Follow Slashdot stories on Twitter


Forgot your password?
Education Media Hardware

Building A Museum Listening Station? 251

Anonymous Coward writes "I am building a museum exhibit which requires the use of 10 listening stations. These should be able to play back a few minutes of audio, should have an obvious Play button (and no other buttons: less confusion for the elderly and less to break for the kids), and should be able to work with an absolute minimum of supervision for three months of constant use. There are fancy ready-made solutions to this problem, but at $350, it would be too expensive to buy 10 of them. Similarly, there are cheap solutions ($20 CD player + $15 headphones), but this is probably not reliable or user friendly enough for this exhibit. Does the Slashdot community have any suggestions for how to build a reasonably inexpensive museum listening station?"
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Building A Museum Listening Station?

Comments Filter:
  • Use a computer (Score:2, Informative)

    by vinit79 ( 740464 ) on Sunday May 09, 2004 @06:07PM (#9102078)
    Use your old PC's. Add sound cards to it and one PC should be able to support 3-4 users. And just interface a couple of push buttons to the parallel port (Be careful and use optoisolators to protect the PC). If you have 3-4 old PC's it shouldnt cost more than 100 bucks ( more around 50 largely for the soundcards).

    Hope this helps
  • by cluge ( 114877 ) on Sunday May 09, 2004 @06:19PM (#9102136) Homepage
    Portable CD players can be picked up for 13-19 dollars in some stores. Burn a CD for each one that contains a single track. You can get video game style buttons on ebay or around the internet ( These heavy duty switches are pretty simple to use, and wiring them into the portable CD's shouldn't be a challenge (works on my old radio shack player). 2 buttons, play, and stop/station.

    I'd invest in a large sheath that will cover and protect the headphone cables and invest in heavy duty headphones. Probably total cost would be about

    10 x 15.00 150 for the CD players
    20 x .40 8 to buy and burn 20 CD's (spares just in case)
    10 x 20.00 200 for good sturdy headphones that can stand the abuse
    20 x 6.00 120 for heavy duty switches to wire into said CD players
    75 miscellaneous parts, wires, drill bits wood etc for you stations.

    Total cost 553 or their abouts. Remember, don't skimp on bad switches that can't take a pounding. Also get your museum's tax ID for your purchases so most places you don't have to pay sales tax for a non-profit.

    Problems - most CD players the play is also a "pause" button. My old CD player here isn't - so if you can find them with play and pause as seperate buttons, your golden. Also soldering the switches on the landing pads requires some patience - but if I can do it - any one can.


  • by GhengisCohen ( 778368 ) on Sunday May 09, 2004 @06:27PM (#9102180)
    For the National Yo-Yo Museum in Chico California, I had to build a listening station that would let the user put on head phones, and be able to choose tracks for quite a lot of music More than a standard audio CD could handle (50+ tracks). I had a budget of $75.00. I purchased a portable CD player that could handle MP3 CD's. The issue was which one. Since I needed to know tracks, and I wanted the title displayed I was limited a little, and I needed buttons that could be isolated. I found a rio player of some sort (don't remember the exact model) and I built a box out of maple (to match the other displays), the cover was a thin ( We tested tons.

    Our solution cost about $60.00 with the wood for the case, the CD player was bought at best buy, and has been running flawlessly for 6 months now.


  • Re:Listening posts. (Score:3, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday May 09, 2004 @06:35PM (#9102222)
    Yea. That would work.

    Thinking about it, if you had a PC with 5 PCI slots you could put 5 Soundblaster Lives in it. They are about $20 each.
    That would give ten mono headphone feeds off the sound card's lil heaphone amps.
    I don't think anyone has tried this under ALSA yet... but in theory it should work.

    One interesting thing about using Pure-Data and a
    PC for this is that you could collect statistics. You could also do real time effects, or announcements that would go to to all the headphones at once.

    It would bring the cost down to around $300. (A delta 1010 is overkill for this job.)
  • by inxil ( 729105 ) on Sunday May 09, 2004 @06:52PM (#9102286) Homepage
    If you're interested in putting some time into building your own mp3 players, you might want to look into []. By building your own player from scratch you could take steps to ensure durability and ease of use. Hook a nice, big, red pushbutton switch the the player and install it into whatever kind of case will jive with your exhibit.
  • by MajorK0ng ( 744917 ) on Sunday May 09, 2004 @07:06PM (#9102363)
    I was a curator and builder for over 20 years, 11 1/2 years in a childern's museum (yes some people don't ever wise up.) Now I'm in IT not much of an improvement. Just pays a liitle better. Anyway I only have one suggestion. Spend the money and buy the equipment. Hell yes it is expensive, but by the time you locate the armored cable, the heavy duty controllors, the heavy duty buttons, so on and so forth you won't have saved that much money. The right manufacturers have been making theses items over 40 years they know what they are doing. unless you can produce the boards yourself and program the digital chips which what I have done in the past it isn't worth the effort to do it in house trust me I have been there.
  • by Luke the Obscure ( 651951 ) on Sunday May 09, 2004 @07:46PM (#9102552) Homepage
    How about something like a Delta 410 (by M-Audio) hooked up to a computer running some sort of sampler program (Kontact, Gigasampler, or one of a million others). 10 "Play" buttons each send a different MIDI note (easy to do, just hack apart a cheap keyboard), each note mapped to the presentation in the sampler program, but sent to the different outputs, each headset plugged into a different output.

    Pro's: easy to maintain, easy to update, minimal cost.

    Con's: If you don't know what you are doing it could be difficult to set up (especialy the "Play" button). Computer would need a lot of RAM (depending on length of presentation). With that particular piece of hardware (Delta 410) all outputs would be mono, and also would not be amplified.
  • by redsilo ( 684634 ) on Sunday May 09, 2004 @07:59PM (#9102610)
    A couple of suggestions for this solution if you should decide to go this route: 1 - You could use the mouse button connections to operate your player(I think). 2 - You should need only one monitor and move it from machine to machine for setup purposes. An LC will start with no monitor connected. Put and item in the startup file to run your applescript on startup. That way if there is a crash a simple reboot should get you up and going again.
  • by AmericanInKiev ( 453362 ) on Sunday May 09, 2004 @08:24PM (#9102763) Homepage
    I believe you can find sound memory boards -

    for 30 dollars complete with actual wire terminals etc.

    try .htm

    link []
  • by lolits ( 691186 ) on Sunday May 09, 2004 @08:26PM (#9102772)
    Pick up the handset of the POTS phone, wired through to a Linux system running Asterisk [] with, say a Dialogic D/120JCT-L 12-port analog + voice interface, and play "voice mail" to the caller. Nothing is more intuitive or indestructable than an old-style telephone.
  • by airoldi ( 721726 ) on Sunday May 09, 2004 @08:30PM (#9102787)
    We did exactly the same thing at a small-town local museum. Here's our recipe for each station:

    1.) Set of powered speakers. We're using the Edirol MA-10's because everything is self contained. There's no AC brick, and they come with all the necessary cables. Very good audio quality.

    2.) CD Drive in an external case. The simpler the case, the better. It's only job is to supply power to the drive. If you can get one that has its own power socket, so much the better. You can just plug the speakers into it, and plug the drive into the wall. The important part is, the drive MUST HAVE A PLAY BUTTON, not just an eject button. Only drives with a play button will work.

    3.) CD with audio. Record your message, burn it as an audio CD. One track only.

    4.) Solder, wire, and a switch. Take apart the front plastic on the CD drive, and see where the play button is soldered in. A little experimenting will show you where to solder the wire in. The switch should be of the momentary contact sort, like a doorbell switch, not the push-on, push-off kind.

    That's it. Plug the audio-jack from the CD drive into the speakers, insert the CD, hit the switch, and adjust your audio using both the volume at the drive and at the speakers. We liked this solution because it was cheap, it was low maintenance, and it was distribution-tolerant. The only system-wide failure could be the power.

  • by AnotherShep ( 599837 ) on Sunday May 09, 2004 @08:31PM (#9102795)
    No, he means the joystick port, AKA the game port.
    Look here [].
  • by MsWillow ( 17812 ) on Sunday May 09, 2004 @09:17PM (#9102993) Homepage Journal
    A few years ago, Vikki was tagged to create the animatronics control for our gem club's display case. Besides running the various pieces of equipment, it had to run in synch with the audio track. To minimize the possibility of breakage, she used a pair of inexpensive amplified speakers, driven by a PIC-based microcontroller, with the audio being handled by one of the solid-state programmable "tape recorder" chips.

    It was fairly simple. The only moving parts, aside from the displays, was the "start" switch. Nothing to break, no motors to worry over, no lenses to fret about. Radio Shack has these chips, too, so you can get them fairly cheaply, and they work quite well (years ago, I used one of these to "hack" into a "closed" 440mhz repeater near McHenry, by digitally recording the "activation" sequence on the input side, and wiring the playback through the microphone of the "pirate" radio. Pretty slick, if I must say so myself ;) ).
  • by absurdist ( 758409 ) on Sunday May 09, 2004 @09:59PM (#9103199)
    I work for the largest producer of traveling interactive exhibits for children's museums, science museums, etc... in the USA. Our traveling show on Africa just came back from a 5 year run. All of the audio was done with cheap Sony (DON'T use another brands, they don't hold up) CD players (bought refurbished, in bulk, from a Sony outlet store... check their online store as well). They were controlled by a Basic Stamp programmed so that when the play button was pressed, they pulsed a DIP reed relay which pulsed the start contacts, then timed out so that further presses wouldn't have a problem with the play/pause being on the same button. Cheap amplifiers from Radio Shack, push buttons from Happ Controls (Accept NO substitutes, no one else's are worth a damn), and either small speakers from Radio Shack or armored phone headsets from ID Tell in NYC round out the package. Burn a single audio track on each CD, assemble it in a compact box, and you're good to go. Don't try to use headphones; if you don't build your own out of armor jacketed cable and industrial ear protector headsets, they WILL NOT hold up. Total cost will be under $100 per station and the sound quality will be as good as any industrial DMR out there, while being RELIABLE and EASILY SERVICED (EXTREMELY important considerations in the museum environment). Anything involving a PC for something like this is technical overkill and simply won't hold up in the museum environment.
  • Shameless Plug (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday May 09, 2004 @10:04PM (#9103219)

    Alternatively, you can buy a rather nice product that does precisely that (in stereo, too!) See []

    Apologies for the page layout, but I'm an engineer, not a webmaster.

    It sounds like the original poster is looking for a much cheaper solution than anything we offer, though. Expect a professionally built custom solution to cost somewhere between a few hundred to a thousand dollars per station, depending on how fancy you want it to be. Building ten or twenty custom units for less than $100 each just isn't going to be worth the time for anyone who needs to work for a living, no matter how simple your requirements.

    Hacking together a simple listening station isn't that hard - making it look nice and work reliably, as well as having support available when things go wrong (When you build a custom product for someone else to assemble, things _always_ go wrong) - that is what costs money.

  • by skywolf ( 757605 ) on Sunday May 09, 2004 @10:24PM (#9103298)
    I've worked on audio for museum exhibits and am currently doing work for an audio tour that will be presented at a prestigious museum in Washington, D.C. There are a few firms involved in this kind of work and the equipment is expensive because it is made in small quantities and is extremely rugged. For the portable audio tour devices, there are industrial-grade, sophisticated charging racks and the individual audio devices have buttons and features so that visitors can see the exhibits in any order and learn more about individual stops (think "hyperlink").

    That equipment sounds nice, but it's not very relevant to the OP's needs. He/she is building listening stations. The equipment is fixed in position so the complicated bits - the CD-players, computers of what have you - don't need to be rugged like the handsets in your museum. They can be put in cabinets to protect them from the proles.

    Using consumer-grade CD players, MP3 players, and headphones for a museum exhibit is like replacing a pay phone outside of a convenience store with a $10 phone from Walmart.

    The electronics inside of the payphone are not likely to be much more rugged than the electronics inside of the walmart phone. A CD-player may eventually wear out (moving parts) but an MP3 player should last virtually forever.

    I agree any interfaces (headphones, buttons) would have to be rugged.

    I have little experience of running more than one sound-card under Linux, but my first approach would be to see how many soundcards I could fit in a 200mhz box (I've several lying around). If it wasn't for the fact that the audio needs to start & stop (e.g. if it could just be looped) I'd be tempted to drive two mono headphones from each stereo soundcard, each playing an entirely different track.

    Do you need to cater for people with hearing aids (e.g. installing loop systems).

    Also think about hackability. Will you move on and leave the museum people with a system that they don't understand and can't modify or repair? If I used the PC approach, I would be tempted to burn the software onto a bootable CD-rom. That way, even if the hard-disks crash and the computers die, someone savvy will probably be able to build a replacement machine. Document everything you do, explaining precisely how it works.

  • by s3if3R ( 178811 ) on Sunday May 09, 2004 @10:29PM (#9103325) Homepage
    Last summer I built an installation that stood unsupervised for 3 months, with a soundtrack running from a portable philips cd player on repeat, 24/7. Still using the player today as walkman. Insane, totally insane. I was sure it'd break down.
  • by PAjamian ( 679137 ) on Monday May 10, 2004 @12:02AM (#9103776)
    I once rigged up a really cheap portable CD player to a phone system to play a CD with announcements and music recorded on it when people were put on hold. The CD looped 24/7 for well over a year until I left the company and for all I know it's probably still working.

    Three months, no problem.
  • by solarrhino ( 581267 ) on Monday May 10, 2004 @12:11AM (#9103827) Homepage Journal
    I purchased a Sony Walkman in 1986. The first one broke in less than a month, but I took it back and got a free replacement that works to this day. I used to listen to it at work, and often "paused" it (which kept spinning the disc) and forgot about it, leaving it running over night, over weekends, and even over vacations. Never had any problem with it. I used to be amazed at the reliability, but really isn't that how things should be?
  • by dreamword ( 197858 ) on Monday May 10, 2004 @12:16AM (#9103854) Homepage
    A suggestion. Whatever electronics you end up using, wire out the play button to a big pushbutton [] you buy from these guys:

    They sell video game / amusement parts, and we used to buy all of our controls from them. They just don't break, even with a hundred eight-year-olds slamming their fists into them for six hours each day.

    As for the electronics themselves, there's a right way and there's a cheap way. The right way is to use something like the Radio Design Labs FP-MR1 [], which is a bulletproof digital message repeater. It's exactly what you want, but it's $225 each. The cheap way is to try and find a CD player or MP3 player that can boot up right into behaving the way you want -- either repesting all the time with the big button wired to the "forward" button or playing then pausing, with the big button wired to the "play" button. Unfortunately, it's likely on the CD player side that the only players that will do what you want will be pro models, and will cost several hundred dollars each.

    Good luck!
  • I used an old Sony Discman for the on-hold music at an ISP I used to work for. It lasted around 18 months playing continuously... That was totally insane.

The primary function of the design engineer is to make things difficult for the fabricator and impossible for the serviceman.