actually work, and they’re connected correctly. If using the chip is as straight forward as I hope it is, we should be making music with it by early next week. As of now, I’ve been working on drivers for the keyboard interface, which we’re going to implement on the PIC16F877a microcontroller. My other lab partner is writing display drivers for an Arduino Duemilanove (don’t ask me to pronounce that) for a hierarchical menu on an LCD screen. The idea is that the Arduino will be used as the user interface to set MIDI options, such as reverb, volume, instrumentation, etc…, and hand the options over to the PIC, which outputs the MIDI commands to the synth chip.
On a completely different topic, here is a C programming challenge I found online published by the company RapLeaf, and it took me around three hours to figure it out. I thought I would throw it out, because I found it fun to think through, and maybe some of my readers who are programmers would like a little bit of a challenge. They’re looking for programmers that are good at solving problems like this. I’ll be interviewing with them this coming Saturday since they liked my solution, although just for fun. It looks like their positions are geared heavily towards Computer Science majors, which I’m not.