Synths, synths, synths

Right now I’m inundated with synthesizers. It’s a hobby of mine to buy up old synths, refurbish them as best I can, then sell them on. Just recently I got very lucky on a Gumtree ad and picked up 4 in various states of disrepair: a Korg DS-8, Korg DW-8000, Roland JV-80 and a Roland D-70.
The Korg DW-8000 is from 1985, and is a classic hybrid digital/analogue polysynth. I’ve fixed a few things, cleaned it up, and it looks almost new, works perfectly, and sounds great. All quite something for a bit of technology that’s 24 years old! Try finding a 24 year-old computer that still does anything useful… Something that makes me come over all nostalgic is that the user manual comes with circuit diagrams, chip pinouts, memory maps and construction schematics – it reminds me very much of the Commodore 64 programmers reference, one of the best manuals I’ve ever encountered.
The DW-8000 has a number of interesting features. It was the first synth to have a built-in effects processor in the form of a 512ms digital delay that could produce echoes, chorus, flange etc, and it made a huge difference. The oscillators’ 16 waveforms are single-cycle samples (probably no more than a couple of k each, but still something of a first). This digital source then feeds into an entirely analogue filter, enveloping and modulation system, resulting in lovely smooth textures, but with quite a bit of the zing associated with digital synths like the Yamaha DX-7. I was also struck by how clean the output is – very little hiss or noise at all. I guess that’s an upside of having nearly all the components running at audio frequencies (because it’s analogue), and a lot of discrete components (makes for low crosstalk).

The Korg DS-8 is an unusual beast. It was produced just after Korg was taken over by Yamaha in 1987, and is an 8-part multitimbral Yamaha digital 4-operator FM synth wrapped in Korg styling and user interface. The closest Yamaha synth is the FB-01 module, which by complete coincidence was the first synth I ever owned. I loved my FB-01, but I’m finding the DS-8 is kind of thin and noisy, with some classic FM sideband distortion and low-res DACs on output. To be fair, that’s par for the course with early FM synths (it has much in common with the DX-21, DX-27, DX-100, DX-11 and others) plus right now I’m being spoilt by much nicer hardware… In its favour, Korg made FM programming accessible – the DX-series synths were notoriously complicated and cryptic to program, so if you’re looking for FM sounds without the programming nightmare, it’s a good alternative.

Both the DS-8 and DW-8000 use a 2032 lithium battery for maintaining user memory. In normal use these last up to about 12 years, meaning they were both completely dead. Korg, in their infinite wisdom, decided that these batteries should be soldered onto the logic boards. So I needed to desolder them and install battery holders and new batteries, which should see them last another 12 years.

The 1991 Roland D-70 was named as a sequel / higher-end model to follow the groundbreaking D-50, the synth that introduced “S&S” (Synth and sample) synthesis, the approach used by pretty much every synth of the following 15 years. Despite its name, the D-70 is nothing like the D-50. It’s really a sample player based on the Roland U-series, which makes a bit less remarkable. In its favour, it has a fantastic 76-key keyboard, a bunch of programmable sliders and is not too big, so it makes for an excellent controller. Unfortunately the one I have is in a bit of a sorry state, and I got it partially dismantled. It’s a pig to rebuild, so I fixed a couple of broken keys before putting it together. It was possible to play some of the raw PCM samples in it (so I then discovered that about 20 keys were not working, probably a cleaning job on the switches), but the patch memory was full of rubbish. Like a surprising number of synths, the D-70 doesn’t hold its factory presets in ROM, so on power up the memory is full of random garbage, and accessing them will often cause a crash. The trick is to load up a set of sounds over MIDI, and it was at this point that I discovered that the MIDI in didn’t seem to be working at all. The most common cause here is cracked solder joints, and it’s the kind of thing that’s fixed by simply reflowing the solder joints on the connector. Doing this seemed to break something else quite serious, and after this the screen started showing random dot patterns. So now I have a 4-foot long paperweight. Oh well, it’s not like it cost me a lot!

My last acquisition was a Roland JV-80 from about 1992. I used one of these when writing some music for Apple in about 1993. The JV-80 heralded the arrival of synths with a decent amount of ROM for storing samples, in this case 8Mb, which was a lot at the time. Furthermore, it could be expanded by the addition of 8Mb plug-in ROM cards from the SR-JV80 series. These cards were also used in many Roland synths from the JV, XP and XV series, the biggest of which could accept 8 at once. These cards are now pretty valuable, so I was very happy to discover that my JV-80 had an SR-JV80-02 Orchestral expansion card installed in its single slot. I stuck it straight up on eBay and it sold in a day for not much less than I paid for all these synths put together! Result! There wasn’t really anything wrong with this synth other than a couple of broken keys which Roland spares delivered quickly, and it’s in nigh-on perfect condition. I’m finding I really like this synth. The sounds are lovely, if a little cheesy in places, the effects are good, it’s easy to edit, is relatively small and light, the keyboard is nice and it makes a fair controller.

All this twiddling got me in the mood to fix a few outstanding niggles on my Yamaha SY-77 – a couple of sticky keys, another soldered-on battery (which still had some life after 19 years!), a case crack and a hole where the power lead used to be (I replaced it with an IEC socket – I hate captive leads). This also led me to rediscover this synth. It really is a fantastic machine, the sounds are just amazing and so varied. Comparing with the other synths, the build quality (and weight!) is just in a different league and the keyboard construction is also beyond any of them. It’s not surprising it originally cost double any of the others!

Anyway, I’m planning on flogging the lot at some point, and if you’re interested in any of them feel free to leave a comment or email me.

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