I've loved music all my life, but unfortunately I have no musical talent. My creative outlet has been the repair, restoration and innovation of the vintage keyboards that make the sounds I love. Through my Synthchaser video series on YouTube, I share my approach to repairing and maintaining vintage keyboards so talented musicians can continue to make music with them. Here are five things I've learned about repairing vintage keyboards.
It's often about the capacitors
A lot of problems with vintage keyboards boil down to bad capacitors. Tantalum capacitors widely used in keyboards of the 70's and early 80's have a very high failure rate. Aluminum electrolytic capacitors like the large ones found in power supplies dry out and only have an expected lifespan of up to 15 years. Many problems with vintage keyboards can be fixed or avoided by systematically and proactively replacing all the trouble-prone capacitors.
Learn as much as you can
You don't need an engineering degree to learn and understand electronics. Even with an engineering degree, a good portion of my time is spent reading, researching, and learning things I didn't know. Start with the basics and go from there. The more you understand about electronics, the easier it will be to understand how your keyboard works and hone in on what has broken when something goes wrong.
Use the right tools for the job
Most DIY'ers start with just a multimeter, but that can only show you so much. When you're dealing with waveforms that are changing, like audio, a multimeter doesn't show you what's going on in a circuit. Without the right tools for the job you're setting yourself up for failure. An oscilloscope is the keyboard technician's best friend. It doesn't need to be fancy or high bandwidth--audio waveforms are slow. Get a cheap scope and learn to use it!
Don't cut corners
It can be tempting to do a makeshift repair to a keyboard when you don't have the right parts, supplies or tools to make the proper fix. Avoid using previously used, ill-fitting or poorly specced parts. To make quality repairs that will keep your gear running reliably, it's worth waiting a few extra days and spending a few extra dollars for what you need to make a quality repair.
Work within your comfort zone
Everyone needs practice to learn. The same is true with repairing keyboards. Practice soldering and desoldering on junk electronics before you try it on your precious vintage keys. Start by changing the key bushings or rebuilding a power supply. Work on your Pro One before your Prophet 5. If there's a problem that you can't figure out or a repair that needs skills or tools that you don't have yet, get a professional to do the job. The more you work on your keyboards you'll find your confidence build and your gear will be spending less time sitting in the repair shop and more time getting use in the studio.
Nathan Miller, aka "Synth Chaser," is based in San Diego, CA and serves customers around the world. Synthchaser offers expert analog synthesizer repair and restoration services, synthesizer sales, replacement parts and capacitor kits. Learn more at synthchaser.com