One of these days…

… I’ll learn that there is no prize for collecting the most samplers. Here’s the latest, an Ensoniq ASR-10 rackmount:

I picked it up in Minneapolis when I was out visiting my brother. Anytime I find myself in The Big City (these days that means either Chicago or Minneapolis) I take advantage of the better Craigslist listings there. Usually I don’t find anything interesting. Even when I do find something, it’s a crapshoot. This ASR-10 fit that definition exactly.

Like a computer it needs to load an operating system for it to actually work. Unlike most computers, it doesn’t have a built-in hard drive. Built-in drives didn’t consistently start appearing in samplers until the mid 90s. Nobody knew it at the time, but by then samplers had already passed their zenith by then. Back to the story:

The seller wasn’t sure it it actually worked since he didn’t have the operating system disk. I thought I could be clever and show up with a working disk. My brother had a spare 3.5″ USB floppy drive, and he even had some spare disks. Pretty impressive inventory for 2012, I’ll say! But it turns out that the ASR-10 disk format is exceptionally unique. It is possible for a regular computer to write disks in this format, but the computer has to actually be running Windows 98 or something older for this particular utility to run right. So I decided to just show up and check it out in person.

The guy was really nice and although he didn’t actually play synths or know how to use it, he tried to do his homework. I spied a to-do list sitting on his kitchen table that included a note to check out the EPSDisk utility. I feel your pain, brother. Anyway, the thing powered up, and I was in a gambling mood so I bought it. Once I got back home to Michigan, I was able to use a venerable 486 running Windows 98 to create the disk. And the ASR-10 works! So why another sampler? Coming up next!

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.