And now, time for something new

New Era

A New Era

Following weeks, if not months of growing frustration with non-working gear, I got one of the new SEMs this week. This is one of the first times I’ve ever actually bought a new piece of equipment. This is uncharted territory, for sure.

The box showed up today, and I’ve been particularly interested in testing out the MC-8 to confirm it works. I can assure you that it plays a basic scale up and down. It’s a fiercely-ornery machine, and I’m going to have to spend some more time reading the manual before I can coax much more out of it.
In the meantime, I also bought an MSQ-700. I wanted a MIDI sequencer that would discourage me from getting too obsessed with programming each note. I’ve still got some learning to do with the MSQ-700 also, but it’s definitely easier to use than the MC-8. I gave it a simple sequence to play so that I could try out the SEM a little more. Highly-iterative electronic music doesn’t normally interest me, but it’s fun to make. So, although I’m crappy at doing this, I hooked up the TR-808 and the Lexicon PCM-70 (for a little delay) and had some fun tonight.

Doing something new with something new:

Catastrophic Failure!

Sadly, the state of my equipment is not good these days. I’m not really sure how this happened, but a ton of stuff is broken at the moment. As I recently wrote, I very excitedly got a Roland MC-8 and spent a while building a cable to get it up and running. The machine turns on and appears to be working ok, but I couldn’t really give it a full test! It turns out that none of my CV/gate synthesizers are working!

MC-8 Waiting to PlayHaving equipment failure just goes along with having old gear. But I was surprised at how everything seems to have broken down at once! With this much stuff down, it’s hard to actually make any music. Anyway, the day that I tried to test the MC-8, I discovered that, one by one, each of my CV synths was down for the count. I’m pretty disgusted with the state of affairs. So for therapeutic value, I’m going to write about all the broken gear.

In the sick bay right now:

Sick MinimoogMinimoog: my normally-reliable and robust Minimoog suddenly caught some sort of CV-averse bug. Hitting different notes on the keyboard doesn’t change the pitch at all. This was working fine just the week before. It’s unfortunate, because the Minimoog has tended to be one of the synths that I can always turn to. Time to get it to the doctor. I’ve been thinking about getting some preventative servicing done on it anyway. Replacing caps and stuff. I’m still on the fence and I’m not totally sure it needs this, but now might be a good time.

SH-101 sad and sick SH-101: Yes, I realize that this looks like it ought to be broken. It arrived looking like this (keyboard sawed off, half the case missing) in one of my most fortuitous eBay experiences ever. I bought a (very slightly) broken Oberheim OB-1 for $300 a few years ago. The seller asked if I was interested in also buying a project SH-101 that he had begun to take apart for $250 more. I was actually pretty interested, but I was concerned about taking on too many projects, so I told him no. Apparently he just wanted to clear out equipment, and he ultimately threw the SH-101 in with the OB-1 for free. Despite the case being chopped up and the keyboard being gone, this SH-101 has actually worked like a champ and has been incredibly reliable. Until last week, that is. When I pulled it out of the closet to try testing out the MC-8, it suddenly starting behaving more in line with its disheveled appearance. Most of the controls don’t affect the sound anymore, and it won’t respond to CV/gate input. What a bummer.

Sick Odyssey Arp Odyssey: to be fair, I bought this in non-working condition. I thought I’d be able to fix it up with a few hours of work. Well, it’s been torn apart for about half a year, and the repairs are going nowhere. I’ve cleaned up all the boards, re-flowed the solder on a couple of them, confirmed that the power supply works and that one of the two oscillators is working. However, there’s no sound output. I haven’t been able to crack what’s going on with the second oscillator, and I haven’t ventured any further downstream to check out the filter or VCA. As busy as I am, I’m thinking of just putting it back together and throwing it down before the mercy of eBay.

Sick Quadra Arp Quadra: this is another project-synth, but I didn’t realize how involved it would be. I got it a few years ago and thought that I would slowly fix it back up. I’ve fixed some things (like keys that weren’t responding) but managed to break other things (like the CV-tracking on the keyboard). This strange beast is actually four different synthesizers that ARP shoe-horned into one box, and something is wrong with each of the four parts. I found an esteemed repair guy recently, and I think I might just ship it out to him and wash my hands of the whole thing.

Sick Lexicon Lexicon Prime Time: Despite listing this last, the Lexicon Prime Time might actually be my greatest disappointment. I bought it a couple years ago in supposedly fine-working condition. I had been shopping around for an old delay unit, but I wanted something that laid the controls out nicely with lots of knobs. There’s an interesting parallel between old synths and old delay effects units. The 80s brought an explosion of functionality and lower prices for each, but usually at the cost of devastating user-interface quality. The small display screen and single data input for all parameters was the bane of so many otherwise-great synths (Six-Trak, the Alpha Junos, AX-73, Bit One, Moog Source, Matrix-6). The same trend afflicted most effects-units of the 80s. This crime is particularly unfortunate for delay effects since there are really only a few controls, and their interaction can so quickly and chaotically transform the sound. Trying to wade though menus and screens of settings to adjust the amount of feedback or level of modulation just never worked for me. So when I discovered that there was a brief window in the late 70s when delay units were produced while companies still believed in adding a knob for every possibly parameter, I got excited. Lexicon might be mostly known for their reverb, but they were also churning out interesting-looking delay units. I bought this Prime Time 73 (what a great name!), and it worked great…for about a week. It worked precisely long enough for me to leave positive feedback on eBay. Oh well. I’ve heard that reseating all the chips (of which there are many in this unit) can sometimes help. I guess I should start with that.

This is a lot of broken gear. I’ve always been inclined toward being vintage when given the opportunity. Now I’m starting to rethink this.

Making a Roland MC-8 cable

Today my Roland MC-8 arrived. Unfortunately, it arrived without any cable to connect the main brain to the CV/gate box. I knew and expected this. The guy I bought it from mentioned that details for building your own cable were floating around on the internet.

Apparently, information about how to build the cable for the MC-8 is a tightly-guarded national secret. About the most I could find was a short messageboard thread where a couple people discussed which possible parts to order. I scoured page after page for any more details but came up empty-handed. So I took the scant information from that thread and started to order the parts, only to discover that one of them was now out of stock. An hour later, I determined that pretty much nobody had it in stock.

That’s when I decided to roll up my sleeves and try to research this cable as best as I could. I knew that the cable was likely a 60-pin cable with connectors made by a company called Hirose. The model number of the connector seemed to be Sumicon 1600. However, a check on Mouser showed that there were dozens of different parts in this series. There were rarely any pictures, and it wasn’t obvious from the description which needed to be ordered. To make matters worse, the connector pieces were kind of pricey, so I didn’t want to just order a ton of stuff I didn’t need.

After going through a surprisingly difficult registration process, I was able to get the original spec sheets from Hirose. It’s rather old, but it explained the different types of connectors in the series, and how to decode their part numbers. Apparently there are a couple different shells, a couple different connection styles (crimped, soldered, wound), and of course, the male and female versions of everything. Eventually, I ordered the following parts from Mouser:

P-1660A-CA(50): this is the black hard plastic shell. It’s pricey, but I must admit that it’s a pretty sturdy thing. I ordered two of these.

P-1660BA(09): this is the actual block of pins. This is the solder-style block. I didn’t feel like figuring out their crimping tool or trying to wind wires. Of course, two of these also.

Incidentally, I also ordered the P-1660A-STA(51) but later realized that it wasn’t needed at all. This part appears to actually be something on the female side of the connector.

Those appear to be the only two parts you absolutely need.

Next I needed some wire. I looked briefly into trying to find a 60-wire multiconnector cable, but this seemed pretty far-fetched and expensive. I stopped at a thrift store and picked up an old parallel cable, which has about 25 wires inside. But I didn’t like the idea of investing hours of time soldering a bunch of wires of unknown quality. So I finally just decided to use single solid wires and band then together somehow.

This afternoon the MC-8 arrived in two large boxes. Everyone remarks about how much bigger it is than they expect. Indeed, it’s a large piece of equipment. I think somebody joked that it looked like it was ready to launch some ICBMs. If somebody else didn’t joke that, then I’ll claim that as my own. That’s a pretty good one.
Roland MC-8
I was waiting for the actual sequencer to arrive so that I could check one final thing on the cable: did I really have to connect all 60 pins? I was hoping that maybe all 60 pins weren’t used. So I opened up the bottom of the CV box and had a look.

MC-8 bottomThis Sumicon 60-pin connector actually attached to a 50-pin ribbon cable inside. Without access to any schematics or anything, I couldn’t easily tell whether all 50 pins were needed. But I found that there were a few that I could scratch off my list. Pins 52 though 60 and pin 21 were all grounded together, so I figured that I only needed to run one wire for all of these.
MC-8 ribbon connectionI also wanted to know which pins to wire together on the two connectors. Wiring the same numbers together made sense, but I’m pretty new to this. For all I knew, you had to wire pin 1 to pin 60, pin 2 to 59, etc. So I opened the main unit and checked it out. The grounded pins that were all soldered together was a tell-tale sign. After studying it over, I was confident that pin 1 was wired to pin 1 on the other connector, etc.

So then I spent the next couple hours cutting up wire and soldering them. Actually it was a little faster than that. At one point my mom stopped by and helped me cut wire. Yep. My mom. We chatted about our respective Christmases and Roger Miller. In no time, the wires were all soldered.

Soldered MC-8 cableI wanted to test it out before I clamped the plastic shells on it. I plugged the cable carefully into the two boxes, stared at it for a long time and then panicked. Somehow I had reversed the orientation on at least one of the plugs. The wire on pin 60 was actually supposed to be plugged into pin 1. I couldn’t figure out how it had gone wrong

I certainly didn’t want to just power on the sequencer to see what happens. With the wrong voltages going who knows where, I could see something getting fried easily.

I started thinking of having to unsolder each of the 50 pins. Then an even worse thought occurred: maybe I had actually reversed both connectors. These Sumicon connectors can only be plugged in one way. They can’t be flipped, so it’s possible that I had actually screwed up the orientation on both plugs.

I opened the main unit first to check the orientation of pins 52-60. Since these were all soldered together, they made a convenient marker. To my relief, the pins on the main unit looked good after all. Then my eyes drifted back over to the CV box and I started to think about it again. I had the box flipped upside down when I was checking the pins. Suddenly everything made sense again. The pins that appeared to be on the top were now actually on the bottom. I double-checked the photos I had taken. Slowly I started to convince myself that I had wired it up correctly after all.

So with a little fear and trembling, I powered it up, and it actually works! I should temper that: CV1 appears to work, albeit in the mysterious way that the MC-8 works. I haven’t read the manual yet, but I did manage to get it to spit out a string of notes to my Minimoog. Tomorrow I’m going to give it a more thorough test and then finish assembling the cable. Anyway, I thought maybe somebody, someday, might want a little info about building a new cable for their MC-8.

Christmas Sequencer!

Merry Christmas everyone! My search for a hardware sequencer took one step closer to completion: I just bought a Roland MC-8.

In preparation for the move to Chicago, I’m trying to bring down the overall foot-print of all the equipment. Since I never really took to the MIDI sequencer within Pro Tools, I’ve lugged around an ancient DOS computer to run my tried-and-true Cakewalk 5.0 MIDI sequencer. But sadly, having a computer just to run Cakewalk is a luxury that I shall soon no longer be able to afford.

So I started weighing whether to buy a Roland MC-500 or an MSQ-700. Both have their merits. The MC-500 is supposed to be quite advanced (even if it’s 25 years old). I actually had one once but never really liked it. The MSQ-700 is much simpler, so I thought I might take to it more easily. But simpler also means that it has less functionality.

The debate was cut short this morning when I stumbled across an MC-8. I don’t see many of these around, so I just decided to try that one out instead. The MC-8 was Roland’s very first sequencer. Thus it combines the complexity and cryptic nature of the MC-500 with the limited functionality of the MSQ-700. The worst of both worlds!

Sadly, my MC-8 comes without the super-obscure cable. So yet again, I find myself trying to source and construct a widely-rare interface cable. I’ll let you know how it goes.