Giant Crystals come to RCT3

RCT3, to those in the know, is RollerCoaster Tycoon 3, a computer game in which you can design and ride your own rollercoasters.

To me, that seems like the primary reason to own a computer! You can design and (virtually) ride your own rollercoasters!

And the software is really full-featured, too. You can build a whole theme park. You can sculpt and paint the terrain, plant trees, lay paths, include a full assortment of non-coaster rides…create fireworks shows and even design custom fireworks to use in them. The game comes with a wide assortment of scenery, up to and including animatronic dinosaurs! And when the built-in scenery isn’t quite enough, you can add Custom Scenery sets created by other users with 3-D modelling tools.

Then you can export POV video of the rides you design…which can include not just a wide range of roller coaster types but also “dark rides” where the angle of view can be controlled at every turn. With a little imagination and a ton of patience, this game can be used to create some truly stunning videos, far more artistic than a simple simulated roller coaster.

Anyway, if you’re an RCT3 fan, you know all this already. (If you’re not…well, if you ever wanted to design a roller coaster, you probably ought to check it out.) Personally, I grabbed the game on sale via Steam a few years back, and I’ve been very impressed with all it can do. But there was always one thing missing…

Giant crystals!

Seriously, if you can make thrill rides with giant ferns and dinosaurs and waterfalls, and customize lava-like fireworks, and import cavern rocks and lost-temple walls…why are there no giant crystals?!? Isn’t that the obvious next step?

So I always hoped someone would create a Custom Scenery set with some big crystals…and that it would be good, too!

Well, someone finally did, and it is!

I hadn’t been thinking much about RCT3 for months, but about three weeks ago my son wanted to play the game again (who wouldn’t!) and this reminded me to wonder whether there was any recent progress on the giant crystal front…so I searched that ol’ Internet and found that, indeed, after months of silence, JimmyG had announced that day that he would finally release his not-quite-finished set of giant crystals. His preview images looked fantastic, but would he really post the set soon? Would they look that good in the game? Would there be a decent selection of shapes and sizes? What did the “as-is” release status imply for the set’s quality? Would it even run properly, or crash the game? (Making these CS sets isn’t easy! Making them really good is even harder.)

Well, the next day he did post the Custom Scenery set, and I immediately downloaded it and tried it out.

…and, it’s AWESOME! Everything I’d been wishing for and a bit more besides. The crystals are some of the most realistic scenery in the game: Clear, but not too clear. Optionally self-illuminating, but not glowing unrealistically. A wide range of sizes, shapes, and orientations of crystal clusters. Control over the material and light colors – separately. Whatever was “not quite finished” about the set…doesn’t show. If you, like me, were waiting for something like this, run don’t walk:,15320.0.htmlJimmyG’s Crystal Set release announcement, demo pictures, usage tips;sa=view;down=2409 – CS download page

I immediately put together a very short ride to test-drive this new CS. What a delight! Every time I went back to the scenery menu, hoping to find a crystal cluster of a slightly different size, shape, or orientation, there it was. Every time! (Much nicer than the game’s built-in scenery which, though generally quite good, often falls short when it comes to variety. There aren’t enough different trees, for example.)

This little coaster I built, Discovery Mine, is only a tiny taste of what this CS can do – an appetizer, if you will – but I found that I could decorate it precisely as I had envisioned it, almost as if I’d designed the crystal clusters myself. Thank you JimmyG!

Though it’s tiny compared to what many other artists have done with RCT3, I’m pleased enough with this little ride to release a video. (This is the first coaster I’m showing off in public; it surely won’t be the last.)

So please enjoy Discovery Mine:

The Other White Keys

The piano keyboard’s distinctive pattern of white and black keys is, when you think about it, a little strange. The black keys nestle between the white keys in alternating groups of two and three. Why?

Of course the answer is familiar to most musicians: the black keys represent the accidentals, the sharp and flat notes between the notes – C, D, E, F, G, A, B – of the C-Major scale.

Yet this raises another question. Why C-Major? The white keys represent the notes represented by the unadorned letters A through G, but why are those the notes of C-Major and not, say, A-Major? Wouldn’t it be more convenient not to be starting with C all the time? (The “home” key on a piano is “middle C” – why not “middle A”?)

Ah, but C-Major is also A-minor, which does start with A. That’s a little clearer, but aren’t Major scales more important, more basic, than minor?

No, not really. Major keys have just been very popular for hundreds of years, that’s all. Minor’s a close second; the other traditional modes are largely ignored…except by good musicians.

So why are they called “Major” and “minor”? That sounds prescriptive (or even proscriptive), and probably confuses the issue unduly. Personally, I think it would have been better to keep calling them Ionian and Aeolian modes.

Of course, music notation had a long and varied evolution – still ongoing – and all this stuff is pretty much arbitrary. The people who invented the Ionian scale weren’t the same people who decided, much later, that it should be emphasized over all the other modes. And those weren’t the same people who gave letter names to the notes – but not to all of them, just the notes of…not C-Major, presumably, but A-minor or whatever they were calling it at the time. (Hypodorian mode?)

After that choice was well established, putting all the simple note names like “A” on the white keys, with the “accidentals” on shorter keys between some of them, is a fairly straightforward choice. The piano (and the similar-looking harpsichord before it) could have been tuned so that any major or minor key falls on the white keys, or could have been built with a different arrangement of keys entirely. Indeed, chromatic keyboards and other types have been built, but – like the even stranger QWERTY keyboard for typewriters – the piano with C-Major/A-minor white keys is the style that caught on. (Though it was not uncommon at first for the colors to go the other way with the main keys black and the smaller ones white.)

In any case, the familiar layout is very convenient if you’re playing something in C Major or A minor. There’s no question where the relevant notes are. But to play in any other key, you need to memorize some other pattern of white and black keys. Awkward.

Of course, unlike a traditional piano, a good electronic synthesizer (or software synth) can be easily transposed up or down, so you can shift your favorite scale onto the white keys. Convenience restored, but everyone will look at you strangely. (It’s traditional to learn all the weird patterns.)

Which finally brings us to the odd thought I had one day. What if, instead of transposing the notes, you transposed the colors of the piano keys?

Imagine a fancy electronic keyboard with color-changing keys. When you’re playing a piece in A minor, the main keys are white as usual. But if you set it to display a different scale, the pattern of white and black shifts. Of course the keys don’t move or change shape – there are still small keys between the large ones – and the notes don’t move – middle C is still middle C. But whether C is white or black depends on the chosen display mode (pun intended). A minor key (say) is always the same pattern of black and white, but draped across a different group of large and small keys.

What would that look like? Would it be easier to play? Or hopelessly confusing? I was curious, so I created a diagram of the white-and-black patterns representing each spoke on the Circle of Fifths. I was not curious enough to repaint my synthesizer’s keys over and over to actually try it out. I don’t even want to risk putting stickers on the keys. But perhaps someone with a lot of spare keyboards will give this a try, and report back here on how it worked out.

In any case, I think the chart is interesting, and perhaps it will help some of us learn our scales. I’ve formatted it for printing, on two pages; it’s labelled for Major scales. Enjoy!


Project Terpsichord Part 2

Terpsichord keyboard test fit

The next step in this project is a bit of research. I don’t really know much about this little keyboard I’m bending. The Internet knows many things.


First, it seems like I’m about the only person referring to “Steampunk circuit-bending” as “steambending”. Whereas “steam bending” is a real thing you do to…wood or something. So maybe it’s not a good name?

Next, some fascinating news from

“In 1981 Casio made the VL-Tone 1 (VL-1), a small, monophonic synthesizer with built-in calculator. The “M+” calculator memory also stored the timbre, ADSR, vibrato and tremolo setting for the synthesizer, and the short 29 buttons mini- keyboard could be transposed by a switch to low, mid and high pitch range.”

“Due to it seems to contains still the same CPU like the VL-1, it must be possible to add the synthesizer and the other missing features of it again to the PT-1.”

Now wouldn’t THAT be nice? I might eventually be able to bend this four-sound toy into a VL-TONE with real patch editing and keyboard transposing? Awesomer and awesome, cried Alice!

But that’s for the distant future. Meanwhile, reading on….

Wikipedia says:

“The VL-1 was the first instrument of Casio’s VL-Tone product line, and is sometimes referred to as the VL-Tone.”

The “VL-1 is notable for its kitsch value among electronic musicians, due to its cheap construction and its unrealistic, uniquely low-fidelity sounds.”

Here’s an online copy of the VL-1’s user manual, describing the programming (calculator) mode and the other features.

I can’t find a PT-1 manual online so far, but reading between the lines of the VL-1 manual should be a pretty good step toward understanding what the buttons do, etc.

Meanwhile, I’m not the first person to rework old synths. I found some fun stuff on YouTube:

This circuit-bent PT-1 gives me hope that I could make this thing sound actually good:

This stunning circuit-bent Casio SK-1 is true Steampunk, in a way that mine probably won’t ever be. The sequencer appears to be electromechanical, a sort of motorized commutator:

Of course, a search for “steampunk synthesizer” reveals a variety of nice toys. Here are a few really elaborate ones:

Really beautiful. Check ’em out.

…And that’s enough research for now. Main conclusion: it may be much easier and faster than I expected to circuit-bend this synth for improved sound. Very interesting indeed!

Steambending a Synthesizer

Introducing Project Terpsichord – A Portable Steampunk Synthesizer

Several years ago (maybe ten) I bought a broken Casio PT-1 synthesizer at a yard sale for a few bucks. It’s a tiny little thing, about thirteen inches by four by one and a half (13″ x 4″ x 1.5″).

Casio PT-1

Back then I was looking for a keyboard I could throw in a backpack for on-the-go composing. This one was the right size, but it didn’t work out, being slightly broken – and not much of a keyboard to begin with – but I kept it around for parts or even eventual repair.

Well, I don’t really need a portable keyboard anymore – there’s an app for that now! But I still had that old PT-1 kicking around in the basement…

…then, this weekend, I came across some YouTube videos of Adam Savage (of Mythbusters, and quite a movie prop replica fanatic apparently) making and weathering faux-antique storage cases for some of his objets d’art. Kind of a boring thing to put on YouTube, honestly – I’d rather see him scratchbuild a prop replica than make a plywood box – but it’s still sort of cool, because he’s obviously enjoying the hobbycraft of starting from raw materials and ending with a seemingly antique and well-traveled box that, as he says, “tells a story”. I can dig it.

Meanwhile, lately I’ve been researching vintage (i.e. 1970s) analog synthesizers for an unrelated purpose, and also idly wondering what kind of Steampunk prop I could whip up this year. I didn’t want to just make a ray-gun from lamp parts, fun as that can be.

Anyway, last night all these ideas came together in my mind with an audible click! and I decided to modify the PT-1 into some kind of portable faux-Victorian steampunk synthesizer, in the process ideally fixing the dead keys and rebuilding the synthesis circuitry to include a bunch of cool new filters and modulators and a miniature modular synthesis patch bay….

Whew, okay, so this is looking like one of those…how shall I put it? One of those “open-ended” projects which can consume any amount of time, from an afternoon (for a non-working hacksaw-and-hotglue version) to a lifetime (for the “perfect” version, with etched brass plates and vintage sourced switches and whatnot). Since I have extremely limited free time for this project, I’ll have to take it in bite-sized stages.

First, the keyboard needed a quick inspection. I did that last night, April 14, 2014, to relax after finishing my taxes.

Casio PT-1 battery maw

No battery door. No other visible damage inside or out. About five keys don’t seem to work. Sound is not great, and only some of the controls/modes seem to work well, but it’s not a fair test because I used batteries that were probably pretty low. I’m charging fresh ones now and that may improve the performance of the circuitry, but there may be buttons (outside the keyboard) that aren’t working.

Casio PT-1 Keys

The keys are amazingly yellowed and very dirty. I’m acutely conscious of the fact that I’m crafting a pseudo-antique “artifict”, and I’m very tempted to leave the natural patina of filth in place. The keys are pre-weathered by actual decades of disuse! I’d be crazy to clean that off, just to fake it back on later when I get to weathering. Right?

Right, except it’s genuinely filthy. The keys are gritty to the touch. I can’t stand touching the keys, and that’s not my intention here. I want to end up with a musical instrument I can bear to play! They’ll still be yellowed. With a heavy heart, I wiped off most of the dirt with a damp paper towel. (Just the keys. I’m ignoring the case for now.)

Disassembly is just taking out some screws, no prying or breaking required, yay! Workings are pretty simple. Slicone dome keypads look okay, no gross repairs needed. (Sometimes the graphite conductor pads wear out; apparently they can be re-coated with pencil graphite, liquid circuit pen, or glued foil. But if the dome itself is torn, good luck.)

The keyboard’s mechanics include the case, not just the keys and circuit board, but the use of the case is minimal: top and bottom felt bumpers at appropriate positions. If I want to mount the keyboard in a different case I could replicate that layout pretty easily. The circuit board that runs the keys is 11″ wide, so what I’d really like is a little wooden case (like you can often get with even a pretty cheap set of art supplies) that’s 11″ wide inside, to build this into. A used art box would be ideal. At lunchtime today I’ll check Goodwill, the Center for Creative Reuse, and Construction Junction (where I have to go anyway to get some dead batteries recycled).

Terpsichord box find

…Okay, back from shopping. Sure enough, Goodwill had just exactly the kind of box I wanted, a timeless little jewelry box or something, for three bucks…except it’s about one inch too narrow. The inside width is 10″, not enough for the main circuit board, though it’s a perfect fit for the keyboard keys themselves.

Terpsichord box-small

…So perfect, in fact, that I’m convinced to make it work somehow despite the overlong circuit board. I don’t know how I’m going to do that. I’d really rather not trim the board shorter and patch the cut-off traces with jumper wires, but few enough traces would be damaged that it might be worth the hassle. The obvious alternative is to patch in a whole new set of microswitches beneath the keys. I have some little tiny pushbuttons that would probably work…but I don’t think I have, let’s see, 29 of them. Maybe I could cut holes for the ends of the board and cover them with greeblies.


Meanwhile, batteries are charged. The back of the case goes back on to hold them in, so I can do some electrical tests with the keys out and the shell taped closed. Pressing each contact with just one silicone dome’s black pad, noises are made. It looks like all the bad keys have one trace in common…which logic suggests is likely the bad trace (or leads to a bad connection or component) somewhere on the board. Almost time to pull out the multimeter. This trace is near the too-long edge of the board. Perhaps a sign that I should trim it: I can’t make this trace any worse. I’ll probably have to patch it to fix those keys, so why keep the original which is in my way? …Maybe.

I’m thinking I could gain some width by mounting the board in slots I cut in the box sides. They wouldn’t go all the way through so I’d still need to do some trimming, but I might gain a third of an inch or so. It would also provide some structural stability, and it’s not hard, so I’ll probably do it.

Terpsichord clasp-smallNext I looked over the box a bit more closely, and took off the price tag. The clasp and hinges are already perfect – I was afraid I would have to replace them with more old-fashioned ones. Nope. Maybe a bit of weathering later, but the box is already weathered for real so I’m inclined to mostly leave it alone.

Pulling a few of the box’s dividers loose was easy, and a quick test-fit of the keyboard shows how awesome this is going to look, and how far along the project is already. I could finish a non-working hot-glued version in a few hours, if I cared to. (But I’m aiming higher, and have no particular timeline.)

Terpsichord keyboard test fit

…And I think that’s enough progress for one update. Stay tuned!