Care & Feeding of the Synthesizer
What every good keyboard player - and keyboard roadie — should know about where not to hit a synth.
Not since the development of the electronic guitar in the Thirties has a musical instrument posed as many problems as the synthesiser does now. Some of the problems border on the philosophical — is the synth the ultimate Dream Machine for exploration of musical outer space, or is it simply a device destined to replace brass and string session men? But most of the problems are more pragmatic: how to deal with a piece of mechanism that is several orders of magnitude more complicated in theory and construction than — say — the onstage amplifier.
Consider: the synth is right at the sharp end of audio technology and yet it is expected to function perfectly at the hands of even the most impractical muso, and it is to be subjected to the same onstage and on-road rigours as is the simplest amp-in-an-armoured-box. Something somewhere has to give: to design and manufacture synths that would easily stand up to rough treatment would necessarily rocket the price; on the other hand, the very specialized knowledge required to repair and maintain the synth has to cost more than the gentle ministrations of a solder jockey armed with a hot poker and blind faith.
So in the end it comes down to the muso and the roadie to take a few extra precautions. Most of these precautions are derived from the use of that rare commodity Common Sense, and should be of some use to every synth owner, be he novice or superstar. The following lump of Do's and Don't's are the result of a day spent swapping horror stories with Philip Brame and Gill Bott of Beta Entec ((Contact Details)), synth doctors extraordinary...
Do read the user manual before switching on for the first time. Most synth manuals are well-produced and informative and can teach you a lot about synths before you ever touch one. Not only will a close perusal of the manual tell you what you can do, it will tell you what you can't, and thereby save you enormous amounts of money on repair bills in the following two ways:
First, it will decrease the probability of your crippling the device with an improper connection; second, it will provide you with the terminology to describe fault symptoms to a repairman. This last is more important than you might immediately suppose. Much time (and therefore loot) can be wasted searching for the cause of a vaguely-described "farting noise, or — er — well, it sounds like a pig coughing..." If, on the other hand, a fault is described as "constant subsonic modulation of the sine output from oscillator one", the repairman has a clue where to start and may even know from his experience exactly what the trouble is.
Once you've read the manual (once at least, twice is better), check all connections, the mains voltage selector, and the mains fuse. The fuse should never be more than 3A — higher ratings are dangerous to the synth and the use of silver paper from fag packets is a crime punishable by interrogation by the Spanish Inquisition and a mandatory verdict of Death by Electrocution. Develop, and stick to, a safe switch-on procedure: all level controls should be at zero, and for your speaker's sake switch on synth first, then power amp — not the other way round which can result in nasty thumps and speaker bottoming. Then bring the synth levels up slightly, followed by the power amp gain. Reversing this process is again dangerous for the speaker because you may have a strong subsonic or pulse signal running and the inter-silence might trick you into winding up the power gain just in time for the next pulse to blow the speaker. Best to listen to the signal at low level first.
Now we come to the Dirty Habits section, otherwise known as Synth-Abuse. Until somebody makes a synth as water- and gas-proof (and probably as expensive) as a spacesuit, the hundreds of connections and switches in the synth will be heir to the ills of muck. Dust, beer, crumbs, glitter, confetti, talc, ash, paper-clips, toothpicks, water vapour, and dead fish are all best kept out of the guts of your average synth. In practical terms, this means not using the top of your synth as a combination of desk, bar, and festive board. Keep rum-and-cokes away. Don't leave jam butties on the keyboard.
Cigarette burns are unsightly and reduce the resale value of a synth because where there is fire there is ash, and ash inside a synth can clog valuable bits of machinery (a sensible potential customer who sees a fag-scarred synth will immediately assume all manner of impolite habits on your part and cut his cash offer by 62% — a repairman will merely sneer and add a tenner to your invoice). Salt can cause serious corrosion of internal contacts; eating peanuts while playing a synth is a Hanging Offense. And beware stage effects like bubble or fog machines: their vapours can be corrosive or merely good and wet, providing a nice moist film to which dust can happily cling, not to mention the likelihood of corrosion. Ask the advice of a reputable technician, and if he says your fog machine is dicey, strike a deal with the other members of your band — if they insist on using fog, they pay the repair bills and buy you a new synth every year.
The simplest way to combat these problems is to refrain from causing them. But if you must eat, drink, be merry and fogbound near your synth, keep a clean and lint-free cloth about to wipe your hands, and another to wipe your synth. Another handy hint: whenever you transport your synth, or even between numbers at rehearsal, wrap it in some form of dust jacket — plastic dustbin liner bags are strong and dirt cheap.
Synths are delicate. We just aren't yet at the state of technology required to build a tough synth. The more complex the synth, the more delicate it becomes. One of the worst symptoms of rough handling is chassis distortion which can result in circuit boards becoming disconnected — the Polymoog with all its PCB's is particularly prone. A misconnected PCB can cause intermittent signals, misrouted controls, and in the worst case where a PCB comes completely adrift, it can crash about inside doing no end of physical damage. So: transport and store your synth in a flight case. Not just a reasonably heavy fibre case, but a proper metal-clad lockable model with heavy corner protectors and plenty of strong handles. If you think such a case a luxury, mull over the fact that a £75 case can protect your £2,000 synth from £100's worth of damage every time you move it. So a flight case is what a banker might call a gilt-edge investment.
Finally, a mixed bag of tips. If you own one of the larger synths, don't try to lift it alone — chassis distortion has already been noted, but dropping a synth even from waist height can be catastrophic. After you switch on, let your synth warm up before you tune it, and keep it away from heat sources like spotlights, gas fires, strong direct sunlight, and thermonuclear weapons. If a fault does pop up, consult the manual before diving inside — and only dive inside if your are sure you know what you are about. Resetting a loose PCB is obvious and easy, but finding an intermittent is rarely a screwdriver job — tapping valves in an amp might lead to a diagnosis, but tapping PC components randomly is unlikely to achieve anything and more likely to magnify the problem by causing another fault. If you must go in for a check, arm yourself with an artist's soft sable brush to shift dust; aerosol contact cleaner should be used sparingly. Like a surgeon, make sure you haven't left anything inside — i.e. screws, dogends, pliers, bricks. And don't force screws — forcing will only strip the threads and make it that much harder to get inside next time. In extreme cases, it can generate metal swarf which will drift about inside until it comes to rest across a vital contact.
Really, unless your Doctorate in Electronics is fairly recent, it is best to leave internal matters to qualified repairmen. Most synth problems tend to be the fault of the users, not the machinery, and such faults start on the outside where the users are. Happily, the outside is where the synth owner can do most to prevent them.
Feature by Dave Blake
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