How to Print and Cut for Audio Equipment
This article is about the hardware needed to make high quality boards at home and for a budget lower than 500 €.
This will allow to print and cut laminated paper or vinyl to make clean, quality, overlays and boards for Midi Controllers.
Other applications include home-prototyping the panels of DIY synths or eurorack modules before production.
NB: MidiPoti does not sell any equipment. Brands are cited because they have been tested and work better. Other machines exist too.
The main equipment is a home cutting machine (plotter) such as the Cameo 4. It has sensors allowing print and cut on surfaces as large as A2 (60*300 cm, with the much more expensive “Cameo 4 Pro”). However, A3 is enough and I will center this article around A3 format (42 x 30 cm) which is enough for most midi controllers, DIY synths, etc.
- Silhouette Cameo 4 Print & Cut machine (aka “home plotter”)
- Silhouette Design Studio software (Free edition is enough)
- 12*24 cutting mat (standard or strong grip) third party brands are ok
- Printable paper or vinyl (depends on the printer you use).
- Lamination machine and 75/80 microns matte pouches (better for solidity and to keep the boards flat). 2x 75 microns is enough for rigidity and usage.
- You should design at 300 DPI and print at 600 DPI.
The Cameo 4 is the most powerful machine for home use, with the least hassle, great results, for a very low price, and third party accessories are available so you are not bound to silhouette’s own accessories. It is made for sophisticated designs and decorations, and is way enough to make a large array of audio related boards. Audio is mainly about cutting circles and rectangles with rounded edges, all of which is simple enough for kraft plotters.
The software is free and you can use it without a Cameo 4 connected. The software loads the cut files and controls the cutting machine. It can manage the included “auto-blade”, as well as manual blades. There is an optional blade that can be set up for 3 mm depth (it should be able to cut thin balsa). You can also use “CB09” and “Roland” blade holders with the included adapters, or directly. CB09 allows finer cut (blade shat is 0.9mm wide) and Roland blades are good for m:ore rigid material (blade shaft is 2mm wide). The “Auto-Blade” allows to program different pressures for different lines or shapes of the same design. All the blade changes will be done automatically. It has to be done manually on manual blades (and sometimes you forget to do it so there is a risk of ruining an entire sheet).
You can cut 1 mm deep with most blades,, and up to 3 mm deep with the “kraft-blade”. The “Premium Blade” from silhouette is better quality and will last longer. But for the same price you could get a Roland blade holder and many cheap, non-durable, third parties blades. In any case all blades works great with paper, laminated paper, vinyls, printable vinyls, stickers…). Some third party blades are lesser quality and 1 or 2 blades out of 20 simply won’t cut anything. This is the kind of thing that should not happen with Silhouette products, so all in all, the price is about the same. I am still testing the durability of various blades to check this. You can also reserve lower quality blades for stickers or vinyls, while better blades will be used for harder materials.
Other brands like Cricut Maker cannot “print and cut” large enough even for a small midi controller. Too bad because it is less noisy than the Cameo 4 . But it is also more proprietary and the software is less powerful. Then you have bigger plotters and CNC machines that can cut wood and metal, and pro equipment which also require a room fully equipped to receive large machines and evacuate waste. That’s not adapted to home cutting and is not the same budget.
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- Link to the whole shop (multilanguage): 3d printing, plotters, CNC, 3D scanning etc..
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Why not use a laser cutter ?
The cheap ones are not adapted for home usage. They are trendy, but dangerous for the eyes, difficult to use, can cause fire (it burns the material to cut), and require “add-ons” that take a lot of space (air-filtering, watercooling, special anti-UV cases…).
Mechanical blades such as Cameo are not dangerous, do not produce fumes or dioxins or heat. It also uses less power (12 V power supply). That’s why they are more advisable for home usage.
Scrapers and Squeegees ?
You absolutely need something to scrape the little pieces that remain on the cutting mat (the holes that you just cut, and that stay stuck on the mat when you remove the main cut). Doing it by hand with no tool is not something that you want to do (it takes hours).
Use a tool like the orange scraper to scrape-out those pieces quickly, in one or two gesture.
Tweezers and knife are useful if your blades are worn out and need a manual help.
Search for “scrap vinyl tools” .
“Squeegees” are tools to apply large pieces of vinyl without scratching it and to remove bubbles easily. It is not really necessary to make make boards (I do not have one myself).
What can a print & cut machine be used for ?
Musicians / DJs
- Customize texts, shapes, colors with high readability. Modify them at will at anytime of the day and night.
- Improve immersion in the sound with designs that fit and stimulate your creative mood.
- Change the look and labels with boards, instead of changing midi CCs and loosing time configuring gear or loading presets.
- Prototype, test and improve a panel without limits of cost or shipping delays, and with pro quality.
- Once ready, send your final designs to an UV Printing facility to print on metal or plastic and save a lot of prototyping time and budget.
- The cost of investment to cut at home is around 20 / 30 pre-made boards. So it is still cheaper to order a lot of pre-cut flip-boards.
- If you have zero time/patience/will to put into learning basic operations on a cutting machine, it is either better to order them pre-cut, or to use MidiPoti cut files that have been tested, re-tested and improved (soon).
Cutting is a cool add-on to any audio hobby or trade, for the studio and for live performance.
- It allows to make clean surfaces for midi controllers, patch bays, DIY synths, eurorack modules, with a much better look than the usual stickers.
- Pro-Studios/Rehearsals facilities can make stylish signs and panels for different rooms.
- Pro-designers can use it to test their panels and optimize cost, look and logic of the UI before production.
- You can get good quality A3 prints in a print shop without the need to invest into a printer. Pro Graphics Laser/led printers are more adapted for audio related graphics. Graphic Led Printer is my choice: it’s fantastic quality, but the toner refills are very costly (special quality of colors etc) so it is not worth it if you don’t run a print shop yourself or are not looking for ultimate graphic qualities. .
- For laser/led printers, 80 g paper is enough once laminated. The toner is polymerized and forms a “coat” around the paper, giving it more thickness and weight like a first coat of lamination. It also creates a first “anti-wet” protection, and provides much better adherability for lamination pouches. Also, laser/led printers are easier for recto-verso printing, whereas it can be difficult with inkjets (inks showing on the other side).
- With Inkjets, the paper quality can be more important than the printer, and the price of good paper is quite high. Fortunately, for audio equipment, we are never looking for “photo print quality”. 600 DPI is enough printing resolution (you design at 300 DPI and print at 600). It should not be necessary to go beyond 120g/m2 of paper density. The only thing is that inks may take several days to completly dry, especially if you have printed at high resolution, using a lot of ink.
- Epson “EcoTank” is a good choice for printing boards and stickers. For full boards, you will need an A3 printer. Stickers can cope with A4 size, you just print more pages.
- Paper and Cutting? Some cheap cardboard/paper are not made for cutting because they are made of thick and unorganized fibres and glue. Good copy paper is generally adapted to any plotter, because the fibres are smaller and they don’t use glues.
- Also, high quality business paper is often whiter than some “color printer” papers, so colors look better.
It is the process of “plasticizing” a printed material. It makes it harder, water-resistant, clean-able, and flat. It is probably cheaper to do this at home. It works much better on laser/led printed paper, but is perfectly ok with inkjet prints.
An A3 lamination machine is less than 50 euros.
You must use matte pouches, otherwise the board will be unusable due to light reflection (glare). You can use pouches as thin as 75 / 80 microns.
Please note that it is difficult to laminate vinyl sheets because it will not stick and can burn pigments of the vinyls. However, it should be ok with printable vinyls because they also contain paper that makes them better at resisting heat.
What is the minimum budget to cut at home ?
- Cutting machine – approx 300 to 350 € or USD.
- Lamination machine A3: 40 to 50 € or USD (count 45)
- Matte Lamination Pouches A3: approx 40 € for 100 matte pouches 80 microns
- Cutting mat 12 x 24, Standard or Strong Grip: 25 € for 3 units of a generic brand (Realike…).
- Some kraft tools 15 € such as a sharp knives, squeegees and scrapers.
- TOTAL = between 400 and 450 €
Is it difficult to use a cutting machine ?
If you just bought a Cameo 4 you get the “auto-blade” with it. So it’s mostly about loading a “material preset” with pre-set parameters, and press “send”. If you use MidiPoti files, you just need to load them in the free software, check the blade settings, and press “Send” to cut. A few minutes later, you have your board(s) ready.
Of course, you have to do the designs, test how it cuts, correct and try again. This is generally done with simple copy paper that is not even printed, because it is cheaper. Once the cut-lines are correct, you can export a “pixel-to-pixel PDF” file to work in your graphic software. This PDF has the marks that will be printed and recognized by the sensors of the Cameo 4, so you don’t design over them. It exports directly at 300 DPI, which is the resolution you should adopt for printed graphics (otherwise it will never look any good once printed).
Paper and cardboard are easy to cut, vinyl is very easy to cut. It is also easy to cut stickers halfway, so they can be detached easily. This type of material does not erode blades quickly. Laminated paper is heavier and erodes blades faster, so that’s where the ability to use various blades is interesting with the Cameo 4.
You need a sticking mat to cut. It ensures that the sheet does not move while cutting it. Also, once everything is cut, you remove the main cut and all the poti/fader “holes” will remain on the sticking mat. On an old mat that does not stick, the holes for potis/buttons will not remain on the mat, and they have to be pushed out manually with tweezers or other fine tool.
The brand “Realike” does neat mats. You get 3 for the price of 1 silhouette mat, and you get to choose the “grip” (choose Standard or “Strong” for laminated materials.
The errors in cutting are generally due to wrong settings or blades/mats which need to be replaced.
There are only 4 parameters in a Cameo 4:
- “Blade Depth”, “Pressure”, “Speed”, “Number of Passage”. You can make your own presets.
- Pressure is the main parameter to set. Adding a unit or two of pressure allows an old blade to cut better: this means that a new blade needs less pressure than an old one, because it is sharper.
- You almost never need a blade depth of more than 0.5mm. It is better to use several passages, slower speeds, adjust pressure. The maximum depth will be of no help if other parameters are not what they should be.
I am currently still working on the files, other board designs, a marketplace for designers, and the site is still under construction in some parts
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It’s cheaper than DIY 😉