Advice for music electronics DIY beginners
Here are some pieces of advice that I wish I had when I started.
Buy the tools you need. Some things are just impossible to do without the right tool. If you know that you need a particular tool, just get it! I spent far too long trying to bend things with tweezers and scissors and teeth, before I spent $10 on a pair of pliers.
Here is a list of other tools I foolishly deferred the purchase thereof:
- Wirestrippers (used teeth/scissors, dumb)
- Crescent (tried to use pliers, damaging)
- Soldering Iron Stand (soldering iron on leg, burns)
- Safety Glasses (solder splashes, narrowly missed eye)
Find a copy of "The Art of Electronics", by Horowitz and Hill. Your library should have it. If they don't, get them to buy a copy. Buy a copy yourself if you are rich. You will not understand a lot of it, but at least read the first few chapters. Later, read them again, and try to do the excercises.
Generally, try to bear the following in mind:
The field is densely interwoven, and there is no path of learning that takes you, by logical steps, from neophyte to broadly competent designer.
(The Art of Electronics).
Obviously, get as many schematics as you can. When you find an interesting one but think "this looks too complicated", save it anyway. You will regret it later if you don't, because eventually you'll be able to build it but you might not find it again on the net.
"How to Solder" guides from books and the internet are very useful. You should read as many of these guides as you can find. My favourite one is in the old Serge Synthesizer Kit Building Guide. (scroll down to "APPENDIX D GOOD SOLDERING").
The main thing is HEAT BOTH THINGS THEN ADD SOLDER. ie. if you are soldering a resistor to a PCB pad, hold the iron against where they intersect, then poke in the solder and let it melt all over the joint.
Soldering is not impossible
When you start soldering, you will be very bad at it, and think "this is impossible". Practice! It's not impossible. Get a big pack of resistors and solder them all to a piece of perf- or strip-board. This is the best practise you can do.
You don't have to spend a lot of money, but don't buy the absolute cheapest soldering iron available. It may have a very poor tip which will melt and crumble, making it impossible to solder. Especially don't sand or file the tip or pry stuff with it, that will cause it to get ruined.
When you start, you will not be able to make anything very good. Just try to accept that. Do not try to build anything too complicated. Just make a simple buzzer or LED flasher, rather than 1/2 finishing a phaser or filter circuit. It is very satisfying to build something that works, no matter how simple.
When you are building something, and make a mistake, STOP. Remain calm. Don't get annoyed and try to rush in and fix it, you will probably make the situation worse.
- If you know how to fix the problem, take deep breaths and walk once around the house. Then sit down and fix it.
- If you don't know how to repair what you've done, don't even attempt it yet. Go and do something else for a while. Maybe sleep on it.
A lot of classic music circuits use parts which are becoming hard to get. Some very important ones, such as OTAs (Operational Transconductance Amplifiers), were only recently discontinued, and are still relatively easy to obtain. You should consider building up a stock of these while you can.
Here is my list of things to stock:
- LM3080 (OTA) (or substitute, eg. CA3080)
- LM13600/LM13700 (Dual OTA)
- LM3900 (Quad Norton Amplifier) - used a LOT in old Serge circuits. (Incidentally, do follow that link, there is a lot of info there. Hover over the picture and click to see details of each panel).
- LM3046/LM3086 (Transistor Array)
- Matched transistor pairs eg. LM394, MAT02, SSM2210
- "Vactrol" type optocouplers eg. VTL5C3
- Germanium transistors/diodes
Small Bear Electronics is a good place to find this stuff cheap.
You can destroy MOS components by static electricity discharge, but you probably will not. I have handled a lot of CMOS chips rather carelessly, and never zapped one. Mind you I live in a humid area, which helps. The point is: don't assume the part is ruined, it's more likely that you made a mistake.
If you think any of this is bad advice, please contact me:[kraus] AT [kraus] DOT [co] DOT [nz]
Kraus, 16 October 2006, revised 28 October 2009