Every Halloween, inexpensive talking skulls are available as decorations. They look good, but they have a tiny speaker inside them, making them hard to understand. And they only say a few pre-programmed things. What if you could hack one so that you could make it say anything you want? And have it work with any speakers you own?

Here's what one that I got says. Notice that I have to snap my fingers at it to get it to play. Also, he doesn't just talk - he's got his own sound effects and music as well. I think this makes him harder to understand.

Some friends and I worked out how to do this inexpensively; as a matter of fact, this is the least expensive way possible to do this. These talking skulls are usually about $20.00 new, and less off-season. Other versions of this project on the web use parts that cost lots more than the skull!

Here's a quick explanation and demo:

We made a custom-designed circuit that needs less than $5.00 of parts – plus we’ve arranged with a company to offer a professionally printed circuit board so you can assemble it like a kit, instead of working out how to build it on prototyping board. The professionally-made board is quite reasonably priced, and can be bought as a bare board where you supply the parts, as a kit with the parts, or assembled (see step 2 for details).

How it works: The circuit inside the skull is replaced by a small, custom-made board that will respond to “beeps” on an audio track; when the circuit hears a “beep” it turns on the motor in the skull, opening the mouth.
It’s a great project paired with a microcontroller (Arduino, EFX-Tek Prop-1, or Picaxe) that can trigger the playback of an MP3 or WAV file.

This is a multiple-part project, and you should have some experience in hobby electronics: Reading circuit schematics, soldering, assembling circuit boards, editing sound files on your computer, and programming a microcontroller to play back MP3s when you want.

2014 update: Someone asked if you could use this live with a microphone, so you could be hidden somewhere, and have a skull that is sitting on a table talk to people and react to what they say. Great idea! Yes, you can - there's a simple way (and it's easier than the original project!) Go to "Testing the skull" and see the notes at the bottom of the page.

Step 1: Project Overview

Here’s everything you’ll do:

1. Hack the talking skull, removing the internal circuit board and speaker, and replacing them with a connection on the outside of the skull.

2. Build a small custom circuit board that controls the skull’s motor.

3. On your computer, add beeps to one channel of a stereo audio track, to trigger the circuit board, which makes the skull talk.

4. Program a microcontroller to play back your custom mp3 when you want. The microcontroller can run a timed program, or be set up to react to a motion detector or a button. And, you’ll need some kind of mp3 playback module. There are lots of choices for mp3 playback these days. I’ll list several options at the end.

5. Connect the audio output of the custom circuit board to speakers. (An old pair of computer desktop speakers works fine for this, but you can go bigger if you need to.)

This seems like a lot of stuff, but once you’ve modified the skull, and built the circuit board, it’s pretty easy to set up a new audio track. Then you just have to play it back with your microcontroller.

<p>FYI, when I opened up the skull I purchased at Target, it seems that it's not a Gemmy after all. Or at least it's very different than the talking skull in this project. It uses a Piezo element to trigger the skull and all the components are in different places as well. Quite an elaborate work of engineering. I'm attaching photos in case you're interested/</p>
<p>Yep, that's completely different. I did some digging, that skull is by Seasonal Visions International, so it's a totally new design. I'm always impressed by the effort that goes into this kind of product. For something that's designed to be an inexpensive gadget, that's a lot of work.</p>
<p>Gosh, this is amazing. I happened to pick up one of those Gemmy skulls <br>from Target yesterday and I was looking for ways to modify it. At least I think it's a Gemmy skull. Except mine is sound activated, not motion activated.</p><p> Quick <br>question: If you buy the ready-made circuit board from Blue Point, what <br>other parts from the list do you need? Do you still need the diodes and <br>resistors? I'm obviously new at this.</p>
<p>Blue Point sells the board alone, or with all the parts you need. However, if you've never done any hobby electronics, this project might be a bit too advanced for you. The skulls change a bit every year and you'll have to figure out how what you got works compared to the one I have. Also, this only explains how to animate the skull - you probably still need an Arduino or similar microcontroller to play back sounds automatically.</p>
<p>Actually, I'm not that new at this. I have a couple of Halloween props that are pretty advanced, including an (Arduino-controlled) owl whose head moves randomly and eyes light up when triggered by a motion sensor. </p><p><br><iframe allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="281" src="//www.youtube.com/embed/sXtBmXUMhKA" width="500"></iframe></p><p>I guess what I'd really like to do with this talking skull is be able to change what it says and have it all triggered by a motion sensor. For that I&rsquo;ll need an Mp3 board paired with an Arduino? You mention the Catalex MP3 board in one of your comments. Does Blue Point sell the phone jack and plug and 3.5mm stereo jack, PCB mount, etc.?</p>
<p>Oh, in that case, any mp3 board that an Arduino can control is fine. I mentioned the Catalex board because it's cheap and there are currently a lot of ebay sellers. The challenge would be getting it in time for Halloween, since most sellers are overseas. Here's a link to it on dx.com, this should stay the same, the ebay links come and go: </p><p><a href="http://www.dx.com/p/uart-control-serial-mp3-music-player-module-for-arduino-avr-arm-pic-blue-silver-342439#.V__CzSQ-jCc" rel="nofollow">http://www.dx.com/p/uart-control-serial-mp3-music-...<br></a></p><p>Also look at Sparkfun or Adafruit for US-made mp3 boards, and they both have tutorials on using them.<br></p><p>Whatever you get, you'll take the audio out of the mp3 board and run that into the DC motor driver board, which will control the motion of the skull's jaw.</p><p>Blue Point tends to sell just what you need to assemble the kit. But Adafruit and Sparkfun will have all the other parts you need. You can also look at Jameco, they are one of the established Silicon Valley electronics part suppliers and have a big inventory. Finally, Radio Shack may have the other parts if there's still one open near you.</p>
<p>Not for nothing, but I don't think the listed person at SimpleCircuits supplies this board anymore. I attempted to contact them and their email no longer works. Can you build this circuit ok using one of those simple plastic bread boards? </p>
I haven't heard from Jeff Wheat in awhile but he's usually been very responsive. I've emailed him, we'll see what happens.<br><br>But yes, you can build this on either a breadboard for temporary testing, or by soldering the project together on a proto board. There aren't that many parts, but you should have some experience reading schematics and assembling projects like this.<br><br>There are lots of tutorials on Adafruit and Sparkfun for basic electronics, which can help you get started.
<p>I got a reply from Jeff Wheat - he is closing his business and moving on to a different opportunity. He has passed his designs, including this one, to another company that does similar work. I'll get in touch with them and update this Instructable when I know more.</p>
<p>Cool, I was considering the manufactured Jem board on the other forum (as you are aware). However, it could potentially be more advantageous to use a board like this that responds to tones more predictively (especially if I can adjust it to respond to low tones on my keys). I already have a talking skull I built that moves to the audio but it can be a little touchy to adjust. I do a lot of latex work to these props and since I enjoy it I'll be pumping out a lot. Too many to buy a lot of Jem boards.</p>
<p>I'm not sure which board you're referring to as the &quot;Jem board&quot; - can you provide a link?</p>
<p>sorry, i was referring to the talking jemmy board.</p>
<p>Hi, the new company, Blue Point Engineering, now has the boards in stock and has put up a web page where they can be ordered. The info is in Step 2.</p>
<p>needs science</p>
cool <br> <br>it is used as a driving force, dc motors or servo? <br>thank you
The board uses the existing motor in the skull and turns it on/off based on audio input from one stereo track of an mp3. It replaces the factory circuit board. Props of this type use inexpensive hobby motors so they can sell for $19.99.
Thank you for responding.&nbsp; I am sorry if my questions are frustrating.&nbsp; It would make it easier to understand from my lamo exp. To help me get started if the parts were in a list with numbers and contacts so i don't have to sift through and try to comprehend.&nbsp; I thought you put this up to asisst others and i am a begginer builder and an experienced assembler. This is a fantastic low budget system. And i want to thank you for sharing. I know how it is getting dumb questions when it is obvious to you. For that i am sorry. Just trying to understand what and where. So far the bill for what i see is over 70.00. So i am not looking at the right stuff at the right place. But thank you and i will figure it out.
<p>I can help with the prices...</p><p>Check Step 2, there's an Excel file with the parts list. If you go to Jameco.com and look up the parts you can find them inexpensively. Since I wrote this Instructable I found another online supplier, Tayda Electronics, which can be even cheaper (but has a much smaller inventory). Check them out at: <a href="http://www.taydaelectronics.com/" rel="nofollow">http://www.taydaelectronics.com/</a></p><p>The skulls...not sure how to help you there, they cost what they cost each year. They are usually about twenty bucks when they show up in the stores. My local Rite Aid is just starting to put out its Halloween stuff, I haven't seen the skulls yet but they sometimes will have a sale when new things arrive.</p><p>If you can put together the circuit on your own you can save the cost of the PCB. It's a bit more work but if cash is an issue it's something.</p><p>If you want to use the skull as a puppet then you don't need any more than a button to make it open its mouth.</p><p>For the full effect, you need a way to play back audio files and trigger them when you want. That is usually done via a microcontroller like an Arduino and an mp3 board. Arduinos are amazingly cheap now if you get the clones off of ebay. Then you want to find an audio playback board for it and maybe add a motion sensor. Tutorials for these are easy to find on the net. Look at Sparkfun and Adafruit for good info.</p><p><br></p>
Thank you Jeff. My brain can figure that out. Sorry i am not savvy. This will get it done. Awesome!
I saw those same ravens at big lots recently.. Did you ever get around to hooking them up to this circuit? If so - how well did ti work. They have what appears to be, more points of articulation. <br>
I haven't been able to get one of those ravens myself, but others I've talked to have. The way they work is that there's a motor that runs and the raven cycles through all its motions; if you were to turn the motor on and leave it on, you'd see the raven do everything it does over and over...flap its wings, open its beak, move side-to-side, whatever. If you watch this YouTube video of two of them you can see the movement clearly: <br>http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Skx0v6i4Nvc <br> <br>So you should be able to hook up the raven the same way as the skull (but without the blinking eyes). I'd suggest you put the raven up high, looking down at people, and use it with a microcontroller that turns an LED light on to spotlight it while it talks. Have the raven say very short things, and have it animate in quick bursts in sync with the words: &quot;Squawk! Squawk! Beware! Beware! Squawk!&quot; Record a handful of short phrases like this and cycle through them. And see which one of your friends does the best creepy raven voice. :)
Hi Jeff. Sorry to jump in. I am going to go purchase a skull. I was wondering if you could send me a detailed parts list and instructions or can i buy a kit from you?
<p>I'm sorry, I don't understand - the Instructable gives you the info you need to to do this yourself. I don't have a kit, but the company I link to supplies the circuit board. As I say in the instructions, this is a somewhat advanced build, and you should know a lot about hobby electronics to be successful. A big point is that the skulls seem to change a bit from year to year, and you've got to be able to figure out how they're different this time. They still haven't shown up in my local stores yet.</p>
Awesome! Thank you for the reply.. Looks like I am ordering some parts soon! <br>
Wonder how many people made it say &quot;Gaben&quot; on repeat.
<p>Where is the motion sensor wired into the circuit?</p>
<p>This isn't a complete stand-alone solution. A complete solution would also need a microcontroller with a motion sensor and an MP3 playback board. The output from the MP3 board goes into this circuit, which handles animating the skull's jaw in sync with a sound track. These days all those parts are pretty inexpensive if you look around - you can get small microcontrollers for less than $10.00 and there's a Catalex MP3 board for about the same price. Since I posted this a couple of years ago, all these prices have dropped a lot.</p><p>The main difference between this project and the other ways to animate a skull here on Instructables, is that this skull comes off the shelf with a small DC hobby motor in it hooked up to the jaw. The circuit turns the motor on and off. Other methods usually use a servo to animate the skull's jaw, and also have a microcontroller and an MP3 playback board.</p>
<p>Creepy! Thanks for posting this.</p>
<p>Jeff, have you ever run into an issue where continuity is confirmed to be working and responding to audio tones (using a multi-meter connected to motor out), and when I manually short the skull wires, the jaw moves down (and jaw springs closed), yet when I connect those same wires up to the motor output terminals, it doesn't work? It is as if the 4.5v from the skull is somehow feeding back into the circuit and messing it up. I suppose I could put a diode on the connection to confirm this, but it doesn't seem like I should have to based on your circuit. I have tried switching polarity around (on the skull battery box) without any luck either.</p><p>Also, I am using your custom designed PCBs.</p>
<p>No, I haven't seen that, but who knows how they modify the Gemmy skulls from year to year, as they add new features? The first thing I'd try is your idea about the diode - put that together with a breadboard and see what happens. </p><p>If you solve it, please let me know, there will be other people who could use the tip.</p>
Has anyone tried this with one of the Rite-Aid branded talking skulls? The design is a little different (LEDs for eyes) but I'm pretty sure it would work. http://www.halloweenforum.com/members/ghost-of-spookie-albums-halloween-store-items-2013-picture167837-riteaid-2013-animated-talking-skull-19-99.jpg
No one has mentioned that to me that they used one of those, but it looks like the same design with additional LEDs in the mouth. You'd have to buy one and see how it's wired up inside.
Thanks Jeff. I will reply back here on whether or not it works.<br><br>John
awesome ...! <br> <br>I am interested to make, if you have a PCB schematic of the circuit? <br>thx
Sorry, I don't have the PCB layout. I don't have the facilities to make my own PCB boards, which is why I went to SimpleCircuitBoards.com to have the board made. They did the board for me based on the schematic. Getting a copy of the board from them is fast and currently $7.00. <br> <br>There's some stuff it's just easier to outsource.
I have tried to make it, but I wear menggapa motor can not move (dc motors), but his voice could come out of the speakers. What is the cause of my failure? <br>Please help me... <br> <br>thx
Make sure to test each of the components - I show you how to test each component in the videos. See Step 6, and test the skull on its own, by shorting the two control wires together. And also see Step 8, to use your multitester to test the output from the circuit, so you can see that it closes the connection properly.<br><br>Also make sure you've got the connections to the battery box right - look at Step 5. If the testing of the skull and the circuit work OK, try swapping the connections to the battery box, they might have changed the way it's hooked up in yours. Use wires with alligator clips to try out all the different possibilities.<br><br>Good luck! This is an advanced project, just stick with it and you'll figure out what needs to be done to make your build work.
In the experiment you use dc motors with how much voltage volts? <br>Why dc motor that I use only rotates clockwise only?
The skull I have uses three AA batteries, for a total of 4.5 volts. The way they designed the jaw mechanism, it doesn't matter which way the motor turns - it winds up the string either way, to close the jaw, and then when the power to the motor is cut, the spring pulls the back open and unwinds the string.<br><br>As long as you can make your skull's jaw open and close when you close the connection, this circuit should work, because that's what the mosfet is doing - acting like a switch.
In addition to the above video if you still have that record video when motion of the motor circuit is working? <br> <br>thx
All the videos I took of this project are posted. In steps 3 and 4 you can see how the hobby motor is hooked up. It pulls a lever connected to the jaw forward, opening the jaw.
To you Guybrush, +100 kudos for the Monkey Island skull sample on the mp3 player! :D
Btw jeff, are you of Dutch decent? :) ,wish a skull like that was sold here... halloween still hasn't really caught on here... in our neighborhood, my wife and I are always the ones organizing it... 5th year now. In all honesty, I think I enjoy it more then the kids :D
Sorry, I'm not Dutch. <br> <br>If you want to make a talking skull, your other option is to find a skull with a jaw that can move, and then use a servo to animate it. There's a schematic for a more complicated circuit that will drive the servo on Scary Terry's page (he's the guy who really kicked this whole idea off). http://www.scary-terry.com/
thnx for the link! here's one for you ;) <br>http://scummbar.com//resources/downloads/sounds/CMI-Murray3.zip
great work
is there any certain kind of microcontroller that you would suggest?
Whatever you're comfortable programming...Arduino, Basic Stamp, etc. You'll want to be able to program it and also pick one of the many options for boards that play back MP3s. Since the skull is on its own circuit, you can use whatever you've got.

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