A Fruitless Repair

This blog isn’t supposed to just be about all the broken equipment that I own. But lately the broken gear has been particularly weighing on me. I feel a deep obligation to fix everything, and it can be hard to push those nagging feelings out of my mind. The best remedy so far has been to round up all the broken things and herd them into the closet, like lepers banished to the outskirts of the town. But this weekend I decided to finally tackle my reverb unit, a classy-looking Roland SRV-2000.

The SRV-2000 is a reverb unit from the mid 80s. I got it a couple years ago and it was actually the first reverb box that I ever bought. For years I had an odd vendetta against reverb effects. At least, I told myself that I did. I suppose you could say that I was against it in theory. But in truth, I am a total sucker for stuff drenched in reverb. Listening to the atmospheric sound of a massive room will probably be an unending love in my life. Side note: I used to record music recitals as part of my job during college. The gig involved setting up a stereo pair of microphones about 20 feet back from the stage, which would usually be the 3rd of 4th row in the audience. The mics sat on a 10-foot boom and picked up pretty much everything. I sat up in a balcony behind the mixer, and I’d have to sit there with headphones and calibrate the settings before the recital began. It’s a strange feeling to close your eyes and hear the live background noise from somewhere far away, crystal clear: hearing doors closing, shoes on tile, music stands being adjusted. And all with a lovely echo-y ambiance.

I bought the SRV-2000 after using one that my friend Jon has. It’s not a particular good unit and they sell for about as cheap as reverb units get. It’s got a typical cheesy 80s sound that matches its looks. But I loved it just the same…until it started acting up.

Anyway, the Roland wasn’t totally broken. Indeed, few things are completely depraved. It would still work, but it would go through a frightful epileptic fit when I first turned it on. Upon switching it on, it would initially sit in silence, brooding. After about ten seconds, the lights would flicker but quickly go dead again. False start. Then another flicker. A couple more erratic flickerings of the lights and LED display. Then it would settle into a rhythmic flickering pattern that quickened and quickened, growing ever more frenzied and urgent. As it neared escape velocity, the display would finally emerge with a solid letters calm letters announcing the model number: S R V 2 0 0 0. It had arrived. A moment later, it was in operation.

The warm-up period only took about a minute. But it worried me. The thing seemed diseased. What if this was something that only grew worse with time? My friend Jon has a theory about Roland equipment from the early to mid 80s, and I think he’s certainly onto something. There was something peculiar in their manufacturing process and it’s left the circuit boards from that vintage with a mysterious and slightly-troublesome residue. He had advised me that some of this equipment needs to be bathed in cleaning alcohol. Sure enough, I took apart a Roland RS-09 that was acting strangely and found a strange yellowish tint on the board. After giving it a thorough clean, the RS-09 never fussed again. With that in mind, I decided that the circuit boards for the SRV-2000 needed to be cleaned.

I took it apart on the kitchen table. The thing is built like a tank, and it’s certainly not deficient in the screw department. The screws might look haphazardly placed in the photo, but they’re actually placed in a very special pattern that represents their placement. It is a pattern that I thought up on the spot and am capable of being able to decipher for about 45 minutes, tops.

I should have known, but the innards were quite a lot more complex than I’d expected. I’ve been growing soft working on all these analog synthesizers! Indeed, there were actually multiple layers of circuit boards inside. Not what I was hoping to see:

Gate array board? I’m totally out of my league. It’s humbling to realize that even 80s digital technology is immensely beyond my understanding.

And here we have Exhibit A! On the right side of the board, notice the yellowish-brown streaks. The legendary Roland Residue!

I got out the cleaners and decided to tackle the boards with a tooth brush.

After some scrubbing, I decided that my cleaning agent wasn’t potent enough. Time to bring out the heavy artillery.

I was cleaning happily away until I noticed a troubling sign. The rings around these electrolytic capacitors does not bode well. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’m not actually sure if this indicates that the capacitors have leaked (my first thought), or if this is just typical grime on an old board. Anyway, I continued cleaning but I kept eyeing up the capacitors and wondering about them. Unfortunately, almost all had rings like this, so I decided it was too big a job to replace them all at the moment.

I cleaned the three main boards, put it all back together and only had a single extra screw. I sacrificed the screw to the trash can gods and carried the SRV-2000 back upstairs to test, and…

 

 

It still flickers. Exactly like it did before, in fact. But at least I didn’t break it. And when I’ve torn something apart as much as this, I’ll console myself with a certain level of satisfaction in knowing that I didn’t completely destroy it. So what have I learned? First, I need to be ok with letting broken stuff stay broken. Second, the residue was not responsible. Third, stuff manufactured after 1983 should generally not be opened with the intent of repair. What have I not learned? Why this thing keeps flickering. What the rings were around the capacitors and whether that was related to the flickering. Where that final screw was supposed to go.

The Emulator Speaks

Before the Emulator decided to go almost immediately on vacation, we had a brief honeymoon period during which I got to try out a few of the samples that the previous owner had left on the internal hard drive and record a couple of my own samples.

Much like every programmer has to write a “Hello World” example in each new computer language they try, the inaugural sample to record on any new sampler is a nice sung vowel sound, preferably the choral “ahhhhh” for about one second. Except it doesn’t sound like a choir when I sing it into the microphone. But that’s the power of the sampler! Moments later, a dozen madrigals patterned identically after me spring out of the machine. Except it doesn’t actually sound that magnificent. It actually sounds pretty cheesy.

But there’s something about that cheap warbly vocal sound that entrances me. I think it’s the contrast between something that seems to sound so human and yet doesn’t quite make the grade. I guess there’s a term for that sort of thing.

Anyway, here’s a little clip. I was just fiddling around with the new sample and kind of liked this chord progression. Maybe I’ll try to come back and figure out a full song for it.

1. wavy - Emulator Vocals     

 

Also, it seems like this sort of crude vocal sound has been creeping back into vogue in recent years. Witness 2009’s little Sleepyhead nugget or pretty much anything by St Vincent. Interesting trend. Maybe it was a 2009 thing and I’m just now catching up.

The Projects Begin

The Emulator III. Known by others for being a temperamental beast, I bought it off eBay this summer for a supposedly bargain price. Even then, it cost more than I had paid for all my other samplers combined. And yet it completed my wayward (and often misguided) summer of buying E-mu samplers. But that story must wait for another day.

The auction went for a lower price because of a supposed issue with the sampler. With no explanation, the seller described it as working fine, but only after a nice 15 minute warm-up period, followed but a punctual reboot. That seemed doable and a small price to pay for getting my hands on a sampler beloved for its true analog filter (CEM chips, albeit) and roster in Depeche Mode’s equipment list.

Things only got better when it arrived. Out of the box it worked without any trace of problems. No warm-up needed, no hard reboot. Baffled, I emailed the seller, who insisted that it really was broken. What a lovely eBay problem to have! I briefly considered that maybe I somehow just knew how to handle it better. Perhaps I had a natural way with flipping up the power switch?

My inflated sense of technical superiority was checked last week when it greeted me with a sad message in a different type of alphabet. I believe its message was chastising me for not believing his previous owner. I’m not sure. I couldn’t read it. I let it sit for 15 minutes. I gave it another 5 minute to encourage it. Power off, power back on. Still just the same sad alphabet.

I let it sit for about a week and tried it again today. Still just warbled text. So now I guess I need to roll up my sleeves and wish that my superior technical skills weren’t just an old daydream.