Often I describe my experiences wandering the beautiful deserted beaches of Cayo Largo, alone with the sea, sky and sand, as evoking the first day of creation.
But here is something different. I was walking down a beach I had not visited before. No one was visible and seaweed high water marks emphasised the wildness of this place. I was heading toward a distant cliff on a point, looking forward to rounding it and seeing what new vista would appear.
The beach was very wide at this point, backed by low limey palisades and dunes topped with brush. A lone royal palm dominated, its fronds weaving gently in the wind. The sound of the surf and wind were as a cocoon and I felt the familiar sense of isolation in time and place.
As I neared the point a remarkable sight slowly appeared...it was so strange that I could hardly comprehend what I was looking at. It only slowly dawned on me.
The concrete walls and orange tiled roofs had been blasted clean of paint, and I could see into the interior rooms, some with abandoned furniture scattered. The damage had clearly occurred a long time ago. The ruins were extremely weathered. Brush had grown over the grounds.
I could see ruined stairways tumbling onto the beach, obviously once grand but now trashed and beaten.
I was almost to the point (punta); the ruined site stretching all the way. When I arrived, it was clear that the site had once been a spectacular lookout terrace with a decorative surround ringing the vertical walls.
What apocalypse had occurred here? To me it gave every appearance of a nuclear attack. Amidst the beauty, peace and timelessness of the beaches of Cayo Largo, this was an incredible sight, in the original sense of the word.
I had missed one of the most poignant aspects of this wreckage on my first sweep...an intact signpost standing alone in heaps of rubble.
I think Jimi Hendrix, “Third Stone from the Sun:
"Strange,...Beautiful... ,grass of green... With your majestic silver seas…"
Much later in our trip, we discovered exactly what had happened to the Capricho.
We happened to visit the Cayo Largo Museum, admission 1 convertible peso. (More about this later.) It turns out that one of the most significant events in the recorded history of the island was the direct hit by Hurricane Michelle in November 2001. It was a Force 4 and the eye passed directly over Cayo Largo. This was followed by a flood which completely submerged the island.
The infrastructure damage was very extensive. The Cubans, who are no strangers to hurricanes, set to work and by and large a visitor would never know of this cataclysm...but Villa Capricho was completely destroyed.
It was never rebuilt, or torn down, and the there the remains lie undisturbed on a beautiful, peaceful stretch of paradise.
You can find a detailed account of the hurricane here: http://www.cayolargo.net/michelle.html. This website is the fount of wisdom for all things Cayo Largo, by the way, and is a good place to visit when pining for the pearl of the Spanish Main.
Our patient this time is a Roland SH-32 synth module. It’s a very powerful desktop unit, with a really sweet sound and a great user interface based almost entirely on sliders and knobs. There are a lot of these floating around. If find one for a good price, grab it and start to experiment with the dual oscillator voices and 4 part multitimbral capabilities. I particularly like the analog feel you can dial into the modulations and oscillators, which is really the introduction of minute uncertainties and random variations, as happened naturally in the old pre-digital machines. And although it was originally marketed to the groovebox gang I believe, I find it a compelling spacey electronica unit.
At first, this unit appears indestructible. It’s encased in solid metal. However it has a structural weakness that is a byproduct of its design, and I will elaborate later when we get to it in the teardown. The symptom, though, is that one or more rotary pots are very loose and either send erratic signals or none at all.
The big knobs tend to feel a bit sloppy anyway, even when working properly. This appears to be a quality compromise to keep costs down through the use of mediocre plastic pots and shafts. The sliders, on the other hand, are firm and positive in operation. However, they do not have sleeves so their guts are always exposed to dust and dirt through the slider slot.
So this particular unit was an eBay bargain, which arrived carefully packed and in great cosmetic condition, complete with original wall wart and coil-bound manual. On initial power-up it looked and sounded great. However, the Rate knob was very loose and wobbly and in manual operation was operating only sporadically. If the shaft was pushed from side to side/up and down, random jumpy values were transmitted. Connection problems of some kind.
Removing the knob reveals little except further evidence that the shaft and pots are cheap, with no tightening collar. We will have to tear this down to get a closer look at the problem.
The case is in two pieces: a bottom/sides plate in plain black with pads on the bottom, and a thicker metal case with all the working parts, input output ports, and all the graphics. Hopefully there will be no surprises , like spring loaded parts flying out, when we open this up!
Nope, its very straightforward. The bottom plate comes off easily, revealing the circuit boards inside. Looking down at the unit, which is resting on its control panel, we see there is nothing inside the case except two printed circuit boards. The installation is very neat as seen below.
We still can’t see what’s going on with the pot, so the smaller daughterboard has to be moved out of the way. It is attached to the motherboard by two grey ribbon connecters, a thick one and a much thinner one. Peeking between the boards with a flashlight is encouraging, as there doesn’t seem to be anything else connecting the boards, except the two mounting screws.
The broad ribbon connector responds to careful even pressure and comes loose. The other connector does not, but it doesn’t need to as it turns out, so just leave it alone. Remove the mounting screws. The daughterboard is now free to be flipped to the left.
Now we are looking at the bottom of the motherboard, and we still can’t see what’s going on with the control interface/component side of it. It’s going to have to come out too. That means all the screws associated with the I/Os will have to come out, and all the slider caps and some of the knobs have to be popped off.
This board is very solidly attached. There are EIGHTEEN hold-down screws to be removed. Impressive, and it makes for a very solid base for the working bits, which are soon to be revealed....as the main board is gently lifted up and out:
Aha. In the style of a laptop computer, all the ins and outs and moving controls are soldered directly to the board. Its elegant and cost efficient, but as with the laptop computer design, the flaw is that any mechanical shock to a control surface , a power input, or a midi or audio connection could easily break the solder joint.
That’s exactly what has happened here. The pot in question is three pronged and with a magnifying lens, we can see that the solder joints have fractured, probably as the result of downward pressure on the control knob. It also looks to me like some of these solder joints might have been a bit cold in the first place, although the dull sheen might be due to some special mixed used when the robots produced the populated boards.
The only way to fix this is a fairly tricky soldering job. It’s a very small component as you can see. There are three leads and they are very very close together. A sloppy or bulky solder will short them out for sure.
Use a hot iron to minimize the time you will be in there and it you have a good solder sucker, clean up the old solder quickly. Hit the joint very precisely and lightly, with just a touch of fresh stuff but not a flow...you don’t have room for the usual shiny gumdrop.
(BTW, this very thing killed one of my Dell laptops. The DC input was banged and the receptacle popped off the board. At that time I couldn’t use a soldering iron and took the dealers word that it couldn’t be fixed. I bet I could fix it now.)
While you have this apart, you might as well do some preventative maintenance. As I mentioned before, the slider slots do not have skirts, so there s lost of access for dust and grime. There’s a lot of crap in these channels, which will someday start interfering with smooth operation, and spraying in pot cleaner will only gum up the works worse. I removed an amazing amount of junk with q-tips. In this picture, you can see the difference between the slider channels I’ve cleaned, on the left, and the rest.
Also Ii see all the pot shafts have collected junk, so give them a superficial cleaning with eyeglass lense cleaner cloth. Don’t get too aggressive here, because these pots seem to be treated with a lubrication gunk you want to leave in place.
Power up...and...it works!!
But oh no! While the “Rate” knob is now working perfectly, I discover that the “Modulation” knob is suffering from the same problem! Arg... I’m pretty sure I can fix it the same way but that teardown took up half my evening!
The good news here folks, is that knowing what you know now, you don’t have to remove the motherboard at all. You can access the bottom of it and do your re-solder in ten minutes flat. Flip the unit over and remove the bottom plate. Detach the wide ribbon connector, remove the two daughterboard screws, and flip it out of the way, and there you are. A wiggle of the offending knob confirms the issue, and a few careful minutes with the iron fixes it.
The classic Roland SH-32 lives to roar again!!
Oh, one thing that I forgot to mention. When you are doing this kind of delicate work, with the hot soldering irons and the scores of tiny loose parts and all that stuff, be sure to LOCK YOUR CAT OUT OF THE ROOM.
The Yamaha AN-200 and twin sister DX-200 are quite unusual sound modules. Originally marketed to the groovebox and DJ crowd, they combined powerful synth engines with many real time knobs and buttons, and rhythmically oriented sequencer functions. The AN is an analogue modelling machine and the DX uses the well know FM synthesis its name suggests. The units share the same sequencer functions and have very similar voice manipulation functions, at least in terms of layout.
I like my synthesizers analogue style, with knobs, buttons , and sliders. I was able to snatch an AN200 complete in the box of eBay some years ago and I actually did some recording with it, but on the whole I found it at the time to be a bit whiney, fiddly, and annoying, which I don’t like in a synthesizer (or a cat, ha ha ha). But I hung onto it because I felt some appeal there and planned to get back to it.
In an apparently unrelated development, I was impressed by the sound of the Yamaha An1x keyboard synth when I heard it. I was actively shopping for one when I discovered that the 2 machines were the same synth engine in different boxes (!!). This astonishing fact is known to the serious synth community but hidden in a cloud of techno-babble loaded with unknown acronyms and off-hand comments in technical newsgroups. However, here is a simple explanation and a warning:
The PLG150-AN CARD
As clearly explained by someone else: “The AN200 is a PLG150-AN card outfitted in a hardware enclosure that includes a selection of real time knobs and buttons for playback and recording. The major addition which distinguishes the AN200 from the AN1x is the 3 part multi-timbral AWM2 sound engine which provides 32 voices of polyphony. Three tracks are provided for you to build rhythm patterns using the 120 built-in drum, bass and percussive synth sounds."
Unless they specifically want the AN200 “dance oriented pattern sequencer” features, some folks prefer to take out the PLG150-AN card that is inside the AN200 and drop it into a Motif or other compatible synthesizer. For this reason, you will occasionally find an “empty” AN200 case for sale…so watch for that if you are in the market for this synth. This happens partly because, oddly enough, the AN-200 usually sells used for less than the PLG card alone.
If this is an interest of yours, there is an abundance of technical discussion about these PLG and other related cards over here:
So I recently resolved to try using the unit in a more serious way for another recording project. It was then that I was reminded of something else about this unit, as follows. If you are interested in editing and creating voices, the interface is a perverse and frustrating combination of obfuscation and oscuration. With all those knobs, it gives the impression of being comprehensive and intuitive, but it is far from it. Many high level features are hidden without labels under some other function. Several of the buttons hide a gold mine of powerful editing features beneath a non-descript label.
Now, these things are in the manual, but that’s another challenge. The manual is strangely organized as series of “tips” which, like the interface and the features set, is aimed at the groove box/dance/dj enthusiast. Trying to use it while working with the machine is like plowing through heavy slush in leaky boots. It’s very annoying to be told which features are particularly “hip” and when to “watch the crowd go wild” when one can’t find a given function in the index.
The Cheat Sheet.
So I went through the manual carefully once and created for my own use a cheat sheet of hidden and/or important functions that are not obvious and can’t possibly be remembered between sessions. If anyone is interested, here it is.
This is just for the voice editing functions. The pattern/song sequencer is another matter, and I have not got to it yet. Perhaps a similar reference card will be called for. Also, there are voice editing functions available only through computer interface and the editing program. I don’t like that kind of editing and I’m not even going to go there at this point. This is just for using the front panel controls.
Effects: Reverb is hidden under Delay
Chorus is hidden under Flanger
(These affect all the tracks.)
Distortion: Separate section and affects only the synth track.
Track mute: According to manual Shift synth or rythmn track repeatedly
steps through 8 track mute configurations, but I’ve never been able
to make it work.
LFO Detail: Lots of action hidden under this button!
amplitude/filter/pitch vco1/pitch vco2/waveform (21 available)
Waveforms: 5 sine, 5 triangle, 3 square, 4 saw, and 4 S H.
FM: affects only VCO 1.
Data wheel can be used to set depth.
VCO waves. Repeated button presses cycle through main waves but not all.
Hidden waves . Data wheel accesses all including
“noise” and “inner2/3”.
VCO 2 has only 1 hidden wave, and menu is unaffected by sync setting.
Key Setting Hidden “Mono” setting . Use data wheel.
Synch VCO 1 can be split into 2 VCOs which can be
separated and synched by selecting “VCO 1 M>S”.
Scenes Any voice knobs may be used, but no buttons.
Octave cannot be changed between scenes.
Free EG One track, one knob!
Knobs moved will be assigned separate tracks automatically and
sequentially if more than one track is enabled.
Length: Set before you press Record. Playback length adjusts the
speed tweeks are applied to pattern.
Setup: (shift- 16) Velocity /Metronome/Protect/Roll
reset: Power off. Simultaneously hold show value /pattern / exit. Power on.
Developeing this cheat sheet has really helped me enjoy this synth more. i would comment that due to its virtual analogue modelling this synth has a distinctive sound. It may not please everybody right out of the box, but I have found that it responds well to tweeking, particularly the filter. It does benefit from outboard EQ. I also like its portability in relation to its power, and its ample storage space for user voices.
I know of more than one Microkorg that has needed a new keyboard installed, just in my own little town. Considering that this marvelous little unit is one of the most successful synthesizers ever marketed, it seems likely that this simple repair job would interest a few folks. I'm not suggesting that the keypad is a weakness in the Korg, just that these popular, portable machines get much more and varied use than the average synthesizer.
The Microkorg is too good to be done when the keyboard fails!
The first piece of good news is that replacement keyboards are inexpensive and as of this writing, still being supplied by Korg. I paid about $40.00 Canadian through my local authorised Korg dealer, Tony's Music Box in Fredericton, N.B.
The second piece of good news is that it is an easy fix. The keyboard is accessible without any major surgery, is easily removed and the new one slipped into place almost by itself. No soldering or other special skill is required. There are no seated springs or other surprises waiting.
Here is the unit that needs the work. Bought cheap off Ebay, it has been heavily used. There are lots of small scratches and nicks in the paint, but everything works except the upper octave of the keyboard. You can see that the keys sit unevenly. The rresponse gets increasingly mushy as I play up the range, until there is none. The aluminum bed of the keypad has actually been distorted.
Access to the keypad is through the back panel, so we are going to be working on the unit upside down. To avoid putting pressure on the knobs and pots, I am holding the front clear of the worksurface by propping the Microkorg up on two books. Anything will do, but make sure the unit is stable and won't slip around while you work.
We don't want any current at all running around inside the box while it is open, so remove the batteries just to be on the safe side.
The replacement unit consists of the key mechanism installed onto a controller daughter board.
Several of the panel screws are deeply seated at the bottom of a long access tunnel. They are philips head. If you happen to have a screwdriver with a shaft near the same diameter, it is very simple to drop in in, rotate it until the heads engage. The access tunnel keeps everything lined up. If not, there might be
some fumbling involved.
I suggest you leave these screws in their tunnels and hold them in with a piece of tape until ready to re-install the panel. You will know where they are, and the same screws will go back into the plastic threads they came out of.
When all the screws are loosened or removed, the back will be free to move up and flip away from you, and will remail attached to the motherboard by three bundles of jumper cables. The leads are long enough to work comfortably here, another reason to admire the design of the Microkorg.
You are now looking at the bottom of the old daughterboard inside your Korg. You will see it is held in by several small screws. Take 'em out and put them in a very safe place. These little black screws have a way of falling to the floor never to be seeen again!
Okay, now you are ready to detach the three bundles if wires. Don't worry, the plugs are shaped so they can only be put back together the right way. Pry them out, gently . This takes a little bit of pressure since they are desgned to stay put when the synth is being a synth.