Synthesizer Gets An External Touch Screen

Like other owners of the high-end Yamaha MODX, [sn00zerman] wasn’t happy with the synthesizer’s integrated touch screen. It’s a bit small, and not at a very good angle for viewing. So he made it his mission to find some way of adding a larger external touch screen without making any permanent modifications to the expensive instrument.

This might seem like a tall order, but he wasn’t starting from zero. It was already known that you could plug an external display into it if you used a USB to DVI/HDMI adapter; but without the touch overlay it wasn’t a particularly useful trick. He pondered adding an external connector for the device’s built-in touch screen overlay, but that broke his no modifications rule. Considering how much one of these things cost, we can’t blame him for not wanting to put a hole in the side.

Sometimes you just have to dig out the right parts.

So he started to look for a software solution to get him the rest of the way. Luckily the MODX runs Linux, and Yamaha has made good on their GPL responsibilities and released the source code for anyone who’s interested. While poking around, he figured out that the device uses tslib to talk to the touch screen, which [sn00zerman] had worked with on previous projects. He realized that the solution might be as simple as finding a USB touch screen controller that’s compatible with the version of tslib running on the MODX.

In the end, a trip through his parts bin uncovered a stand-alone touch screen controller that he knew from experience would work with the library. Sure enough, when plugged into the MODX, the OS accepted it as an input device. With the addition of a USB hub, he was able to combine this with an existing display and finally have a more comfortable user-interface for his synthesizer.

Now all he’s got to do is plug in a USB floppy drive, and he’ll have the ultimate Yamaha Beat Laboratory.

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Quality Upgrades Give Old Synth New Lease On Life

Technology marches on at a rapid pace, but in many fields much love remains for older hardware. While still highly capable, there’s often room for improvement thanks to components made available in the intervening years. After longing for his SY-77 synthesiser of the 90s, [Mark] sourced a tired SY-99, the next model up in the line – and set to work on some upgrades.

The SY-99 relied on floppy disks for storage, but the mechanical drives are now difficult to maintain, to say nothing of the unreliability of floppy media. [Mark] installed a SD Card HXC floppy emulator instead, using a Sparkfun SD breakout to neatly install the card slot in the synth’s case. The tired LCD was replaced with a newer model using the same controller, with an LED backlight proving a nice upgrade over the original EL unit.

Additionally, [Mark] realised that there was scope to create his own upgrade modules with off-the-shelf SRAM chips. This proves far cheaper than sourcing second-hand Yamaha stock off eBay, and is readily achievable by anyone with a basic understanding of digital logic. The ICs can be had for a few dollars, versus well over $50 for the original cards – if you can even find them. Some labor is involved, but it’s a lot less painful to the wallet.

[Mark]’s work is a great example of how hardware that was once prohibitively expensive can be given greater functionality at a lower cost thanks to new technology. We’ve seen other synths modded too, like this Korg Monotron. If you’ve been tinkering away in a keyboard yourself, be sure to let us know!

[Thanks to CRJEEA] for the tip]

What To Know When Buying Chips That Haven’t Been Made For Three Decades

Those of us who have worked with vintage sound generator chips such as the Yamaha FM synthesizers in recent years have likely run into our own fair share of “fake” or “remarked” chips, sometimes relabeled to appear as a chip different than the die inside the packaging entirely. [David Viens] from Plogue has finally released his findings on the matter after 3 years of research. (Video, embedded below.)

The first thing to determine is in what way are these chips “fake”? Clearly no new YM2612’s were manufactured by Yamaha in 2015, but that doesn’t mean that these are simply unlicensed clones put out by another die factory. [David] explains how these chips are often original specimens sourced from recycled electronic waste from mostly environmentally unsafe operations in China, which are then reconditioned and remarked to be passed as “new” by resellers. Thankfully, as of 2017, he explains that most of these operations are now being shut down and moved into an industrial park where the work can be done in a less polluting manner.

The next thing that [David] dives into is how these remarked chips can be spotted. He explains how to use telltale signs in the IC packaging to identify which chip plant produced them, and visible indications of a chip that has been de-soldered from a board and reconditioned. There are different ways in which the remarking can be done, and sometimes it’s possible to undo the black-top, as it’s called, and reveal the original markings underneath with the simple application of acetone with a cotton swab.

We’ve talked about fake chips and how they can lead to hardware failure here before, but in the case of chips like these which aren’t manufactured anymore, we’re not left with much choice other than FPGA or software reimplementations. Check out [David]’s 40-minute look into these chips after the break.

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Repairdown: Disklavier DKC500RW Control Unit

If you’ve been kind enough to accompany me on these regular hardware explorations, you’ve likely recognized a trend with regards to the gadgets that go under the knife. Generally speaking, the devices I take apart for your viewing pleasure come to us from the clearance rack of a big box retailer, the thrift store, or the always generous “AS-IS” section on eBay. There’s something of a cost-benefit analysis performed each time I pick up a piece of gear for dissection, and it probably won’t surprise you to find that the least expensive doggy in the window is usually the one that secures its fifteen minutes of Internet fame.

DKC500RW installed on right side.

But this month I present to you, Good Reader, something a bit different. This time I’m not taking something apart just for the simple joy of seeing PCB laid bare. I’ve been given the task of repairing an expensive piece of antiquated oddball equipment because, quite frankly, nobody else wanted to do it. If we happen to find ourselves learning about its inner workings in the process, that’s just the cost of doing business with a Hackaday writer.

The situation as explained to me is that in the late 1990’s, my brother’s employer purchased a Yamaha Mark II XG “Baby Grand” piano for somewhere in the neighborhood of $20,000. This particular model was selected for its ability to play MIDI files from 3.5 inch floppy disks, complete with the rather ghostly effect of the keys moving by themselves. The idea was that you could set this piano up in your lobby with a floppy full of Barry Manilow’s greatest hits, and your establishment would instantly be dripping with automated class.

Unfortunately, about a month or so back, the piano’s Disklavier DKC500RW control unit stopped reading disks. The piano itself still worked, but now required a human to do the playing. Calls were made, but as you might expect, most repair centers politely declined around the time they heard the word “floppy” and anyone who stayed on the line quoted a price that simply wasn’t economical.

Before they resorted to hiring a pianist, perhaps a rare example of a human taking a robot’s job, my brother asked if he could remove the control unit and see if I could make any sense of it. So with that, let’s dig into this vintage piece of musical equipment and see what a five figure price tag got you at the turn of the millennium.

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MIDI Synthesizer From A Sega Genesis

[Aidan] is really into FM synthesis chips for creating audio, and one of the most interesting chips from that era is found on the Sega Genesis. Anyone involved in the console wars at that time certainly remembers the classic, unique sound that those video game systems were able to produce, so [Aidan] built a device using a sound chip from a Genesis to play any piece of music from any game. The second iteration of that project, though, is able to use those same sound files as a MIDI synthesizer.

The interesting aspect of these chips is how they use registers to change the audio output. Essentially, there is a complicated register map (one section of his write-up is simply called “Register Hell”) that can be called in order to access the various types of effects one would normally see on a synthesizer. It’s not straightforward at all, though, and got even more complicated once [Aidan] started adding MIDI functionality to it as well. Once he finished sifting through the Sega Genesis technical manuals and a bunch of registers, though, he had a unique synthesizer working that doesn’t sound like anything you’ve ever heard, unless you’ve ever played a Genesis.

If you’d like to check out his first project, the MegaBlaster, which plays the sound files of the old Genesis games directly, we featured that a while ago. Keep in mind though that his latest project isn’t just an updated MegaBlaster, though. He built this entire thing from the ground up.

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Raspberry Pi Radio Streaming Service Guts Yamaha Shelf System

There are dozens — dozens! — of options to meet your music and streaming needs these days.  Looking to make something of his own that retains that 90’s vibe of having a dedicated stereo system but with modern wireless integration, [thk4711] turned an old Yamaha hifi into a Raspberry Pi streaming client.

As far as the case goes, a few modifications allowed [thk4711] to use all of the existing buttons, and a quick-swap of the back-plate and screen gave him a better enclosure than one he could fabricate himself. The power supply proved to be the most difficult part of the project due in part to some “digital noise” interference between the digital and analog components while they were wired to a common ground. This was solved by implementing two transformers, a LM2596 voltage regulator and a LT1084 low-noise power supply to smooth things out.

The Raspberry Pi 2-centered device supports internet radio, Spotify connect, Airplay, USB and auxiliary inputs.

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Zynq And The OPL3 Music Synthesizer

We’re big fans of the Zynq, which is an answer to the question: what do you get when you cross a big ARM processor with a big FPGA? So it isn’t surprising that [GregTaylor’s] project to emulate the OPL3 FM Synthesis chip in an FPGA using the Zynq caught our eye.

The OPL3 (also known as the Yamaha YMF262) was a very common MIDI chip on older PC sound cards. If you had a Sound Blaster Pro or 16 board, you had an OPL3 chip in your PC. The OPL3 was responsible for a lot of the music you associate with vintage video games like Doom. [Greg] not only duplicated the chip’s functions, but also ported imfplay from DOS to run on the Zynq’s ARM processors so he could reproduce those old video game sounds.

The Zybo board that [Greg] uses includes an Analog Devices SSM2603 audio codec with dual 24-bit DACs and 256X oversampling. However, the interface to the codec is isolated in the code, so it ought to be possible to port the design to other hardware without much trouble.

To better match the original device’s sampling rate with the faster CODEC, this design runs at a slightly slower frequency than the OPL3, but thanks to the efficient FPGA logic, the new device can easily keep up with the 49.7 kHz sample rate.

Using an FPGA to emulate an OPL3 might seem to be overkill, but we’ve seen worse. If you prefer to do your synthesis old school, you can probably get a bulk price on 555 chips.

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