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Modelo 96

Modelo 96 – a custom ortholinear PCB by u/TillerCPE in a Melody 96 case.

KBD.news
Published April 24, 2022
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I don't usually feature vanilla ortho keyboards on this blog, especially if they are not open-source. However, the layout TillerCPE came up with is probably the only way to make an ortho board ergonomic – by putting some rows in the middle and bringing the two "halves" close to shoulder-width.

This is my Melody 96 (kit 2 with the aluminum bottom and brass weight) with a custom PCB dubbed the Modelo 96 – TillerCPE.

Nasp from Checker Boards helped to make the PCB and custom plate TillerCPE has been thinking about for a while.

The PCB was ordered from the manufacturer with components soldered on. The only thing done after receiving them was the hotswap sockets.

I had ordered PCBs designed by Nasp for his Checker Boards shop before, like the ortho layout for the Candybar, so I went through him to order these as well.

And now I'd pass the mic to TillerCPE who tells us about his project in detail:

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This build is pretty much the culmination of my keyboard journey thus far. My first mechanical keyboard was a 65% layout (Drop ALT). I was pretty new to the hobby and hadn't really discovered how deep the rabbit hole goes yet. Once I started browsing the various mechanical keyboard subreddits, though, I quickly became interested in ortho layouts. Like a lot of people, I'm sure, the Planck was my first ortho board. I really liked it and found ortho to be really intuitive for typing – even with this new build, I'll probably still use a Planck as a travel board.

Even though I enjoyed using the Planck, I still wanted to try other layouts. I ended up getting an ID75 and used that as my daily driver for quite a while. I used it with a split layout and I really liked the ergonomics of having my hands farther apart. With non-split keyboard layouts, I can really notice tension and tightness in my neck and shoulders after sitting at a keyboard all day for work since I am pretty broad-shouldered. That is when I started thinking of trying to get a custom layout made.

I knew I wanted to stick with ortho and I wanted to have a split layout with my hands even farther apart than they were on the ID75. I also knew I wanted to stick with a unibody board instead of going with an actual split like a Corne. I also preferred to have a more premium feeling case made of aluminum.

So the first thing I did was I started looking for in-stock cases that were either gasket mount or top mount so I wouldn't have to worry about standoffs in the bottom of the case interfering with a custom PCB having a different layout than what was originally designed to go in that case.

I looked at various sizes and options – 65%, 75%, etc. – as long as they had more columns than my 15 column ID75. But since I wanted my hands as far apart as possible while still having a unibody board instead of split, I went for the biggest layout I could find that fit my criteria.

Pic: Melody 96 case in anodized aluminum current color options

Melody 96 case in anodized aluminum current color options

That's how I ended up going with a 96% layout case and the Melody 96. I found the listings for it on Aliexpress and it was exactly what I had been looking for. It's top mount so I didn't have to worry about standoffs. The case had multiple options for kits – both kits have an aluminum top, but one kit has an acrylic bottom for the underglow to be visible and the other kit has an aluminum bottom with a brass weight.

The bottoms are interchangeable between the kits and there's a variety of colors to choose from for the anodized aluminum. And a 96% layout gave me the most number of columns of any cases that I had looked at with 19. I ended up ordering the case in black with the aluminum bottom and brass weight.

Since I had settled on a case, I then went to work on coming up with the actual layout. I started toying around with 6x19 layouts on Keyboard Layout Editor and went through several iterations. I tried mimicking more traditional layouts like an ortho version of the 96% layout with the numpad on the right, but that usually ended up with my hands only being as far apart as they were on my ID75. So I knew the numpad had to be in the middle if I wanted to meet my ergonomic goals.

After that, the layout just kind of fell into place. Ortho lends itself to symmetry, so I knew I wanted to mirror things as much as possible. I also tried to keep keys in their correct rows for sculpted profiles so if I got into keycap group buys to cover the build then profile rows would be respected.

Pic: Initial layout in Keyboard Layout Editor

Initial layout in Keyboard Layout Editor

Once the layout had been locked in, I went about actually trying to get it made. While I am interested in learning PCB design, I don't have any experience in it. I had already been thinking about this build and tinkering with the layout for months, so when I weighed the options of learning PCB design and doing it myself or just commissioning it I ended up going the commission route. I wanted it done right the first time and in my hands as quickly as possible.

I ended up meeting Nasp on the 40% Keyboards Discord server when I entered his group buy for the ortho PCB for the Candybar. While I was on his shop (Checker Boards), I looked at some of the other products he was offering. He had a number of other ortho PCBs he had designed and had as in-stock items that could be dropped into cases that had been designed for other layouts – the Planck-like Quark, the Plexus75 that fits into 60% cases, and of course the ortho Candybar that I had come to purchase. So it seemed like Nasp almost specialized in exactly what I was looking for in putting custom layouts into already existing cases.

I DMed him on Discord and gave him a brief overview of what I was looking for. He said he was interested in doing the commission work but had to finish up the ortho Candybar group buy as well as the group buy for DSS Sencillo. While I waited, I was able to find someone on the Keyboard Atelier Discord server (shout out to DvZ) who had 3D printed a Melody 96 case. I asked him for the print files for the case and gave them to Nasp so that when he started his design work then he would already have the mounting locations he would need for the custom plate. After his schedule opened up, we ironed out all the details – underglow but no per-key RGB, hotswap, etc. – and then he got to work.

As part of my layout design on KLE, I had also been using the Signature Plastics PBT Color Swatch to play around with various keycap colors for my final build. I knew I wanted PBT and uniform profiles are always easier for trying to fill out custom ortho layouts so I naturally drifted towards using SP's custom PBT DSA sets available on PimpMyKeyboard.

Because I was changing a 96% layout to ortho, I was going to have more keys than a fullsize keyboard, so I also looked at the individual keys that were for sale on PMK in order to fill out my layout. So from their list of available keys, I pulled in Cut, Copy, Paste, Save, Search, and the media keys for Vol+, Vol-, and Mute.

Pic: Render of KLE layout with planned DSA keycaps from PimpMyKeyboard

Render of KLE layout with planned DSA keycaps from PimpMyKeyboard

Since I was going the text modifier route instead of icons, I also decided to order text mods for the numpad from their list of individual keys (Calc instead of NumLock, then Div, Mul, Sub, and Add).

Finally, I decided to go with G20 keycaps for my spacebars instead of DSA. PMK offered 2u G20 caps in PBT in the same color as the alphas I was selecting. As PMK does not offer convex 2u DSA keycaps, I thought that with G20 being about the same height as DSA and having softer and rounder edges they would be more comfortable for my thumbs. Since I was ordering the SP DSA keycaps, I also used the SP PBT Color Swatch from KLE to pull the color hex codes and design a deskmat that I had custom printed to match the keycaps.

With my colors and keycaps finalized, I placed the order while I waited for the PCB design to be finished. Nasp made quick work of it and was very open and accommodating during the whole process, making me feel good about my decision to go with him for the commission work.

To finalize the design, I gave Nasp the name Modelo 96 for the PCB as I felt like Modelo still sounded somewhat similar to Melody and Modelo as in Model O as in Ortho.

Pic: Hotswap PCB with Modelo 96 logo

Hotswap PCB with Modelo 96 logo

I mocked up a quick Modelo 96 logo to print on the PCB, gave it to Nasp and the order was placed. After some COVID-related manufacturing issues slowing things down, the FR4 plates and PCBs were finally finished and flashed with VIA-compatible firmware and I had everything in hand. I put everything together using Durock Sunflowers for the switches.

When I made my posts on Reddit, I know there seemed to be some interest for people getting their hands on this for their own builds. I spoke to Nasp and he plans on offering a solder version of a PCB that will fit in the Melody 96 case on his Checker Boards shop in the future that I am sure will offer more layout options. If there is enough interest solely for the hotswap Modelo 96 that I have, then maybe I will offer a group buy in the future.

The layout is more limited as the 2u vertical keys for the numpad have to be 2u because of the hotswap sockets and the only 2u bottom row options are where I have mine. Every key on the board, other than the vertical 2u keys, is capable of being 1u.

So far I couldn't be happier with the build. It's everything I hoped it would be ergonomically and I think it looks absolutely gorgeous. I want to say thanks again to Nasp for all of his help; I couldn't have asked for a better person to work with.

And I'm happy that at least some people in the community seem to like the build as much as I do. That's what's great about this community, though. There's a lot of passionate, creative, and supportive people. There's so many designs and iterations that it's highly likely that you can find the perfect layout for you – if not, you can actually get it made yourself.

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Published on Sun 24th Apr 2022. Featured in KBD #75 (source).


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