How to design a synthesizer front panel using Sketch

In part one of this five-part series titled How to make Aluminium front panels at home, we’ll go through how to use Sketch to design and layout a front panel for an MFOS modular analog synthesiser.

Step 1 – Pick a panel size

The final size of the panel we’re making is 90 mm wide and 223 mm long, which is slightly larger than a standard 5U rack panel. We’re deviating from the standard as it’ll make the layout a lot easier when transferring the dimensions into Sketch ^.

5U is 8.75 inches according to the Rack Unit standard.  Half of this would be 4.375 inches which translate to 111.125 mm.  I wasn’t keen to deal with eighths of a millimetre in my design, so I chose metric.

Step 2 – Rough component layout

Now that we know how big our panel is going to be, we’ll cut a paper template at 1:1 scale. This lets us use real parts to get a feel for spacing and how they’ll work together. Our faceplates have 10, 1/4″ sockets, and five potentiometers.

We’ve spaced our sockets 22 mm apart vertically, and 28 mm horizontally. The potentiometers are 33 mm apart vertically, and spaced about halfway between the panel horizontally. Feel free to experiment with your part layout – it’s entirely up to you.

Once we’re happy with the layout, we can take some notes on the positioning of the parts. Our goal is to transfer these measurements into Sketch in the following steps and ultimately into our CAD/CAM software.

Step 3 – Initial Sketch setup

We’re likely to create multiple panels given we’re designing for a modular synthesiser, so we’ll use an artboard for each panel. This allows us to utilise the power of Sketch to easily re-use common components, and make export and printing easier. Sketch doesn’t support millimetre units, so we’ll work in pixels. We’ll set our artboard size to 900 by 2230 pixels. Our panel size is 90mm wide and 223mm long, so we’ve got a 1:10 millimetre to pixel ratio.

Step 4 – Drawing the panel border

We’ll draw a border around the outside to tie all the components together. We’re using a black Rounded Rectangle, with a width of 10 pixels.

Once we’ve drawn the border, we send it to Symbols so we can reuse the same border on other panels.

Step 5 – Layout of the jacks

We’re going to use a similar approach for the jacks.  We’ve created a single jack, then sent it to Symbols, which allows us to insert further jacks using the same setup in a different location.

We then insert copies of the jack into our artboard, corresponding with the locations we determined in Step 2. The 1:10 millimetre to pixel ratio allows us to get very precise with the location of these elements. We can also add Sketch rulers on the jack centre points to help with alignment.

Step 6 – Layout of the dials

The layout of the dials is also very similar to the jacks. We first create the dial as a single element, then send it to Symbols. We can then insert the symbols where we need them.

To create the indicators on the dial, we’ve used the Rotate Copies function to create the correct number of divisions. We create all indicators for a full 360 degrees, then remove the ones we don’t want towards the bottom.  Rather than go through the process here, Smashing Magazine has written a great tutorial on how to use this function properly.

Step 7 – Finishing touches

To finish up our design, we’ve added a header and footer. We’ve also added alignment markers in each jack and dial cutout which helps when printing the panel onto aluminium. We’ve also created panels of 1U width which can be seen below.

All 5U and 2U panels side by side
All of the panels we’ve designed so far

Try it for yourself

All of these files are available on my GitHub page.  I’ve included everything you see above, including all panels and Symbols. All panels are meticulously organised with groups and named correctly. In our next instalment, we’ll go through creating this same panel layout in Carbide Create, ready for cutting on the Shapeoko. If you use any of these panels in your projects, please drop me a line.  I’d love to see what you build! 🙂

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