Monday, October 17, 2016

Synth DIY, Part 1: The WSG

I was really into building model cars as a kid. My bedroom shelves were filled with 1/24 scale funny cars, dragsters and other exotic miniature automobilia from Revell or Monogram. In the years leading up to giving up the hobby, I was making more elaborate F1 car kits from Tamiya. I loved the activity (and I fully credit my immersion in model kit instructions and diagrams with inspiring my career as a technical writer), but there was a limit to what I could do with the tools and the money and the space I had available. On top of everything else, I was more into rock 'n' roll than farting around with plastic models.

That urge to make stuff has always been there, so when I discovered the world of synth DIY, it seemed like the perfect thing. You mean I can stick together a bunch of pieces from a kit and then make noise with the finished product? Let’s get cracking! I recalled enough of my Grade 8 Electronics class to remember that it was basically super fun to solder. That LED Roulette Wheel I made for my final project didn’t look like much, but it worked from the get-go.

I’d been looking at videos for devices like the Sleepdrone 5, and the idea of a simple noise box really appealed to me. Eventually I found what looked like an ideal first project for me: The MusicFrom Outer Space Weird Sound Generator (or WSG). It had four oscillators that could be tuned somewhat musically, along with LFOs (Low Frequency Oscillators) to mess with the main oscillators and produce various rhythmic/tremolo effects, and a basic filter to produce that classic synth “frequency sweep” akin to a guitarist's wah-wah pedal. The WSG was more versatile than the other drone boxes I’d seen, and it came as a complete kit. The only part I'd have to make from scratch was a wooden case to house the faceplate, circuitboard and clumps of wiring when I’d finished.

I sent my money to Ray Wilson, the genius behind MFOS, and the kit arrived soon after. After buying a few tools (a $20 soldering iron, solder, and wire snips from The Source), I took everything up to my family’s place on Mayne Island and got to work.

[Note: Ray Wilson passed away from cancer earlier this year. Like I say, he was a genius and a true DIY guru. His book Make: Analog Synthesizers was a huge help, and I recommend it highly if you’re thinking of getting into this sort of thing. This series of blog posts is dedicated, with thanks, to Ray.]

Oh, I forgot to say that, in order to reacquaint myself with soldering, I first built a very simple metronome from a kit I got from my neighbourhood electronics shop. Even though the thing consisted of about eight parts, it was still a thrill to plug in the battery and hear it emit a faint “click, click, click”. My Grade 8 regression was complete!

Here are some pictures I took of my WSG build as it progressed.

Preparing the front panel. Everything laid out in true anal fashion.

The circuit board's almost done, save for the ICs. Compared to some of the soldering insanity I've put myself through lately, this looks really simple in retrospect!

Preparing the front panel.

Wiring up the front panel. This is the trickiest part of all the MFOS projects I've done.

A successful first test.

The biggest challenge was building the box. I came up with this cunning angled design, but it turns out that I'm a useless draftsperson and my woodworking skills are no better. You can't imagine how much anguish it caused, fashioning four small pieces of wood together to form a (rough) square. The black paint hides a shitshow of splinters, splits and mangled nail heads. 
Next post: The Noise Toaster.

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