It has been hard to find the time to write, this time! I’m starting producing videos related to this blog and as my knowledge in video editing is absolutely basic, this means long preparation times. Lots of things to learn so most of the time usually dedicated to music had to be diverted in watching instructional videos.
Finally, after too long, I decided to turn the Crumar Spirit, a first 80s monophonic analog synthesizer, back on to check if it was still working, given that last time it had shown signs of “tiredness”. While recording a video, I realized that something strange was going on. Sudden jumps in intonation, notes that didn’t want to play, or that sounded intermittent.. then suddenly the worst! The keyboard started emitting only the note pulses (Gate) and no longer the pitch. (CV) ..and so once again, abrupt split to the opposite cerebral hemisphere and here I am again to repair “in the field” my junk! Inspecting the interior of the Crumar Spirit, the first suspect was certainly the Input/Output board, where the CV/Gate data enters and leaves the synth. And in fact, the culpable was found there! At the height of the connector, a track of the circuit was broken, perhaps due to the action of the connected plugs, over the years. With a simple bridge, I was able to repair the circuit and bring back into the Spirit, its spirit!
Done, it is finally alive !!! Ufff, it took me a lot of time, but surely it was worth it! Finally, I have in my hands a Roland TR909 as in the old days. The sound is identical because this is a real clone, the appearance not precisely the same, but similar enough to fade the memories and fully create the illusion.
I bought the kit two or more years ago, but because of some laziness to start a project of this size and the delay to reorganize and restore the studio, which could no longer be postponed, I only had complete it now. The NAVA is a clone of the classic Roland TR-909 drum machine, offered by the e-licktronic site in the DIY kit form: http://www.e-licktronic.com/en/nava-parts-kit/50-nava-tr909-clone.html
The kit consists of the motherboard and an I / O card, plus a series of transistors and ICs, which are obsolete and therefore difficult to acquire. It is necessary to buy a large list of components, but there is a BOM with a link to Mousers where a prepared trolley is already present. The project is quite complex, given the number of components and their density. The construction is even more complex as the connection points and the relative exposed copper are really tiny, forcing during the building, to never lower the attention.
In fact, despite the many years of experience in DIY and the needed careful attention, the construction was not entirely easy. At the end of the project, after days (or in my case weeks) of work, the crucial moment is always to push the ON switch and verify the presence of “life” in a new assembly. Unfortunately, this time after loading the software and verifying that the sequencer was working, I noticed that the HH was not present … OMG impossible to stay too long without that emblematic OH! While I have no problems with the construction, not having studied electronics, diagnosing a failure is for me always a nightmare. This time, I was able to put into practice some techniques I learned on how to use the oscilloscope to trace failures. The culprit turned out to be a five pins transistor, the old 2SA798 quite difficult to find, at reasonable prices. I’ve been able to emulate it, using a couple of matched BC560 transistors, soldered together.
ATTACK OF THE CLONES
With the imminent arrival of the Behringer’s 909 and the Roland virtual analog reissue, we will soon be invaded by clones of this vintage drum machine, which will perhaps cause some of the magic of it, to be lost. BTW assembling with your own hands a piece of electronics with which playing music and having fun, is one of the greatest satisfactions a synth-nerd can experience. In my case, I have in my hands an electronic drum machine that I had loved a lot but then sold to switch to the, in those times new, PCM technology (a Korg DDD-1) and in the following years could no longer buy it because of the crazy prices of these units in the second-hand market.
Below you will find some of my tracks recently released, using the NAVA Roland TR-909, thanks for listening:
It was long my Yamaha NS-10 monitors had both tweeters dead, I love these speakers so much that I was costantly thinking on fixing them, but didn’t want to spend a fortune. Unfortunately, the blown tweeter is a very common issue with these monitors and as the NS-10 remains an indispensable tool for lots of people, the original tweeters are still in high demand. As the NS-10 speakers are no more in production that is long already, finding parts was getting pretty hard and the originals, reached very high prices. This is the reason that forced me years ago, to buy a pair of Yamaha MSP-5, monitors that I love very much, but that are not “my” NS10s.
Last week, with great surprise I discovered that Avantone Pro, the company of those classic tiny monitors, are selling identical copies of the original NS-10 speakers and at a really attractive price. After reading all I could and watching a few videos, I decided this was the best way to go and wanted to give a try to these replacement tweeters. I bought mine through a big online shop at 122 euros each, really a fraction of what I could have spent for NOS Yamaha NS-10 tweeters.
As promised the replacement is a drop in, there’s no need of adapting anything, the shape of the replacement speaker is identical to the original. All is as simple as soldering the speaker cables to the new tweeters and screw the tweeter back into the monitor.
I’m surprised at looking how identical to the original these tweeters are, all details are exactly the same, only the ring around the tweeter dome, has a slightly lighter grey colour. Is it this the difference that allows Avantone to clone the Yamaha speakers, without copyright infringement repercussions? Sure you understand I’m just kidding, I’m sure if they can freely sell a so exact copy, these details have been cleared already.
After the installation and the promising sound test, I’ve been mixing for several hours, completely forgetting I was doing so on the new tweeters, perfect prove that I was feeling absolutely confortable with their sound!
To upgrade my studio to the new production and mixing setup I’ve been dreaming for so long, I needed a few more hardware processors, like equalizers, reverbs and compressors. Several years ago, I built a IJ Research Neve 2254c (a DIY stereo or dual mono Neve2254, with the sidechain circuit taken from the Neve 33609) and still being enthusiast for its sound, I wanted something similar, without having to spend a fortune on a “real” AMS Neve 33609 stereo compressor, or on a pair of 2254R Choosing to build a couple of AML Neve-2254 seemed to be the more logical option, hoping to have a good performance and not going bankrupt in the process.
Diode Bridge Compression
On Youtube there’s an interesting interview with Rupert Neve, explaining the origin of this family of limiter compressors and the development of their technology.
Neve was contracted in 1969 to find a substitution for the limiter compressor modules installed on Pye (Philips) mixing consoles at ABC TV, who promised buying a big number of units.
Rupert Neve used a diode bridge as control device, as he reports on this interview: “The diode is a non linear device with a huge amount of distorsion“ but if configurated as a bridge, distorsion lowers considerably. “So you can apply audio across one set of contacts and you apply your control voltage across the other side, it’s a classic bridge configuration. And by carefully choosing the limits of control and signal, it gave a quite good account of itself “
Neve developed the device implementing parts of their products already in production, as the line amplification section was the same as the famous Neve 1073 microphone preamplifier. The original 2252 developed in the successful 2254 and in the stereo 33609.
AML 2254 kit
As I recently wrote about an other one of their kits, I want to be clear that I have nothing to do with AML, apart from being a happy customer. Based on my previous experience with this company, I expected the kit not to be too hard to build and all the parts of the best quality. On this aspect, I had a confirmation once received the box from the postman. Holding it, it was so heavy, this could only meant there was a good quantity of IRON in that box! (more later)
As expected all parts were carefully sealed in separate labelled bags and the texts on the boards, were easy to read
The front panel is made of high quality switches from Greyhill, The scary part for me has been programming them. This is done through inserting some tiny metal cylinders, in one or two of the programming small holes and when I say small, I mean almost impossible to me to see, without proper magnification lens.
While building the Fairchild EQs, hasn’t been easy at the beginning to complete this task. Last time, to program the switches, I tried grabbing one of those tiny pins with the wrong tweezers and suddenly one of them took off, landing somewhere on the floor. It has been hard to explain to my dog, who came running for help, what there was so interesting to stay sniffing under the table for so long!
“The Sound Is In The Iron”
This phrase supposedly said by Rupert Neve, means that iron in the audio transformers has big importance to get the classic Neve “Sound”.
Same as the Fairchild equalizers of the previous article, AML included only electronic parts of the best quality.
The Carnhill transformers included are handbuilt faithful recreations of the classic units they built for Neve, under the name Saint Ives Windings.
The VU meters are the same Neve used to mount on the 2254 console modules. I like the original look, but I prefer the Sifam I mounted on my 2254/33609, as these are easier to read.
Included in the kit are the classic Marconi knobs, I really love them! The part that I enjoyed less (as usual) has been building the frame. This one is solid, it works, but is more complicated to build than the one chosen for the equalizers. To be honest, I don’t like the vinyl adhesive front face neither, it looks good with a shiny white granular texture, but I’m not sure how long it can lasts and I find the classic RAF grey blue of the original, more attractive.
To calibrate the pair, I had to recur to the Pro Tools Signal Generator, as the new function generator I had assembled, couldn’t reach 20dBU or the 7.74v RMS required
Here we are, the two DIY Neve 2254 completed, tested and now in good company in the rack!
Before finding this DIY kit on the AML online shop, I didn’t know anything about Fairchild equalizers. I knew this manufacturer was famous for the 670 limiters that I had used many times in different software reissues and that was the same Fairchild factory, building those fat Flying Boxcar planes that used to impress me very much, roaring low over my head while a kid.
Pultecs as rain
As I had no tube EQs in the studio, my initial idea was building a couple of classic Pultec equalizers clones. Sure there is no need to explain more, my typical readers can possibly know more than me about. Searching for the best way to go, I remained surprised to see how many clones or Pultec inspired equalizers exist today in the market, in the DIY or finished product form. Even big manufacturers like Behringer, recently introduced their Pultec, under their Klark Teknik brand, at an insanely cheap price.
Looking on the AML web for info on their Pultec kits, I totally fell in love for their Fairchild 627 reissue, instead. When I crave for new gear, I try to stay tight to my technical side and using logic, considering what is really needed. This brings me most of the time to fix, mod and recycle old gear still in my hands, instead of buying something brand new. OK, after decades soldering and fixing things, I can consider myself a bit a tech too, but I’m mainly a musician, then deeply attracted by fantasy and details that can look futile, but are extremely fascinating to the non-logic (illogic?) part of the mind! That green glowing “Magic Eye” on the front panel was too intriguing and it was calling for my eyes!
I had seen it already, so far in time but still, it was so intensely fixed in my memory! Like coming out from a Sci-Fi movie, the feeling was a mix of curiosity and fear, so green and scary to only possibly being an alien artifact and sure able to promptly take control of my mind! :D
The “Magic Eye”, the VU meter grandfather
Before the 1960s, needle VU meters were extremely expensive, high tech precision tools mainly for scientific equipment, telephone and military use. VUs started becoming a practicable form of measuring an audio signal, only after mass production started in Japan and LEDs made the application on consumer products, very cheap. Electron ray indicator tubes were the way to go, to have a reliable visual representation of the presence and amplitude of an audio signal. First implemented on radios to make it easier tuning to a station, they can be found on vintage tape recorders and televisions too. The magic eye is a miniature cathode ray vacuum tube, the same as the screen of old televisions, plus an amplification stage, like in usual tubes. While the rest of the “screen” (anode) is illuminated by the electrons strikes, a part (electrode) is kept dark until a signal is detected and the flow of electrons is allowed to run in that area too.
Building the AML Fairchild 627 EQ
Once the kit arrived the connection with aircrafts strangely was evident again, this time in the form of a deja vu: The PCBs were cleverly cut in the resin board, in a form it resembled me the plastic aircraft model kits so popular in my youth, where you snap off the part you need from the mainboard, through pre-cut junctions.
My previous DIY builds never started from complete kits, all I usually had were a couple of PCBs and a BOM (Bill Of Material) list. Often, finding the right components to buy and where can become a boring and long process. This time there was nothing to worry about, only buying the valves that weren’t included in the kit. These are pretty common tubes available easily, what I couldn’t find were matched pairs, as I would like to have installed, at the beginning.
The quality of the boards is excellent and all components locations are labeled carefully. Same with the electronics, included in the kit are quality parts from manufacturers like Wima and Vishay. The transformers are Carnhill, the same I installed years ago in my DIY Neve 2254/33609 hybrid compressor (hopefully a good theme for a future post).
Arrived at the end of the project, the two Russian 6E5C/6E5S (C is an S in Cyrillic) hadn’t arrived yet, they were lost somewhere in the north of Spain. Calling the post office they told me my “Magic Eyes” had been held by customs (?), I can imagine the officers looking at my alien-ware, guessing what the hell are those for…
How does the 627 sound?
Even if the choice of building this processor might having being influenced not only by technically related reasons, I’m very satisfied with the results. All I passed through my units, in a couple of days they are alive, sounds very full and warm. I only tested my new pair on bass and guitars while mixing a new song, yesterday. As frequency action, its higher band goes up to 10kHz, below the 16kHz a Pultec EQP-1A (my initial choice), can work. The 627 is not too useful for brightening the higher part of the spectrum or shimmering, but very nicely working on lower frequencies. Testing it on bass, the tone I obtained was super fat and the action way more dramatic than I expected, in seconds I had a huge synth bass ready. I had to bounce the track to free the unit for processing some guitars, but I forced myself to limit the test to them only, or I would have started passing the whole song track by track, through the 627s! :D
There’s no doubt that the Neumann U47 is one of the most respected valve microphones ever made, been used to record the best vocals in the history of music. For this reason, lots of copies or variants have been built in the last 50 years, up to been recreated recently, even from one of its original manufacturers.
The hardest aspect to reproduce has always been the behaviour of the valve used, the Telefunken VF14, a military radio tube discontinued in the 60s (this caused Neumann to stop the production of this model) and very hard to find, until Telefunken reissued it under the name VF14K, a few years ago.
I’m not a microphone expert, I only had built a pair of AKG C12 “clones” in the past, based on the Apex460 and made a few repairs of old micros, but absolutely wanted “that” sound and a tube microphone sounding different than my pair of DIY C12.
I found this project a few years ago on GroupDIY, while it still was called prodigy-pro.com and I liked the idea of using a pair of 6028 tubes to reproduce the VF14 and wanted to give it a try. Building a PSU and finding a microphone body hasn’t been really a problem, as in the same moment other builders had offers of kits for the ’47.
I remember opening the box, the kit’s more curious parts were the Soviet condenser with Cyrillic markings on it and the specially tailored transformer, reproducing the original Bv.08 trafo.
I don’t remember the MK47 building to be difficult at all, all was explained very well in the MK47 Build Support thread of the groupDIY thread:
I’m very excited to start writing about this delay processor. A piece, I believe, that deserves some more words, as I couldn’t find too much written on it. The reason for not being popular, not to be found on its low digital resolution or for being very noisy, but for the reason that it has never been produced in series. The Powertran DDL came out in 1982 as a DIY project, published on the popular electronics magazine Electronics & Music Maker, so just a small number of units were built. The project was developed by the electronic designer Tim Orr, famous for the EMS synthesizers. The idea was giving access to the new digital technology, before extremely expensive and present only in big studios, to a wider public.
I’ve been lucky enough, to having fun with three different units of the Powertran Delay in the past, all a bit different from each other. Being the DDL a DIY project, all these processors had some modifications like the optional CV/Gate or additional knobs/switches.
The first unit I had was borrowed, a friend kindly left his Powertran in the studio and it remained in my hands for several years. Being his music more focused on acoustic instruments, he wasn’t using it anymore. Those were times when a dirty digital sound wasn’t appreciated too much and just a few bit-reduction plugins like the Digidesign Lo-Fi, existed. My friend’s Powertran had voltage control too, samples could be played from the keyboard, through a MIDI/CV interface and its dirty 8-bit sound reminded me a bit, the Emulator Paul Hardcastle had used in “19”, a song I’ve been loving so much. The Powertran delay became the crazy spice for almost anything experimental I’ve been doing, until before moving the studio to an other country, when I wanted to give it back. My actual Digital Delay was bought on eBay in a lucky bid, as very few units were still around, a few years ago. Unfortunately, my second unit, bought in the UK in 1999, had died after a few years of use and I couldn’t stay without a DDL!
The Powertran Digital Delay Line front panel is pretty simple and there’s nothing surprising, apart the time selector switches same as the MXR, we have already seen in a previous post.
The Time Delay buttons always select multiples of the original tempo. If the delay is in sync with the track tempo, pushing different switches, gives a today very fashionable Beat Repeater effect, where, for example, a loop is faster or slower, but always remaining in sync with the song. Some machines like the Powertran, had a freeze button so that the sample could be repeated without decaying, same as a sampler.
“Digital encoding for studio quality results. Time delays from 0.625ms to 1.6 seconds. Produces all popular time delay effects: Phasing, Flanging, ADT and chorus, Echo (including “freeze” for infinite repeats), Time domain vibrato, etc.”
The Powertran Delay has a delay time of 0.625ms to 0.64 at 10KHz Bandwidth, while it has 1.6ms up to 1.6 seconds at 4KHz, these times can be halved through the delay knob.
The modulation LFO has a range from 0.025Hz, up to 17Hz and a triangular shaped waveform.
The input signal, once amplified, is passed through two switchable HPF at 4KHz and 10KHz, working as anti-aliasing filters. The ADC analog to digital converter is an 8-bit one. The dynamic range of the Digital Delay is 72dB. The RAM memory is 16K bytes.
Included are some examples of the crazy effects obtainable with this processor:
The Theremin can easily be consider the grandfather of the analog monophonic synthesizer. Looking very much as a vintage laboratory tool, its two antennas tend to make it look more as an experimental valve radio than a musical instrument, with some obvious Cyberpunk flavor!
Invented by Lev Termen almost 100 years ago, its name Theremin is the Americanized version of the inventor’s name. The ghosty like and very natural sounding voice it has, could have become much more popular if it wasn’t for the Theremin’s ridiculously difficult interface, that make playing it in tune a really hard task without a proper preparation. The two antennas capture the movement of any object around. Arms and hands are used for the two possible variables that can be changed: Pitch and volume. What sounds pretty easy is in reality very tricky, the movements must be very precise, millimetrical. I suppose this is the main reason Theremin has been popular to violinists. Violins are notoriously difficult to play in pitch with precision, to do it you have to dedicate a hard work of learning.
Just a few manufacturers build theremins today, the most popular one, being Moog Music still producing one of the classic designs:
To be honest a Theremin with a USB port only, can look extremely suspicious to the more traditionalists of us.
Especially considering that from a Theremin, we should expect one of the purest analog sounds possible,
having to do with a soft synth sound generator, can look not too interesting.
What we will consider here, is the opportunity to have a valid and easy to setup interface, to be used to drive our trusted analog synths. The scope of this experiment will be to play through the Theremino Theremin interface a 1977 Minimoog. Using one oscillator only and its triangular waveform, we should arrive to a pretty good Theremin sound!
As the cards can be bought already assembled, mounting a Theremino Theremin is an easy and fast operation.
What we need for a complete Theremin is a Master and two CapSensor cards. All is connected through simple multi connectors ribbons and the USB is connected to the PC.
What happens is that the two antenna capture the movement of the body and generate SLOT values, that are converted from the Theremino Theremin software in notes. Usually the left hand is used for volume and the right for pitch information.
Originally the Theremino Theremin was able only to play its soft synth, but recent developments permit do a lot more. Installing the LoopMIDI shareware application, Theremino Theremin slot data can be converter in MIDI values through the Theremino SlotsToMidi, avoiding the use of the Theremin soft synth, but using the MIDI to play a real synth instead. To be closer in sound to the original, we will use a vintage Minimoog, converting MIDI to Voltage control, through a Kenton Interface.
The Theremino engineers designed a special card to be used as PWM to MIDI converter, but only the DIY design project and schematics exist.
One curious fact regarding the Roland TB-303, Bass Line is that it has become famous and super requested, only after its production ceased and by an “improper use” done by some young artists, that couldn’t afford expensive instruments. What was originally intended as bass sequencer to allow musicians, in combination with the TR-606, its sister drum machine, to perform live over an electronic base, became the screaming lead or the hypnotic drone of the most extreme Acid House from the mid 80s.
The reason is that the TB was a pretty difficult machine to program, if you wanted to reproduce the typical bass line of a song with chords changes, but can be pretty easy to use, if your performing consists of a 3/4th arpeggio with just tonal changes. These machines were also very cheap and easy to modify. With only adding a resistor and switch, you could get a killer resonance monster!
I owned a real 303, bought in the first 90s at my local music shop. It was a mint conditions used unit, at a very affordable price, as on those times a monophonic analog synth was so much out of fashion, to be unsaleable. I remember the words of the salesman: “Be warned, it hasn’t any MIDI” But no problem, I was aware that this was the screaming tool of the recently born Acid House and in the studio there was a TR-808 waiting to party with, in Sync24! I know it can sound a bit crazy for a synth lover, but my TB ended traded in for a jazz guitar, the strangest musical instrument swap, in my life! Years passed and many emulations as well. I had a nice Novation Bass Station, sounding pretty well and several software synths pretending to sound identical to my missing 303, but nothing sounded as good as the real thing, to me..Until I could read about the Adafruit project and could assemble a X0XBOX. http://www.ladyada.net/make/x0xb0x/
X0XBOX DIY BASS LINE CLONE
The X0XBOX is an authentic clone, everything is reproduced with fine detail, apart the front panel and the shape of the box and its sound is really convincing:
What really is unique on the TB, is its particular way of sliding notes and its accent combined with the filter envelope. Many very good sounding machines 303 inspired, could reproduce the sound well, but not this characteristic, not having the same sequencer. The X0XBOX, clones have this same behavior, all is well reproduced, the PCB has the option to put the original Roland BA662A VCA, making even the attack transients identical to the original
Some years have passed and the project has developed so much that some of these clones were sold already assembled, under a company name, like if they were different products then an Open Source DIY project.
I recorded a couple of examples from my filter resonance modified X0XBOX, to give an idea of some of the pretty unusual and extreme sounds, it can create. The first is a loop recorded through a tube preamp and an analog compressor, with high resonance on, the second is with a lower resonance, but passed through an iron transformer preamp.
THE ATTACK OF THE CLONES!
I recently read about a product that is having quite a success in reproducing the TB, still remaining in analog, the Cyclone Analogic TT-303 Bass Bot*.
ACID IS BACK!!, even Roland* is showing its interest and has recently introduced a virtual synthesis version of the TB, sounding excellent from the demo videos.
*Just reporting, I have nothing to do with these companies