From the ashes…

About a month or so ago I picked up nine new modules from Synthesizers.com. This would be the start of essentially my first modular synthesizer. As I was looking over the different modular case options on the website, I remembered a very neglected and forlorn project from my teenage years: my initial attempt at a modular, sitting in some dusty corner of my dad’s basement.

Poor little modular

The summer after I graduated high school, I bought an old beat-up Minimoog. However, what I was really interested in were modulars. I remember talking it over with my buddy Jon (who was likely the main motivation for said modular) and we thought up a budget-friendly idea. The Minimoog has great oscillators, which are one of the costlier modules to have to buy. Jon reasoned that I could get by with using the Mini as my oscillator, and then just add a bunch of miscellaneous modules around it.

So I built a case that would wrap around the top of the Minimoog. All the modules could go inside. It was like a Minimoog expander. I built a harness of cables that plugged into various jacks on the top of the Minimoog and brought them up to jacks in one of the modules. As for the rest of the modules, my plan was to build them all using schematics that I found online. Sadly, I was and remain a bad builder of electronic circuits. I built a filter that sort of worked, for a while. Otherwise, none of the other modules ever actually worked. That didn’t stop me for screwing them in and using the whole things as a great prop. But in the end, that’s all it ever was: a prop.

Rare concert

I eventually got rid of most of the modules, and the wooden chassis was sent to a basement closet to wither away. That was until a couple months ago. After placing my order for the new modules (and spending money that I would never have spent as a high schooler), I recovered the old forlorn modular case. It was a little weathered, but it still had the power supply and the power harness that my dad helped me wire up many years ago.

Old modular case

The power harness needed a little work, though. Namely, I had only built a handful of cables to plug into individual modules. And the few existing ones had stray wires that had worked themselves loose over the years. So one Sunday morning, I set to building a bunch of new cables and tightening down the existing ones.

Modular power harness

After soldering together another half dozen power cables and checking the voltages (+15v, -15v, +5v) on the old ones, I was nearly done. On the second-to-last cable, I was doing a routine voltage check when suddenly everything came up fishy. The voltages were all wrong. Worried that I’d mis-wired something, I begin unscrewing and pulling cables out left and right. Eventually I had torn everything down until I was holding just the power supply all by itself. I checked and rechecked the voltage and slowly began to realize that, after all these years, the power supply had finally gone bad. Of course: I was within minutes of actually plugging modules in and finally getting to use this thing I conceived ten years ago.

I did a bit of reading on what sort of power supply to buy as a replacement. My original had just been a random switching power supply that I’d found laying around. I decided to copy whatever was the synthesizers.com standard issue. It took a bit of hunting around, but eventually I ordered the Power-One HCBB-75W-AG. There are a couple variations in wattage, but that seemed like a nice size in case I wanted to grow the modular into something bigger. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that I’d just ordered a monster power supply that would dwarf the previous one. I guess this is the difference between a linear power supply versus switching. Anyway, new power supply on the left:

Power supplies

I tried to fit the new power supply into the case and realized that there was no way it would fit. I messed around with a ton of Tetris-like configurations and eventually realized that there was no way to fit the power supply into the case. So, out of the case it went. Ugly as this was, I wired up the power supply to just sit on the table behind everything. At this point, I was also realizing that my high school woodworking skills had been pretty deficient, and that it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to actually just re-build the whole modular chassis. The new version could include a better spot for installing the power supply internally. Until then, it sits on the table humming along pleasantly.

As for the modular, I eventually got everything wired up and screwed in, and it’s working better than ever. Kind of boring ending to the story: everything worked out fine and as expected. It’s been a ton of fun to have an assortment of modules above the Mini. It’s been great fun to play with this combo, and I’ve already starting to build out ideas for wings or second levels or something that will go into the next build.

Mini Modular