Ghost Moog
Nothing appeals to most electronic musicians more than a home studio filled with vintage instruments. But few of us stop to consider the responsibility we take on by purchasing an old Moog Memorymoog, Sequential Prophet-5 or even a mammoth E-mu Emulator II: They require constant care and attention. I’ve owned a number of classics and have become fairly used to popping them open from time to time for a bit of calibration or a quick fix.

To make matters worse, there’s a dark cloud looming on the horizon: Many electronic designs from the 1970s and 1980s don’t age well. If you’re not careful, your beloved vintage instrument can be seriously damaged by leakage from the battery that preserves its patch memory, or fall victim to chip or component failure. Here’s a quick look at some of the most common problems that can befall older instruments.

Backup batteries: Flash memory didn’t exist 25 years ago. Most instruments included a tiny battery whose sole purpose was to keep your precious patches alive when you turned off the power switch. They typically lasted a year or two before needing replacement. I suspect that many old synths (and drum machines) have been left unused for years and the batteries are long dead. The danger is that the battery will start to leak corrosive chemical goo onto the surrounding circuit board. This has the potential to kill an instrument without any warning. If you have an instrument from the early 1980s that hasn’t been used for a while, it’s worth getting the battery checked or replaced as soon as possible – just in case.

LCD backlights: Many older LCD backlights were only designed to give a few thousand hours of use. These EL (electro-luminescent) backlights also fade over time. Luckily, a dead backlight won’t cause any lasting damage and drop-in replacement parts are often relatively easy to find for many “off the shelf” 16×2 or 20×2 character displays.

Old capacitors: Most older synthesizers contain dozens or even hundreds of discrete capacitors. They do boring but vital things like power smoothing and decoupling. But capacitors don’t age gracefully. As an example, some electrolytic capacitors are made with oil-impregnated paper. As the device ages, the insulating plates dry out and its performance can change drastically. This has serious ramifications in power supplies, where the caps may no longer do an adequate job of smoothing the input voltage. It can also impact the musicality of discrete analog filters and the stability of analog oscillators. The solution is fairly simple but labor intensive: Get them replaced, especially if you have a valuable analog instrument from the early to mid 1970s.

Logic ICs: Many old CMOS chips had a life expectancy of less than two decades. This means that many of the logic ICs used in designs from the early days of digital control (the late 1970s through the mid-1980s) are on their last legs. The logic errors caused by marginal chips can be incredibly frustrating and time-consuming to diagnose. The good news is that common devices, like 4000-series logic chips, can often be replaced with modern equivalents, although this can be costly: there are dozens of 4000-series devices in a single Prophet-5 or Korg Polysix.

Custom ICs: I’ve saved the scariest problem for last. Many designs used custom or semi-custom ICs. These include single-chip filters, oscillators, envelope generators and so on. These custom manufactured devices have no modern equivalent; if they fail, you’ll need to replace them with an unused vintage chip. Replacement ICs are becoming incredibly hard to find – companies like Wine Country Productions, who specialize in the repair of Sequential Circuits instruments, have run out of vital components for some instruments, such as the Curtis CEM3389 VCF/VCA used in the Prophet VS. If an irreplaceable chip fails, your only option is to cannibalize another dead instrument.

I haven’t even touched on other common problems such as a lack of 5-1/4 and 8-inch floppy disks for instruments like the Fairlight CMI, E-mu Emulator or PPG Waveterm. Keyboards and sliders also see a lot of hard use – many instruments were abused early in their life, and sticky and corrosive drink spills can cause untold damage if not properly cleaned.

Hopefully, my brief overview has given you something to think about. If you own a vintage instrument, please have it maintained by a qualified technician on a regular basis. It might seem like an extravagant waste of money, but the alternative could be eternal silence.

Some Synth Repair Shops

  • http://sidechainmusic.com Dave Dri

    Rip voices in my old Juno 6 :(

  • Lost

    Taking donations of dead gear!!!

    *readies soldering iron*

  • http://www.quantazelle.com/ Liz McLean Knight

    Wow, I really hadn't thought about any of that. Good to know, but sad to experience…

  • http://una-love.com Michael Una

    I had an old electronic organ that eventually died of multiple electrolytic capacitor failure.

    You'd be totally rocking out, when all of a sudden loud "pshhhhh" sound comes from inside the case, and there's a bubbling leakage of electrolytic fluid running acorss the circuitboard. Not fun.

  • Jim

    Another big problem is that there just aren't any good technicians in some areas. Just as the components are dwindling in supply, so too are people that have a real musical knowledge of these boards. I happen to live in a city of a million or so people, with dozens of music stores, but there is only one guy who I would really trust with my synths, and I feel lucky to have found him.

    Things like familiarity with common issues facing specific synths, knowledge of what stuff like "sample and hold" are, etc. are really important, and somethings a guy who only fixes guitar amps may not know.

  • Pingback: Inside Home Recording » How healthy are your vintage synthesizers?

  • http://sidechainmusic.com Dave Dri

    Actually whats really sad is when your prized bit of vintage awesomeness has a stroke, and the totally abused pile of old rubbish a colleague has ticks on fine. Whilst my Juno is long since retired to a place where old synths dont have to voltage control ANYTHING, the utterly battered SH1000 belonging to a friend ticks on fine. It lives in a corner of my studio now, facing the corner so i dont have to see its ugly face… :(

  • http://www.heatseeker.it motor

    Hi,

    I agree with Jim. My tr 909 has began to buzz, but here in Italy I don't know a trusted repair shop.

    Maybe we should spread around the list of recommended places.

    motor

  • http://www.daevlmakr.com Vlad Spears

    If you're in the San Francisco Bay area, Musician's Service Center have resurrected and maintained gear from all eras for me. They're wonderful.

  • Flightless Bird

    I run a facility which has the first Moog Modular exported to the southern hemisphere (apparently); a number of VCS3s and Synthis used on the original Doc Who series (fact) and a synclavier. They are all in various states of disrepair and just trying to find the money and time to get them fixed in conjunction with keeping other hardware and software current – is a nightmare. I don't even want to think about the insurance cost of getting my Moog to a repair shop, let alone the repair costs themselves. The room they are housed in is simueltaneously a place of joy and dispair…… perhaps there is a world heritage synthesiser fund?

  • Pingback: holotone.net

  • BirdFLU

    HA! So sell all those vintage synths while you still can!! Sell them to me!!

    Seriously though, it is kind of a drag when one of your old synths start acting up. You start thinking "Easy fix or terminal illness?" An awful feeling.

    A great tech in the Portland, OR area is Larry Church. He used to be the certified tech for just about everybody in the 80's and has started fixing up old synths again for fun. He'll even teach you to how fix it if you want. Helped me with my Moog Source and figured out and fixed a factory defect in a reaplacement TR-606 switchboard. E-mail me if you want his contact info. trueshunka@yahoo.com

  • Theron

    Polymoog with about 4 of the presets working. Have to jiggle the octave sliders to get the full keyboard going. If you play it for more than half an hour at a time, you get a really gross electrical burning smell and it quits working.

    Other than that it sounds awesome.

    Whiteface ARP Odyssey, about half of the sliders broken off, (finally) about to be replaced. If you turn portamento on, it takes tons of knob-jiggling to turn it off. I don't think the A/R envelope works. Noiser than hell–you have to roll off the high end like crazy for it to be useful at all.

    All of my 80s stuff works great, except that 505 I tried to bend. That thing's totally busted.

  • JollyRogered

    One to add to the list for finding old chips is Onchip Systems of California – they sourced me some old Curtis chips a few years ago when I was building an E & MM Spectrum.

    Funny this article appeared today, I was just thinking last night it's about time I fired up the Spectrum to see if it's still working – the cat crapped all over the power supply just after I'd moved house 18 months ago :-(

  • Angstrom

    @ flightless bird.

    the Putney , or VCS3 was first produced in 1969. At which time 'Doctor Who' had gone through 8 series, two lead actors and 253 episodes !

    It would be a feat of time travel if EMS could supply synths for the 'original' series (1963)

    More likely they were used on the episodes created in the 1970s, IE, after the company was formed ;)

  • CountFunkula

    I swear I've seen a Synthi 100 in the T.A.R.D.I.S…EMS totally time travels.

  • bliss

    I have a Korg Poly 800 II that's just been sitting there and sitting there. I've had it for about 17 years. Haven't used it in about 12 years. Is it on the endangered list? Sounds like it is.

  • Peter Kearney

    I saw an arp omni II for sale locally for cheap this week.. I arranged to go take a look at it but the guy had not tried to in a few weeks and when he fired it up it was completely dead :(

  • http://www.cutwithflourish.com ed

    In Sydney, I used a gentlemen called Steve who I contacted through Hutchings keyboards. Not only did he convert my synth from a Japanese power supply, he fixed its dying capacitors and checked back with me weeks later to make sure everything went well.

    Sadly, people like him are getting rarer than the synths they care for.

  • Flightless Bird

    Hey Angstrom

    I should clarify – re: 'original Doc Who series' meaning 'original Doc Who series series'.

    :)

  • robin parry

    one other,

    for Yamaha CS 50/60's the power supply comes loose when u move it!!!! mine killed one slider, which the repair tech managed to get working, only 75% of its range. All the pots and switches are unique, no longer made and no modern counterpart

  • Pingback: John’s Place » Electronic Music — Not Just the Data, But the Instruments Are At Risk!

  • aniello

    that is a great article. I have a korg polysix and 2 years ago it was totally repaired cause battery acid lacking :/ It sonuded very good, but now it's gone crazy! is it probablly due to old capacitors or cmos chip?….

  • Garde

    ED: Can you provide contact details for the guy in Sydney??

  • Pingback: How Healthy Are Your Vintage Synthesizers? | Electrophon

  • Pingback: Create Digital Music » Your Top 10 Music Tech CDM Stories of 2007

  • http://cgi.ebay.com/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&rd=1&item=290201326139&ssPageN BrekanArts

    Mine are great shape. But I keep them cased and open them up and clean them periodically to prevent untimely component failure. Naturally the Yamaha DX7 and Roland Juno 80 get regular play and thank heavens still get factory authorized serviced. My Kawai K1 is still one of my favorites and the EnsoniqSQs are still pretty far out too. I've been getting away from samplers (Ensoniq EPS 16 Plus Digital Sampling Workstation for Sale) and returning to analog, FM and PCM synths because the real thing sounds better and can be manipulated faster than trying to manipulate samples of your "favorite layered patch filter".

  • http://cgi.ebay.com/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&rd=1&item=290201326139&ssPageN BrekanArts
  • http://www.wonderfulrecording.com lynas

    Good info. In my opinion, it's worthwhile to have your vintage gear taken care of by a professional. I work at <a>Wonderful Recording Studios, and we use Karl at Main Drag Music in Williamsburg or Armen at Armen's Music in Manhattan to care for our eleven vintage analog synths (MemoryMoog, Prophet 10, Jupiter 4 and 8, Gleeman Pentaphonic, OSCar, Elka Synthex, Oberheim OBX, etc). One of the great things about these synths, though, is the fact that they're not as perfect and dry sounding as the digital imitations! Vintage Synth Explorer is a great resource for info about all these bad boys!

  • http://www.wonderfulrecording.com lynas

    EDIT:

    Sorry, those links should be:

    Wonderful Recording Studios and Vintage Synth Explorer.

  • Pingback: Yamaha DX-1 Synthesizer

  • Noddy

    I own quite a few vintage synths and keyboards and service them myself: CS70M, two CS80's, SY-1, three Minimoog's, MS10, MS20, SQ10, Sigma, Delta, Monopoly, Polysix, Poly800, Clavinet D6, Hammonds and Leslies. I am in North West UK, Manchester area. Would be willing to look at your faulty synth if you can get it to me. Email me if you need help or advice.

  • http://. top mistakes

    Your site is pretty interesting to me and your subject matter is very relevant. I was browsing around and came across something you might find interesting. I was guilty of 3 of them with my sites. “99% of website managers are guilty of these five errors”. http://tinyurl.com/cuyfkfj You will be suprised how easy they are to fix.