You Can’t Build A Roland TR-808 Because You Don’t Have Faulty Transistors

That headline sounds suspect, but it is the most succinct way to explain why the Roland TR-808 drum machine has a very distinct, and difficult to replicate noise circuit. The drum machine was borne of a hack. As the Secret Life of Synthesizers explains, it was a rejected part picked up and characterized by Roland which delivers this unique auditory thumbprint.

Pictured above is the 2SC828-R, and you can still get this part. But it won’t function the same as the parts found in the original 808. The little dab of paint on the top of the transistor indicates that it was a very special subset of those rejected parts (the 2SC828-RNZ). A big batch of rejects were sold to Roland back in the 1970’s — which they then thinned out in a mysterious testing process. What was left went into the noise circuit that gave the 808 its magical sizzle. When the parts ran out, production ended as newer processes didn’t produce the same superbly flawed parts.

This is an incredible story that was highlighted in 808, a documentary premiered at SXSW back in 2015. The film is currently streaming on Amazon Prime (and to rent everywhere else) and is certainly worth your time just to grasp how seminal this drum machine has been in hip hop and several other music genres.

For modern product developers, betting your production on a batch of reject parts is just batty. But it was a very different time with a lot fewer components on the market. What worked, worked. You do have to wonder how you stumble upon the correct trait in an obscure batch of reject parts? Looks like we’ll be adding Ikutar Kakehashi’s book I Believe in Music: Life Experiences and Thoughts on the Future of Electronic Music by the Founder of the Roland Corporation to our reading list.

[via EMSL]

Restoring a piece of Musical History

Every restoration project involves various levels of grit, determination, gumption and doggedness. But [Darren Glen]’s restoration of a Jupiter-8 is an absolute labor of love. The Jupiter-8,  launched by Roland in 1981, was their flagship “polyphonic analog subtractive” synthesizer and was used by many legendary acts of the ’80’s. The synthesizer was rugged — built to withstand the rigors of travelling everywhere that the bands took it. More importantly, it could produce a wide range of sounds that came from dedicated and independent controllers. These, plus a host of other desirable features, makes the synth highly coveted even today and the rare ones that surface for sale can be quite expensive.

The back story of how he came in possession of this coveted, albeit non-functioning, piece of history is a good read. But the part that makes us all interested is the meticulous restoration that he is carrying out. There is a lot of useful information that he shares which could be handy if you are planning any restoration project of your own.

When he first turned it on, all he got was an “8” on the display — which seemed like an error code. From then onward, he has been carefully stripping away each part and slowly bringing it back to life. All of the linear slide potentiometers and slide switches were de-soldered, dis-assembled, cleaned of rust and the carbon tracks and contacts cleaned with special spray — making them almost as good as new. The transformer and its mounting brackets received a similar treatment of rust cleaning and fresh paint. All of the other internal metal parts, such as the chassis, were restored in a similar fashion.

White plastic buttons and knobs which were faded, were brightened up by spraying them with a generous dose of hydrogen peroxide hair spray, putting them in Ziploc bags and letting them bake in sunlight for a day. [Darren] was satisfied enough with this process and gave the same treatment to all the other colored buttons too, with good results. The other set of plastic parts – the keyboard keys, were cleaned and polished with a scratch and blemish polish cream, and replacements were ordered out from a specialist supplier for the few that were damaged beyond repair.

But by far the greatest challenge for [Darren] has been resurrecting the top metal cover. It was badly rusted and had to be completely stripped of all paint. Repainting it the right shade was relatively easy, but applying the legend and decals took him to every screen printer in town, none of whom could manage the job. He lucked out by locating a screen printer who specialized in custom automotive work and managed to do a pretty good job with the decal work.

The Z80 microprocessor had lost all its magic smoke, so [Darren] has ordered an original Zilog replacement which will hopefully clear the error he noticed when it was first turned on. He’s slowly working his way through all the issues, and it is still work in progress, but we look forward to when it’s all done and dusted. A fully functional, restored Roland Jupiter-8 — one of the first 500 that were built back in 1981 — resurrected with a lot of TLC.

A big shout out to [Tim Trzepacz] for bringing this project to our notice.

A Six-Voice Synth Built On The Raspberry Pi

Over the last few decades, audio synthesizers have been less and less real hardware and more and more emulations in software. Now that we have tiny powerful computers that merely sip down the watts, what’s the obvious conclusion? A six-voice polyphonic synthesizer built around the Raspberry Pi.

The exquisitely named ‘S³-6R’ synthesizer is a six-voice phase modulation synthesizer that outputs very high resolution (24-bit and 96 kHz) audio. It’s the product of R-MONO Lab, who have displayed interesting musical devices such as a recorder-based pipe organ in the past. This build is a bit more complex, offering up some amazing sounds, all generated on a Raspberry Pi 3.

While talk of oscillators and filters is great, what’s really interesting here is the keyboard itself. The S³-6R is using the Roland K-25m, a tiny MIDI keyboard meant to serve as a ‘dock’ of sorts for Roland’s recent re-releases of the classic Jupiter and Juno synths. Building a MIDI keyboard is not easy by any stretch of the imagination, and using this little keyboard dock is a cheap way to pipe MIDI notes into any project without a lot of fuss.

Below, you can check out the audio demos of the S³-6R. It’s a real synth and sounds great. We can only hope the software will be uploaded somewhere eventually.

Continue reading “A Six-Voice Synth Built On The Raspberry Pi”

A Robotic 808 Drum Machine

If you spent the 1980s hanging out at your local record store, and you don’t have a hankering for spandex and bouffant rock-god hairstyles, the chances are you’ll have more than a few pieces of electronic music from the period in your collection. The proliferation of electronica during that era came through the arrival of relatively inexpensive mass-market digital polyphonic instruments, edging out the sounds of monophonic analog synthesisers for a subsequent generation to rediscover in a later decade. Individual instrument models became icons and entered the musical vernacular of the day, the Ensoniq Mirage sampling synthesiser, the Yamaha DX7 FM synthesiser, or the Roland TR-808 drum machine.

It is the Roland TR-808 that inspired today’s subject, the MR-808 robotic drum machine, from [Moritz Simon Geist]. A percussion sequencer featuring real instruments all built into a cabinet styled to resemble a huge Roland 808. Originally built as a performance instrument, but since reinvented as a piece of installation artwork that visitors can program for themselves.

Block diagram of the MR-808
Block diagram of the MR-808

There is a comprehensive description of the machine’s design and build on the creator’s website, as well as a more high-level introduction. A significant amount of effort was put in to creating mechanical instruments as close as possible to the Roland sounds, with each instrument being operated by solenoids driven by a MIDI-controlled Arduino Mega. A second Arduino, this time an Uno, controls lighting that follows the instruments.

The interactive part of the installation comes from a sequencer front-end running in a web browser on a Nexus 7 tablet, this appears to be served from a Raspberry Pi which supplies MIDI to the MR-808.

The results can be seen in the video below the break, and judging by the reaction of the audience the machine is rather popular.

Continue reading “A Robotic 808 Drum Machine”

Upgrading Old Synths To OLED

Roland’s Alpha Juno 2 is an analog, polyphonic synth made in the mid-80s. While it isn’t as capable as the massive synths made around that time, it was very influential synth for the techno scenes of the late 80s and early 90s.

[Jeroen] is lucky enough to have one of these synths, but like all equipment of this era, it’s showing its age. He wanted to replace the character LCD in his Alpha Juno 2 with an OLED display. The original character LCD was compatible with the Hitachi HD44780 protocol, and still today OLEDs can speak this format. What should have been an easy mod turned into editing hex values on the EEPROM, but he still got it to work.

While the original character LCD could display one line of 16 characters, the ROM in the synth didn’t know this. Instead, the display was organized as a 2×8 display in software, with line one starting at address 0h, and line two starting at 40h. For a drop-in replacement, [Jeroen] would need a display the characters organized in this weird 2×8 format. None exist, but he does have a hex editor and an EEPROM burner.

With the Alpha Juno’s firmware in hand thanks to someone who does a few firmware hacks to this synth, [Jeroen] had everything he needed. All that was left to do was going through the code and replace all the references to the second line of the character LCD.

After burning and installing the new ROM, the OLED display was a drop-in replacement. That meant getting rid of the whiney EL backlight in the original display, and making everything nice and glowy for a few nights on a dark stage.

Turning your CNC into a Vinyl Cutter

This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s actually pretty easy to modify your CNC machine to hold a vinyl cutter blade in order to do stencils or even cut out vinyl logos!

[Jouni] designed a holder for a standard Roland vinyl/sticker cutter blade (replacement with 5 blades is about $10 on eBay). It’s made to fit his specific CNC which uses a 65mm spindle, with a 49mm mounting ring — but the file could be easily modified to suit others.

Simply clamp your plastic or vinyl onto a flat piece of wood, and get stenciling! [Jouni’s] included his .STL file on his site in case anyone wants to try it out. While he’s designed it for 3D printing, you could probably CNC mill it as well — which would kinda make more sense…

Continue reading “Turning your CNC into a Vinyl Cutter”

Digitally Controlled Circuit Bending

Circuit bending doesn’t get a lot of respect around some parts of the Internet we frequent, but there is certainly an artistry to it. Case in point is the most incredible circuit bending we’ve ever seen. Yes, it’s soldering wires to seemingly random points on a PCB, but these bend points are digitally controlled, allowing a drum machine to transform between bent crunchiness and a classic 1980s drum machine with just a few presses of a touch screen controller.

All circuit bending must begin with an interesting piece of equipment and for this project, [Charles], the creator of this masterpiece of circuit bending, is using a Roland TR-626, a slightly more modern version of the TR-606, the percussive counterpart of the infamous TB-303. The circuit is bent in the classical fashion – tying signals on the PCB to ground, VCC, or other signals on the board. [Charles] then out does everyone else by connecting these wires to 384 analog switches controlled by an Arduino Mega. Also on the Arduino is a touch screen, and with a slick UI, this old drum machine can be bent digitally, no vast array of toggle switches required.

[Charles] has put up a few videos going over the construction, capabilities, and sound of this touch screen, circuit bent drum machine. It’s an amazing piece of work, and something that raises the bar for every circuit bending mod from this point on.

Thanks [oxygen_addiction] and [Kroaton] for sending this one in.

Continue reading “Digitally Controlled Circuit Bending”