Plecter Labs and the Evolution of Lightsaber Soundboards: An Interview with Founder Erv Plecter

Erv Plecter, electronics engineer and founder of Plecter Labs, launched his eponymous prop electronics company in 2005. Based in France, Plecter is the brains behind some of the most popular custom lightsaber boards on the market, including: Nano Biscotte, Pico Crumble, Crystal Focus, PRIZM and more.

Plecter Labs soundboards, especially the entry-level Nano Biscotte and Pico Crumble boards, are highly sought after among hobbyist DIY installers and major custom saber manufacturers alike, including: Sabertrio, Vader’s Vault, JQ Sabers, Genesis Custom Sabers, and Bendu Armory, just to name a few.

SaberSourcing interviewed Erv Plecter about Plecter Labs and his famed technological contributions to the custom saber community.

When and how did you become interested in designing lightsaber sound modules?
It all started in late 2005. I had spent a few months renovating our first house and I had my first experience of working / exchanging with people on forums, for building my video projector. After that project, I was both in the search of a new DIY type of project and also thinking about having some products sold on internet, based on my own electronic designs. I had done quite a lot of free-lancing in addition of my day job (hardware engineer in a research institute) and I was trying to have my little e-shop.

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Prototype Plecter Labs sound module from 2005 (IMAGE CREDIT: Plecter Labs)

As I was shopping thinkgeek.com back then looking for some geek T-shirts related to electronics (rather than computer science, for a change), I stumbled upon lightsabers. Those, I would learn later, were the Master Replica [Force FX] lightsabers, that had illuminated blades, scrolling effect and even sound. They were quite expensive to import, and my wife had this famous phrase “plus, we really need two of those”. So I proposed to try to make one myself and she said sure, go for it.

I will not get into the (boring) details of the process, but I quickly tried EL tape (as that’s what local costume groups were using back then) and quickly joined a discussion thread over TheForce.net (it’s probably still there) related to LED sabers.

I first designed a current regulator for LED sabers that had visual effects too (flicker, or “candle effect”) that would mimic the blade instability. Short after in December 2005, I started working on a sound module that would interact with motion and would have configurable parameters.

How do you approach designing a sound module? What’s your creative process?
I work in a research institute involved in audio, DSP, computer science and computer music. We are also an artistic center and I did most of my early career as a HW developer for stage performance and performance arts. Most of that was targeting a low latency and “subtle” interaction between music and gesture (or dance). Those trends naturally dictated my approach for the sound module design :
– modularity
– configurable
– possibility to change the sound contents (which brought the sound font term, which comes formerly from the digital samplers)
– intricate programming to allow for synchronizing visual effects (flicker, flash on clash, then color change etc) with the sound

The idea was that each feature would become a parameter that would be configurable in a text file and the SD card became for me a natural choice, while most of props were using at that time small EEPROMs or chipcorder (voice quality recorders, quite common in voice mail machines in replacement of tapes). I wanted the board to produce quality audio, at least better than the voice sample rate.

The other challenge was minimizing latency between motion and sound, as it’s a key factor in the quality of the interaction between the saber moves and the produced sound, especially for impact.

What’s the most challenging and rewarding part about running Plecter Labs?
I Initially thought that the product design, from R&D to implementation and actual product would be the most challenging.

Looking back, it was a lot of work to implement the low level part of the board, to read a SD card in real time, loop the sound properly in a gap-free way etc. But in practice the most challenging part was to run a garage business started from scratch with 2,000€ from my savings in parallel with my family life, second house (massive) renovation / extension and day job (which I kept).

plecter-labs-nano-biscotte-v4
Plecter Labs Nano Biscotte V4 sound module (IMAGE CREDIT: Plecter Labs)

From 2006 to 2017 we moved from about 300 board a year, hand made with blood and tears (hand soldered at first, a batch of 100 boards being about 18,000 solder joints and used 1 month of my free time) to about 12,000 boards / year.

Being based in France, local manufacturing remains difficult and I didn’t find any suitable partner that would understand our needs, so I decided to run the factory myself, purchasing equipment progressively to end up with a pick and place and professional oven in 2012 and getting a production unit in the USA thanks to The Custom Saber Shop (TCSS), one of my affiliates.

After thousands of parcels made and shipped from my place, I finally “let it go” and we found French partners for manufacturing, the goal being to return to my first love, R&D and prototyping, which I’m missing a lot, for my personal interest and liking, but also for immediate needs regarding the competition (which has never been ignored or disregarded, even some say so). I tried to do both, but the constant demand of board supplies superseded the available time for developing new things, which got done by others. That’s life, not really a “lesson learned” since I didn’t ignored this, I just had to make a difficult choice.

What’s the strangest request you’ve ever gotten from a customer?
Design an interactive sound module to integrate in a sex toy, based on a (female) sci-fi comics character.

Can you describe one of your favorite technological innovations for the custom saber community?
Bringing to life a *in-hilt* configurable sound board with changeable sound. It simply didn’t exist at that time, and most micro controller designs were not capable of reading sound contents in real time. The fact it quickly combined with synchronized with light fx truly created (IMHO) a strong base / foundations of what the saber interaction modalities and scenario became.

There is also the drastic improvement of the blade diffusion and evenness to which I contributed using several turns of polypropylene film and combining with the famous diffusion film and also sanding (a clear blade). This is obviously to share with both Corbin Das and Geluckandar, both on TCSS forums back then (and probably TheForce.net too).

As one of the pioneering forces in the custom saber industry, how have you seen the custom saber community evolve over the years?
That’s a tough one. I like to quote a French band called Stupeflip who does a sort of very DIY electro rock with loops and samples. In one of their biographic song they rap “Avant la musique, c’était une passion, maintenant c’est une occupation” which translates to “before music was passion, now it’s (an) occupation” (understand, business, or what keeps you busy, from the etymological point of view). For several of us, it started as a hobby then became a business. Some decided to live out of it, some decided to remain craftsmen and/or saber artists.

As a popular trend, the hobby scaled up and led to fantastic developments. Just to cite 2 of those, the reproduction of the Graflex hilt by Jeff Parks, with all the proper tooling to make a perfect replica JUST like it was made back in the 50’s is something amazing. On a different scale, companies like TCSS worked with plastic companies to get a proper trans-white polycarbonate blade and improve drastically blade diffusion.

Like in every business, there is also opportunism and greed. Some went to saber building without pre-requisites and no experience and started to run a business using customer projects as a training school, which LED to a lot of flaming wars due to lame hilts produced, poor electronics installation and very late work delivery.

Most of the successful people in saberland iterated their work or created a strong business identity to produce a proper infrastructure. While I’m more targeted to the DIY crowd, I think it’s unfair to hear the white collar / blue collar speech “companies sell this for $XXX which is ripoff because I can just dremel this out in 2 hrs at night for $25”.

Trying to reduce the work of companies (in general) to profit makers, especially in our niche market is both wrong, illusory and insulting, as most people running such a company as a primary business are struggling to make actual payroll of the employees, when battling against low-balled pricing.

I don’t think the 2 worlds are incompatible, it’s just that trying to hide that running a company is not the same and for sure not as easy a being the so-called armchair guy is just unrealistic. It’s a tough take and a catch-22.

The other evolution has been the open source hardware community. It has been filling a void where industry / business runners didn’t have enough time to keep up with both the board demand and the new features. Some great innovation came out of this, even though most people tend to reduce that work to a magic step, while in most cases it became possible since *based* upon work (HW, SW) made by others, shared, chained, assembled.

As perception is reality for most people, it looks like coming out of nothing in a very sudden manner (a bit like the “I dremeled this in 2hrs last night”) while it’s a little more complicated than this. Still, it doesn’t remove anything to the effort, work and result : new things are obtained, and it just means that what was difficult to make 12 years ago (reading a SD in real time, optimizing code to make it fit etc) is not a technological lock anymore, essentially because CPU are faster / stronger and that some of the low level difficult part was addressed by someone else and given for free.

Hopefully, I won’t sound like I have sour grapes about it, as it’s clearly not the case. I’ve been criticized for year for not providing enough boards, and once I get to the right numbers, I’m now criticized for not having proper R&D time. I think that at the end, people care only about the result and aren’t concerned about the ins and outs, unless they are in charge of a business themselves. Again, I understand it, and things are also changing rapidly for my own activity.

What’s your biggest tip for someone who is considering building and wiring their very first lightsaber from scratch?
Read and research. Lightsaber building is a multi-discipline hobby. While a lot of work has been done to make it simpler (the TCSS Modular hilt system, just to name one thing) it’s really accumulated layers of expertise. Machining, sanding, polishing, taping, wiring, soldering. It takes a lot of time to master those things. This is also why it’s such a great hobby as it will be a fantastic learning curve. A lot of former saber builders came from machining and mechanical engineering. It’s only very recent that electronics was added to the mix.

Now with high power LEDs and even LED strips, it became power electronics and involves energy handling, proper load wiring, discharge rate and capacity etc. There is a ton of information to gather and learn to do it right. Information is still on a forums, in various forms. I can only regret the trend to post durable information on social medias as it doesn’t stick, so I suggest beginners to look stickied threads on forums and also instructables.

What’s your favorite lightsaber (from Star Wars Canon or Legends) and why?
The Graflex takes place #1 in my heart, as it’s my first real install and it’s one of the “real” aspect of props making : using scrap and turn it into an art piece that blends with the movie. It’s horrible to fight with but it’s been so much fun to expand it with my electronics, and it also allowed for incredible crystal chambers to be made, by different makers or techniques (Yoda from Fx-sabers, GraflexSabers, Goth3D chassis, etc).

My second [favorite] is the Obi-Wan hilt (TPM / AOTC). That’s the first saber I machined myself at the same time I was crafting my Jedi costume and it’s been a really creative process to measure, scale, research to make something come out of the lathe and mill.

What’s next for you?
As exposed above, the clear evolution of the saber building community is an expanded market, businesses and amount of people. It’s quite diluted now, with a few “factions” established lol. 2018 has been a transition year for me to phase the production of my boards to a (French) manufacturer for the EU part of the manufacturing, and to consolidate the relationships with existing or new partners. While I’ve been relatively silent and distant from social media (both by choice and time wise) I’ve been returning to R&D since March, trying to both get my personal accomplishments done and revise my boards. I’ve been busy for sure, even if I didn’t communicate much on it. My main goal is to address customer demands and expand the feature set of my boards, now that I’m less concerned with a garage production based.

I also want to use that freed up time to build more props in order to code again in a more “applied science” way rather than just a responsive way.

* * *

Plecter Labs Official Website
http://www.plecterlabs.com

Plecter Labs on Facebook
http://www.plecterlabs.com

Where to Find Plecter Labs products
The official Plecter Labs website primarily handles bulk orders (50+). The three official retailers of Plecter Labs products are:

The Custom Sabers Shop United States
http://www.thecustomsabershop.com

JQ Sabers
United Kingdom
https://www.jqsabers.com

Elegant Weapons France
https://www.elegantweapons.net

New and used Plecter Labs sound modules are also sometimes available from unofficial sellers on eBay [AFFILIATE LINK] or in other secondary markets.

IMAGE CREDIT: Plecter Labs

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