Introduction: Build an Atari Punk Circuit on a Breadboard

About: I used to teach middle school science, but now I run my own online educational science website. I spend my days designing new projects for students and Makers to put together.

If you're old enough to remember the Atari, then you probably remember all those "high tech" tones that it produced. Those beeps and whines were the very lifeblood of our favorite old school games. While a mint condition Atari may be hard to find these days you can easily recreate the sounds of an Atari using only a few parts stuck on a breadboard.

The Atari Punk circuit gets it's name because it produces similar sounds to the old Atari game systems. This design has been around since the 70s and often still goes by it's original name of a Stepped Tone Generator.

In this guide I'm going to run through how to make two different Atari Punk setups on a breadboard. One that uses variable resistors to control the sounds (turn style knobs) and one that uses light sensitive resistors (CDS Cells).

Step 1: Parts

The parts you need for this setup are rather common and decently cheap to buy.

Required Parts

Jumpers (You can make your own)
9V Battery
9V Battery Clip
556 Timer Chip (You can also use two 555 timers as well)
8 Ohm Speaker
1K Ohm Resistor
(2) 500K Ohm Variable Resistor (Potentiometer)
5K Ohm Variable Resistor (Potentiometer)
(2) 0.01uf Capacitors

(2) Light Sensitive Resistors (CDS Cells
(2) 0.22uf Capacitors
Blue LED
470 ohm resistor

Total Time: 20-30 minutes
Total Cost: $10 (More if you need a breadboard)

The optional parts are used if you want to make the circuit light sensitive, or if you want to add an LED for fun filled lighting. You could also ditch the 5K Ohm Variable Resistor and use a set resistor, but then you'd have no volume control.

Alternately you could always have one Variable Resistor and one Light Sensitive Resistor in the circuit. The nice thing is you can easily swap both types in and out, which is the nice thing about a breadboard.

Most of these parts can be found at any electronics hobby store. If possible, avoid Radio Shack and you'll pay three times as much as you really need.

All Electronics and Electronic Goldmine have most everything you need. If you'd like to save yourself some trouble and get everything in one nice little kit, why not try my fun filled website We have a ready to go Atari Punk Kit that even comes with some fancy knobs to impress your friends and family. 72% of all sales go to all natural doggie chew toys.

Step 2: 55 - What?

The 555 timer chip was the world's first integrated circuit. While nowadays this might not mean much to you or me, back in "the day" this revolutionized circuit building and began the miniaturization trend which continues today.

More or less the 555 chip took an entire circuit and put it all in one simple package. So small and handy was this design that it originally cost over $5,000 for a single chip! The US Military bought up all the chips for years in order to build missiles. Yes, that's right. The 555 chip was originally used to shoot at missiles at communists. (Feel the power...)

That was then. You can buy one for all of $0.10 now. They're common.

But wait a second... we're using a 556 chip...

The 556 is really just two 555 chips put together. Which is why if you happen to have a bunch of 555 chips in your home, or can't find a 556 chip, you can use them instead.

So now you know the a bit about the historical chip you're using. (Can you tell I was a history major?)

Step 3: The Circuit

If you're one of those smart people who knows how to read a circuit diagram, then you really don't need to read any further. Above is the diagram commonly used to build this circuit.

If you've never seen a diagram before follow these simples steps.

1) Take a deep breath.
2) Don't panic.
3) Get a hot cup of tea and a cat to pet.
4) Print off this picture.
5) Keep reading this guide.


Even if you don't plan on using the diagram to help you build the circuit you should familiarize yourself with the pin layout of the 556 chip. Notice how the top left pin is labeled "1" and the top right is labeled "14". I'm going to reference pin (leg) numbers a lot during this guide. Pay very close attention to which leg you're using.

At this point I should let you know that I managed to teach a group of 8th graders how to build this circuit in about half an hour. So if some 13 year olds can do it, so can you.

Step 4: Place the Chip and Variable Resistors

To start things out I like to lay the chip and variable resistors on the board.

Put the chip towards the top of the board, so that legs 1 and 14 at at the top. (The notch on the chip tells you which side is "up".)

Then place the two 500K Ohm variable resistors along the bottom left of the board.

Place the 5K Ohm variable resistor opposite them.

We're just leaving ourselves a lot of room here.

Step 5: Positive to Variable Resistor

I like to have the right vertical rail on my breadboard be positive and the left vertical rail be negative. You can honestly change things up as you see fit.

Use a jumper and go from the positive rail on the right (bottom in this picture) and run it to the middle leg of the variable resistor.

Step 6: Pin 1 to Variable Resistor

Use a jumper to go from Pin 1 to the outside leg of the variable resistor.

Step 7: Pin 1, 1K Ohm Resistor, Pin 6

Take your 1K Ohm resistor.

Put one side in Pin 1, and the other in Pin 6.

Step 8: Pin 6, 0.01uf Capacitor to Negative

Take your 0.01uf Capacitor and go from Pin 6 to the negative rail.

Step 9: Pin 2 to Pin 6

Take a jumper and connect Pin 2 to Pin 6.

Now you should have three things in the row with Pin 6.

1) A resistor leg
2) A capacitor leg
3) A jumper coming from Pin 2

If you have all three things lined up with Pin 6, give yourself a hug.

Go on. Hug.

Step 10: Pin 7 to Negative

Take a jumper and go from Pin 7 to the negative rail.

Step 11: Pin 14 to Positive

Turn the board around.

Take a jumper and go from Pin 14 to the positive rail.

Step 12: Pin 14 to Pin 10

Take a jumper and go from Pin 14 to Pin 10.

(You could just go directly from the positive rail to Pin 10 if you really wanted to.)

Step 13: Positive to Variable Resistor

Take a jumper and go from the positive rail over to the middle leg of the variable resistor.

Step 14: Variable Resistor to Pin 13

Take a jumper (a long one) and go from the outside leg of the variable resistor to Pin 13.

Step 15: Pin 13 to Pin 12

Take a jumper an connect Pin 13 to Pin 12.

Do a dance. You're almost done.

Step 16: Pin 12, Capacitor to Negative

We now need to somehow use a capacitor to connect Pin 12 to the negative rail. Only this is a long jump.

In the picture below I used a jumper to go from Pin 12 to the other side of the board. I then connect a 0.01uf capacitor to negative.

(You can do this several ways, I did this to keep the positive rail on one side and the negative rail on the other.)

Step 17: Pin 10 to 5K Variable Resistor

Take a jumper and go from Pin 10 to the outside leg of the 5K Ohm Variable resistor.

Step 18: Variable Resistor to Speaker, Speaker to Pin 9

Take your speaker and connect one wire to the middle leg of the variable resistor.

Then take a jumper and connect the other speaker wire to Pin 9.

Pin 10 -> Outside Leg -> Inside Leg -> Speaker-> Speaker -> Pin 9

Step 19: Pin 5 to Pin 8

Take a jumper and connect Pin 5 to Pin 8.

Step 20: Add Power

Connect the negative (black) wire of the 9V clip to the negative rail on the left.

Connect the positive (red) wire of the 9V clip to the positive rail on the right.

Step 21: If You Have Problems...

At this point your Atari Punk should be making some horrible sounds. If not....

a) Turn the knob on the 5K Ohm variable resistor. That's the volume control. It could just be set low.

b) You've messed up somewhere. It happens. Go back through the directions and make sure everything is in the right hole. If you've got even one mistake the entire circuit could fail.

If this didn't work right the first time don't fret! Just double check every connection. Make sure all the jumpers are in. Make sure your 9V is charged (you could always lick it).

Step 22: Adding Light Sensitive Resistors

Using knobs to control the setup is fun, but using the light sensitive resistors (CDS Cells) is really impressive.

To do this you just need to swap out 4 parts.

Take out the two 500k Ohm variable resistors.

In their place stick in the two light sensitive resistors.

Then, take out the two 0.01uf capacitors.

Replace them with the two 0.22uf capactiors.

We do this to drop the pitch of the tone. In many cases the light sensitive resistors cause a massively high pitched tone, and the capacitors just drops that down. You may or may not need to do this, but it's an easy swap.

To use them just wave your hands over the light sensitive resistors. You should hear a change.

Step 23: Add and LED

Adding an LED to your project is easy. It's completely pointless to the function of the circuit, but sometimes you just gotta look cool for the ladies.

Use a 470 ohm resistor to go from the positive rail to the other side of the board. Then connect the LED from that spot (with the positive long leg) to the negative rail (with the negative short leg).


Step 24: Adding a Line Out

Many people build this circuit with an audio out jack. This isn't too tough to do. Just look at the circuit diagram for guidance.

10uF Capacitor
10K Ohm Resistor
4.7K Ohm resistor

Audio out jack of your choice.

Step 25: Dance Party

Oh yes, dance party time.

I hope this guide walked you step by step through the painless process of making an Atari Punk circuit.

So what now?

Well a lot of people build a permeant version of the circuit via soldering and stick it in a cute container. The internet is full of really funky retro designs, a quick google search turns up many a project.

Soon to come from me will be a guide as to how to build this circuit into an Altoids tin. Oh yes, it is possible.

If you've enjoyed this guide why not check out my website We do in fact have an Atari Punk kit available if you're in need of parts. 53% of all sales goes to buying doggie treats.