Introduction: LEVEL HEADED - EL WIRE HEADPHONES
Here are a couple videos demonstrating Level Headed -- EL Wire Headphones that react to the music you are listening too! The first shows the headphones decorated with EL wire and the second shows just the headphone cable decorated. Unfortunately, the camera doesn't show the correct colors and blurs them together. It looks great in person.
This instructable will show you how to decorate a pair of headphones with electroluminescent wires (EL wire) that react to the music. This project uses over the ear headphones, EL wire, an inverter taken from a T-shirt EL panel graphical equalizer display (T-qualizer knock-off), and an mp3 player. I call this project "Level Headed" because it dynamically displays the levels of the audio you're listening to on your headphones.
Materials and Tools
over the ear headphones
5 strands of EL wire
7x1 ribbon cable
7x1 crimp terminal housing
21 female crimp terminals (order extra in case you mess up)
220 ohm resistor
3.5 mm stereo cable with a male connector (cut a cheap loopback cable in half)
3.5 mm stereo splitter
clear heatshrink tubing
crimper or pliers with knurled jaws
knife (for removing phosphor)
xacto knife (for cutting PCB traces)
small phillips screwdriver (for disassembling the inverter)
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Step 1: ATTACHING THE EL WIRE
There are many varieties of musically sensitive EL panel T-shirts. The one I have looks like a graphic equalizer display with five different levels. Since the T-qualizer is meant to display levels, the line which represents the lowest level will stay on more often than the line representing the highest level. For the remainder of the article I will use line and level mostly interchangeably. You should keep in mind how often a line stays on compared to the other lines when choosing which color to assign to a line. To get a signal level meter effect I chose to use blue, green, white, yellow, and red EL wire. There is no reason why you can't use different or fewer colors, but every line needs an EL wire connected to it.
To connect the EL wire to the inverter I simply copied the same type of connector used by the EL panel. This connector uses ribbon cable with female crimp terminals in a 7x1 housing. The downside to this approach is that all of the EL wires have to be together where they meet the ribbon cable so that the corona wires can share the common connection. If each EL wire had an individual common connection then the ribbon cable could be split and the EL wires separated. This would allow two EL wires to be used on opposite ends of the project without wasting EL wire to cover the distance from the shared common to the desired location. Since the EL wires will be grouped together in my headphone decorations the shared common is preferable. If you'd like to use the individual common technique then you'll need to rewire the inverter with a ribbon cable that has ten lines, with common connected to every other line.
My EL wire came pre-stripped, but I did have to scrap the phosphor off the core wire. The picture above shows a razor blade, but I think a regular pocket knife works better for removing the phosphor. Here's a link to a tutorial on EL wire which includes instructions on how to properly strip it. Please read it if you aren't familiar with how to work with EL wire. The main takeaway is to be careful not to cut the corona wires when removing the insulation and to run the inverter only when the EL wires are connected. I used electrical tape to isolate the core wires once they were soldered to the ribbon cable. You will probably have an easier time with heat shrink tubing. Then I hot-glued the soldering to insulate the corona wires/common and core wires. This made a nice, rigid connection. You may want to use a large piece of heat shrink to insulate the connection while preserving more flexibility than you get from hot glue.
To construct the connector, first examine a single female crimp terminal. The set of tabs at the edge are meant to wrap around the wire's insulation. The other set of tabs near the middle are meant to contact bare wire. Insert one strand of ribbon cable in to the connector to determine how much insulation you should remove. Remove that much insulation. Reinsert the wire and line it up so that the tabs will grab the proper part of the wire when they are crimped. Normally a crimping tool is used to press down the tabs but you can use pliers with knurled jaws to do the same thing. Here's a link to a very detailed article explaining how to attach female crimp-on terminals. Once all the terminals have been attached you can insert them in the housing. The terminals have a metal catch that springs out when it reaches the hole on the side of the housing. Therefore you should make sure all the terminals are facing the same way, that you insert them into the housing the proper way, and that you insert them far enough. Wrap some electrical tape around the housing to insulate any exposed metal since EL wire is driven by high voltage that can shock you.
Step 2: MODIFYING THE INVERTER
This step demonstrates how to modify the inverter so that it responds to an audio signal instead of sound waves. Before trying this mod you should see if an earbud placed over the inverter's microphone works well enough for your needs. My music player had to be unacceptably loud to get the inverter to respond to an earbud.
The T-qualizer inverter uses an electret microphone to sense sound and drives five lines connected to an EL panel made to look like a graphic equalizer. The number of lines it drives depends on the amplitude of the sound sensed. The inverter drives the lines additively which means if line three is being driven then lines two and one must also be driven. The first and last wires of the ribbon cable are both connected to common and the connector is not keyed, so it is possible to reverse the order in which the panel's colors light up.
A modded inverter has a couple of advantages. First, it allows the inverter to be triggered by a remote source via a headphone extension cable. Note that the audio source doesn't have to be outputting sound through a speaker for the inverter to work. Second, a custom waveform that steps its amplitude up or down can be used to precisely control which levels the inverter lights up. So you can use a specially-made audio file instead of music to animate the EL wire.
I've only worked with one of these inverters, so I can't say how likely you are to have one just like mine. I'm hoping that these modifications are generic enough that you will be able to apply them to a different inverter. First I removed the screws holding the inverter's case together and inspected the circuit board. The sensitivity pot feeds power to the electret microphone's internal amp. The output of electret mic is then capacitively coupled to an inverting single transistor (M28S) amplifier. The output of the transistor is capacitively coupled to the EL driver IC. To make room for the audio cable I removed the barrel power socket. Mouseover the image notes to see the places on the board I'm describing.
Next I desoldered the electret microphone and cut the trace connecting the potentiometer (thumbwheel) to the IC's power pin. Doing this let me directly input an audio signal into the circuit. I had some success capacitively coupling an audio signal onto the microphone's output trace before making any modifications, but it didn't work quite right.
I found that the dynamics of the panel covered its full range nicely when the audio signal input was at a listening level that is slightly below normal. This means that if the volume was increased to a normal or loud listening level that the panel would be pinned to the red most of the time. Therefore I decided to reuse the potentiometer to attenuate the audio signal before it is input to the inverting transistor amplifier. To do this I cut the trace connecting the upper and middle legs of the pot and connected the left audio channel's wire to the upper leg and audio ground to the circuit board's ground. Now the thumbwheel allows control of the driver's dynamic range without having to change the listening volume of the music. My 2nd generation ipod shuffle has a noisy output, so it causes the lower level EL wires to light up even when music isn't playing. Using the thumbwheel to increase the input resistance fixes this problem.
Unfortunately, these modifications make the inverter susceptible to noise picked up by the audio cable. To fix this I used a 220 ohm resistor. I soldered the first leg to the audio line where it joins the thumbwheel and the second leg to where the negative battery terminal meets the PCB. Normally the barrel connector socket bridges the PCB's negative battery terminal pad to ground but since I removed it I used the remainder of the resistor's leg to connect them.
Step 3: DECORATING THE HEADPHONES
This step demonstrates how to attach the EL wire to the headphones. First, I examined the headphones to see how I could wrap the EL wire and where I could attach the connector. Your headphones will be different so you'll have to figure out what works best for them. I suggest you take your time because a good bit of planning will pay off when you finally start to decorate the headphones. The adjustable headband on my headphones can be removed from the connector where it mates with the ear pieces. I removed the headband, then placed the EL wire connector on the ear piece connector and slipped a large piece of heatshrink tubing over both of them to affix the EL wire connector. Then I reinserted the headband. With the EL wire connector in place I was able to start wrapping the EL wire around the headphones. The EL wire needs to be attached at certain points so it will follow the curves of the headphones. To do this I put a 1/4 inch length of heatshrink tubing over the EL wire at the spot where I wanted to attach it, shrunk the heatshrink, and attached it to the headphones with a bit of super glue. This works quite well and since EL wire has a solid core it doesn't take many attachment points to get it to follow the headphones' shape. Once I finished decorating the headphones I trimmed and terminated the ends of each strand of EL wire with heatshrink before bundling the tails together. Doing this prevents the EL wire from shorting to a neighboring strand. It also keeps the tails from shocking your head! Then I bundled the tails together with another piece of heatshrink and glued it on the inside of the other headband connector. To connect the EL wire to the inverter I used a long piece of rainbow ribbon cable. I used the same type of connector that was discussed in Step 1 - ATTACHING THE EL WIRE. To keep the cabling tidy I used pieces of clear heatshrink tubing to join the ribbon cable to the headphones cable. Finally I used electrical tape to cover the crimp terminals' catches and secure the connectors together in order to prevent shocks.
Step 4: DECORATING THE HEADPHONE CABLE
This step is distinct from the previous step. I didn't have enough EL wire to decorate the headphones and the headphone cable at the same time. I suspect that the inverter isn't capable of driving EL wire that is long enough to decorate both anyway. This step shows how to decorate just the headphone cable.
To do this I used several pieces of clear heatshrink tubing to attach the EL wire to the headphone cable. Since EL wire and the clear tubing are stiff you want to use several pieces of tubing instead of one long piece to allow the assembly to still have some flexibility when you're finished. The hardest part is keeping the wires untangled. First, cut several pieces of clear tubing and slip them over the headphone cable. Then thread the EL wire through the tubing. Now starting from the EL wire plug, untangle the EL wire and heatshrink the first piece of tubing. It's best to put the first piece of tubing a good distance away from the headphone plug, otherwise the mp3 player and inverter would be too close together and any time you wanted to push a button on the mp3 player you'd have to juggle the inverter too. Work your way up the headphone cable by untangling the EL wire and shrinking new pieces of tubing. Make sure the headphone cable doesn't twist. When you get to where the headphone cable splits you can either trim the EL wire or split the lines such that some wires follow the right ear wire and the others go to the left. To attach the EL wire to the headphone wires after the split I used clear tape. You could probably use clear tape for the entire length of the cable, but it won't be as sturdy as the clear heatshrink tubing.