Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Starting out with DIY

I was recently asked on the vintage synth forum about beginning DIY. This seems to come up a lot with synth players who might be looking at DIY to save money, out of interest for a specific DIY synth, or as another hobby they are interested in learning.

A lot of people will tell you DIY synth building will not save you money. That is a half-truth. DIY gives you endless options of how you want to build your project. If you care about perfect panels and pay for professionally cut panels, then you will probably not save money. If you plan ahead and buy parts for a few things at once, you can save a lot. With the TM3030's I'm building now, I am building two (which is a negligible addition in time when you consider part sourcing and label planning) and have sold one to an interested friend. After selling one my total cost on the other TM3030 will be approximately $100. For a 303 clone!

Anyways here's my response in full about synth building:


DIY is awesome! I'm about to start a DIY modular after building a few synth kits and if you're smart about it you definitely get to save money and if you're like me, building stuff is enjoyable.

I did have a paia fatman, however I did not build it myself. That synth I bought already built from a guy selling off his stuff for cheap. However I did recase the rackmount unit into the desktop enclosure so I got to look at it a bit. As well, I've built.. a midibox SID, MFOS soundlab, x0xb0x, and am now finishing two Oakley TM3030s (basically a 303 clone without the sequencer).

The first synth I built was a MIDIBOX SID and I must say at first I had no clue what I was doing. Amazingly, I got it all working. I would suggest maybe a sammich SID as a first project. You get everything you need as a kit, the community is great, and it's not that complicated of a build whatsoever. Stuff the parts, fit it in the case, tada it's done. It looks like the struthi-1 is also a kit that contains everything, which would make it a good starting synth. However I think it's sold out a lot of the time.

I'd say the PAIA would make an excellent "second synth" project. Mainly because if it didn't work after putting it together without some idea of what's going on, you are going to be stuck without someone who has an oscilloscope and an idea of what's going on.

As for soldering skills, I'd suggest spending 50-100$ on an iron with an adjustable temperature, and also learning the proper technique from watching some videos online. The key thing that I got wrong for a LONG time was that you need to apply the iron tip & solder directly to the components you want to solder. You cannot put solder on the soldering iron tip, then apply the tip to the component, and live with a touch of solder holding the things together. That will not last at all!

If you are serious about learning and don't want to wreck your first synth I'd suggest maybe getting a little kit from sparkfun or the MAKE online store to start. It'd be a good warmup and as a small project you wouldn't get over your head.

After doing a couple full kits and getting the soldering skills down, the next big skill to learn is how to source components from online stores. A lot of projects just sell you the board and a list of components and you need to learn to source them yourself from mouser, digikey, etc. I did the x0xb0x like this (self-sourced the components) but thankfully started with someone else's bill of materials (BOM). This was a good initiation to filtering out the available parts you don't care about and finding the ones that fit your board. The DIY forums on electro-music.com, ladyada.net, and muffwiggler.com, are great resources full of people to guide you when you go wrong.

The other step that's separate from soldering is case building. I wasn't very good at this at first but I've made a technique that is cheap and passably good enough. Basically I make my frontpanels and drill guide as an image in Inkscape, print them with a normal laser printer, then use gloss as both the glue to glue the image onto whatever case I'm working on, and then also coat the image with a healthy layer of gloss as a sealant. The result is a bit sparse but is good enough. Especially since it costs ~$1.00 instead of $50+ for a professionally cut frontpanel.

You can see some of my work on the Oakley TM3030s on my blog here: http://gravitronic.blogspot.com/2011/02 ... pdate.html . It has some pictures of the labelling process I was talking about. I will probably also post this Q and response on my blog as it's a full summary of my opinion on starting on DIY. Good luck! Let me know how it goes and if you get stuck I'll try to help.




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