Monday, December 26, 2011

Summer Projects

The weather has improved, so I've been outside again and working on three of my older guitars before progressing with restoration of the Hummingbird. Painting anything outside means that there's always the chance that dust and feathers can ruin your finish. 

I've lost count of the amount of times I've sanded back parts to polish out the little mistakes. For the Ibanez Bass and the Lagrange Strat I've used cheap spray paint, which is a little tricky to work with as it dries slowly and is a little more fluid than the paint I've used on the Kay SG copy. 

The Ibanez is being returned to it's factory colour (well.. shade...) and the Strat copy is painted in a nice surfesque "creation blue". The strat copy has had it's horns cut off, dents filled in and is part way through a conversion to a lap steel configuration. 

The Kay  SG copy was to be painted Surf Green, but the closest thing the local paint seller had was "Dark Calypso" which is a few shades darker than I wanted, but kind of cool in it's own right and looks nice coupled with cream headstock & pick guard.

The last couple of days have been raining and xmas lunch with the family interrupted work, but I'm hoping to have them all in playable condition by the time I return to the office in mid January. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

2011 - Initial Pedal Reviews

I've got my hands on two pretty nifty pedals recently, I was a bit dubious of their claims, but it turns out they're quite pleasing to the ear.

The pedals I'm talking about are the Tech 21 VT Bass and the Boss BC-2 Combo Drive. I have been after a decent bass sound for years, but only play occasionally and have no desire for an amp. I've played around with a couple of VST plugins that emulate some well known bass amps, but have never really been satisfied with anything aside from the clean tones.

I'd been looking at a bunch of solutions for going direct, including the Digitech Bass Squeeze, as it has speaker modeling. Unfortunately I couldn't find one in store anywhere, so I never got it.

I'd been impressed by the Sansamp products in the past, so I decided to find out what was available these days. This is how I came across the VT Bass. Demos of the clean sound were scarce, but the reviews were glowing. I figured that if I found one at a reasonable price, it would be mine. I have to say, I wasn't disappointed. As soon as I plugged it in, I was greeted by a thick warm sounding bass. I fiddled about with the settings card and got some nice tones, though all were dirty.

The sound that I was after was the sound of an Ampeg SVT fridge setup. Low and clean and huge.
Tech 21's pedal really delivers in this regard. I get what I want, without spending $4000 on an amp.
Sure it's not a magic box, but it gets me the tone that I want without much fuss or an eviction notice.

Since I have to do most of my guitar playing with headphones I have been messing around with direct solutions for years. The Digitech Bad Monkey is consistently the last item in the signal chain before the mixer.
I like the tone of the built in cabinet simulator. The only down side is that the bad monkey doesn't do clean, even on the lowest setting. I'd seen that the Boss BC-2 had just been released in Oz and was pretty cheap.
The demo video below sounded pretty good so I picked it up on a whim. Got it home and was able to mess with it for about an hour. Combined with the Bad Monkey it's quite dark sounding compared tot he sound in the video and as such it doesn't exactly sound like the Beatles, but it does a nice clean boost on one side and really heavy distortion on the other. The EQ is nice and makes up for the lack of bottom end in my Surfcaster.

My favourite setting was with the Treble on max, Bass at 75% and the "sound" at 25%. This allows for some grit when picking really hard or nice thick clean when playing gently. I even plugged  it into my Fender Princeton and found that there was something missing when switched off.

I hope to get some demos recorded soon, but my computer is in need of a rebuild as it's spitting the dummy every time I try to get some sound on disc. Meanwhile, check out the videos from Youtube.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

2011 Nashville Banjo

Around 2004 or 2005 I bought a Fender Banjo and played it a little bit in a band, mostly for the novelty factor, but I was the fifth wheel playing the extra bits like the occasional guitar line or synth bit. Honestly I wasn't very good at any of them.
The Banjo was cool and all, but the damn thing wouldn't stay in tune for more than a couple of minutes.

Pretty annoying when it goes out of tune on stage waiting for the bit where it's needed.
I had it for a couple of years, but never played much, simply because tuning it was such a pain that it didn't inspire practice. Also, since it had a resonator it was very loud and emphasised:

 a: how crap I was
 b: how out of tune it was.

So I sold it (didn't see that coming did ya).

Anyway, a couple of months ago I got the banjo bug again after digging up an old demo that I'd recorded with the banjo. Didn't think I'd be able to afford one, so I detuned a couple of my electrics and practiced banjo chords that way. Not great, but adequate. I was able to re learn that old song and started window shopping for banjos. A few six stringers popped up at the local 2nd hand shop, but they weren't very nice to play, so I passed on them and went on my merry way.

A couple of weeks later I had some time to kill while I waited for people to get organised and head out for the afternoon. I popped into the local acoustic instrument shop and had a chat to the owner about banjo's and my unhappy experience with the Fender. 

In the six or so years since I owned it, he informed me that the world of banjo's had changed for the better.
This meant that we now have low priced high quality instruments available to us. He happened to have a few budget models in stock and I proceeded to play. One of them had been on display in the window. It was a five string open back Nashville branded banjo. The store owner told me that it was made in the same factory as Oakridge, and that they were identical apart from the headstock shape and logo. The rest of the components are the same.

I played the Nashville and was suitably impressed. Impressed enough to go home and obsess about how to fund it. After going over my parts inventory, it was evident that I could finance the project and got the approval from a certain lady, to go ahead and purchase it.

The next day the banjo was mine!
It's all maple, with a brass tone ring which seems to really help sustain and gives that classic high frequency sound (I compared one without a tone ring too and there was a marked difference in high end). Being open backed it's not too loud and I've only had to tune it up twice in the last three weeks. I'm quite chuffed with this little banjo. I've been driving my family crazy with twang twang twang every chance I get.

My old Fender banjo

Monday, November 14, 2011

DIY Scratch plates

The weather was kind to me, this past weekend. I managed to finally start making router templates.
Plywood and a Coping saw make for fairly easy work. I made three in two days.
Well not two full days, but over two days. Maybe 8 hours all up.

This is all as part of my summer projects, which I started late last summer. There are currently four guitars in various stages of reconstruction littering the house. It may appear as though I'm rather lazy when it comes to finishing projects (actually that's largely true), but last summer I did finish a number of large projects which got in the way of finishing these guitars. Also the parts I ordered from the U.S.A took their sweet time to arrive.

First up is a revisit of my first electric guitar The La Grange Strat Copy. Back in the day it had one horn cut off and the frets pulled. Some of the fretboard came up with the frets and the guitar was rendered unplayable.
I decided to try to rescue it, and the only sensible option seemed to be to turn it into a Lap Steel. I cut off the other horn and rounded it out a bit. The dark P90 shaped slab of wood is a piece of Jarrah which was probably the hardest thing to cut, ever. The Jarrah slab is actually going to be sitting on top of two piezoelectric elements that I pulled from a couple of cheap buzzers. The bridge will sit on top of the Jarrah biscuit, so that the pressure from the strings push down on the elements to create an acoustic like tone. For more traditional tones, I'll also add a humbucker pulled from my buddies' Gretsch. In addition to the body mod, I'm considering reshaping the headstock to more of a square sort of shape. We'll see....

Next up is the new template for my Tokai Hummingbird. The plate that came with the guitar was too pointy, too skinny and not nearly Mosrite enough. I thought about this for most of the last year. As the guitar has quite large routing holes, it was a case fill in some or work out how to cover them. It seemed simpler just to cover them up. The plate I have in mind is tortoise shell, but am considering a half an half of cream and tortoise shell, to give the illusion of half a pick guard. Time will tell if I am off my rocker.

This is an oldie. Bought way back in the 90's for $60. I think it's a Kay, but there are many guitars from the 60's that look like it. When I bought it, the guitar was in terrible condition. Almost unplayable. It ended up sitting in a cupboard at my mother's house for more than a decade. I retrieved it around 18 months ago and slowly began working on it. The original scratch plate was split into two segments. Not elegant in my opinion, but hey, that's the way it was. I've never really been much of a fan of the traditional SG plates and thought that I'd have a crack at making my own design. It's borrowed some aesthetics of Airline guitars with a hint of Mosrite thrown in by chance (dictated by the routing actually).

The real hard part is cutting these into pickguard material, which is a nightmare to work as the plastic curls and catches on the blade and gums up the router attachments.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Repairs - Maton 225 & Yamaha FG-412SBA

A couple of months ago I noticed that both of my steel string acoustics appeared to have bellied behind the bridge, so I thought about getting them repaired. But week after week it rained and I could not muster the will to take them in to get fixed. I left them in their cases with no strings on one and the other tuned down to C.

Last week I took them to get repaired and didn't bother to look at them, so I was quite surprised to see on my invoice that they had only been setup and not re- braced.  It seems that the time in the cases with the reduced tension allowed the bodies to settle back to their normal state more or less.

Neither guitar had been professionally setup in the time that I owned them and am really surprised how nice these guitars are to play. Especially the 12 string, which has the fattest neck I've ever seen that wasn't on a square neck Dobro.

Before the setup the Yamaha could barely be played beyond the 3rd fret, but now it's setup to play as effortlessly as any of my electrics.

The Maton is still all beat up looking but is playing very nicely and the frets were dressed to the point of nearly having a mirror finish. The action is a bit higher, but it's a lot better to play than it had been in years. Also the tone of this guitar is excellent. Big piano like tones. not bad for a moderately priced guitar. Incidentally, the guy who fixed the guitar apparently used to work at Maton, so he certainly knows his stuff.

Here are some pics.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Korg MS10 Repairs

Long, long ago. In an ebay auction far far away, I had thought that I would be parting ways with My Korg MS10, as I had with many other bits of music gear before it.
As you will see, this was not to be.

The person who had won the auction, had a mutual aquantance through a certain synthesizer building gang that we were involved in. OK, not a gang, but a bit of a club for nerds.
Synth Nerds. When he came to pickup the synth I was proud to show him many of my recent builds. This included one Music From Outer space "Sound Lab", WSG and partially built modular synth.
I'd also built a stack of pedals and there was all sorts of electronic stuff littering my work area.

We chatted for a bit about whatever, and he played with the MS10. Everything was fine, he paid. We parted ways. But not for long.
By the end of the week, I received a call that the filter knob had stopped working. This was unexpected, as I'd been careful with the synth.
Sure enough, when he brought it back, the filter pot was all jammed up. I opened it up to have a look see, and discovered that the carbon track inside the potentiometer had actually crumbled.
This was a first for me, but since it was 30 years old, I guess it was bound to happen.

The potentiometers in the synth all have long legs at a right angle. They also double as fasteners for the circuit board to attach to the face plate of the synth.
I jimmied up a temporary fix, but needed to order the part from a specialist overseas. I think it was sourced from Small Bear, who have a great selection of uncommon parts.
While waiting for it to arrive, he asked me to add a ring mod to it, as he likes to make lots of weird noises. I ordered a "Real Ring Mod" from Ken stone and the MS10 just happens to have the right output impedance to enable it to work without any extra electronics. Sweet.

Once that was all done, I handed it back to the owner, who was pleased as punch about his synth again.

Some time down the track, it stopped working and it was back on my bench for repair again. I don't remember what the problem was this time, but a fuse had blown and I installed a new one.
Returned to the owner and it was business as usual.

I may have seen it again in the mean time, but in the last week I received a call from him again.
The synth had been dropped, a key was broken, one end smashed and it wouldn't turn on.
I thought the worst. Smashed keys are no fun and I expected to see a severely damaged synth turn up on my bench.

When he brought it in, it didn't look too bad, a bit of plastic from an end cap had broken off, but it could be glued back on.
The other end of the synth was bound in electrical tape and covered the last F key, which turned out to be the broken one.
Indeed, the unit wouldn't turn on. I checked the fuse and power cord. They were ok. Something else was wrong.
What this means, is that to find the problem, I had to disassemble the entire thing!
That involves around 30 screws and a similar amount of nuts. It takes a little while to do, but otherwise no big deal.

With the chassis open, the keyboard needs to be disconnected, which is only connected by a little socket on the side of the board. Easy.
The ground also needs to be disconnected from the base plate. This done, the keybed can be set aside.

With my multimeter set to the appropriate range, I tested the mains side of the transformer for the right voltage coming from the socket (240v in Oz).
This also ensured that the on switch/volume control was working. The next thing to do is to check the output transformer. The voltage range should be between 10 - 20v depending on the tap.
I'd determined that was fine and proceeded to the main board. No damage was evident on the back (solder side) and there was nothing indicating a burned out component on the front.
So first things first, poke around with the voltage probe. Starting at the voltage regulator.

Right away it was obvious that there was no voltage on one of the regulators. Then I poked the middle pin and the LFO lamp flashed to life.
Aha! There was the problem, right in front. First go. Upon closer inspection (I needed my spectacles) there was clear evidence that the middle pin for the regulator had cracked.
It was simple fix. Pull out the cracked pin from the board, put in a single header pin, which has a little plastic collar on it to stop the pin falling through the board.
I soldered the middle pin of the regulator back in place and the electronics were back in business.

The next fix was a simple mechanical repair. The key which had broken, could not have been broken in a better place. All that had happened, was that one of the plastic tabs to keep the key balanced on it's spring was snapped off. The piece that should have been floating around inside, was nowhere to be seen. so I rummaged in my parts bin for some suitable material and I found a piece of perf

A couple of other bits needed to be glued back on. I used some epoxy and it's holding together nicely.

Finally I reassembled the synth and informed the owner that it was good to go.
This message was accompanied with a warning.

Should I ever see the inside of this synthesizer ever again, I would grind it up and eat it sprinkled on my cereal!

The voltage regulator with a crack on the middle pin

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