Recently, one of my regular customers put his Roland MPG-80 up for sale, having acquired a Retrtoaktiv MPG-8X. I’ve always, always wanted a MPG-80 to (obviously) go with my MKS-80 but I’ve never seen one in the kind of condition I’d like. Dan’s MPG-80 however, was pristine so I made him an offer which he conditionally accepted, the condition being that I provide him with a Roland SH-101 service.
Dan told me that he’d picked it up at a knock-down price but although cosmetically things seemed okay, some sliders weren’t working properly, some keys were intermittent as well as similar problems with power. Hmm… Okay, let’s have a look.
Well, when I took this thing apart, I was shocked to see the dust and grime within. On top of that, it had sustained fluid damage and from what I could tell, twice!
This SH-101 was completely full of crap! It was clear that this poor ol’ gal had been kept in a smoker’s environment. The pads that cover the switches, just crumbled. That’s right. Tobacco smoke doesn’t just discolour, it reacts with certain materials, making them stiff and brittle.
It was no surprise then, to suss out why some keys were intermittent and why some sliders had quite poor performance. Dan, this is a little more than a standard Roland SH-101 service, mate!
I stripped the whole machine so as to wash the knobs, buttons, slider caps, keys and even the plastic top-case. With the afore mentioned exposure to smoke, I was very concerned that the keyboard contact strips would break as I removed them but I got lucky.
There were a few dry joints which were to be expected and some of the sliders couldn’t be cleaned and therefore required replacement.
While I was at, I also cleaned the sockets hoping that they would be okay. Dan supplied me with a power switch which I fitted but I also changed the DC input jack as the original seemed lose and let’s face it, after thirty-something years, why not?
After a gruelling seven hours, Dan’s SH-101 was back together again, so time to fire up. The machine switched on first time. Playing around the the DC input, power now was stable. Although I had sound, the HOLD function was stuck on. This is a relatively common problem and is often caused by the HOLD jack socket being stuck open. I’d already checked the sockets and quickly traced the source of the issue to a dry-joint that I had missed.
After an extensive testing of all functions, it was time to flip the machine over and recalibrate. As it turned out, things were quite good and I ended up not doing too much at all.
It’s unfortunate that the plastic pillars used to secure the metal bottom-case to the top-case, are so fragile. During my thirty years of fixing SH-101s, I haven’t yet found a way to cost-effectively and reliably repair these. Fortunately, so long the majority of them are intact, it’s not too much of a problem.
One of the pillars that secures the metal bottom case to the keyboard chassis was missing and the other had an incorrect self-tapping screw rammed into it at some point in its life, which has completely ruined it. The original pillars are very hard to come by and with a couple of the internal plastic pillars broken, it was important to ensure that the bottom-case is properly secured. I therefore fitted brand new M3 PCB spacers to the keyboard chassis, in place of the original pillars. Of course, I also had to dig out a couple of nice, shiny black M3 machine screws. It all ended up very secure and looking very tidy.
Kept near a heat source at some time, the battery compartment cover had warped slightly. The deformation was subtle but resulted in the cover sitting ever so slightly proud of the top of the top-case. Not too big a deal, in fact it’s hardly noticeable. I was tempted to gently heat the cover to see if I could make it straight again but these things are so fragile, I decided against it.
There’s a lot of talk on-line about the infamous Roland SH-101 discolouring. The SH-101 was released in three colours; red, blue and grey. ALL versions discolour and no one really knows why. Exposure to ultraviolet (sun) light seems to be the most common opinion but my own SH-101 has been kept in an artificially lit, smoke-free environment for most of its life and is now more pink than red! I can understand why people blame UV, however. Removing the battery compartment cover reveals the ‘original’ colour of your SH-101 suggesting that everywhere else which is of course exposed, will be discoloured by ambient UV. Oh well, just one of those weird mysteries of life, eh!
Another slightly annoying issue with the SH-101 is that it's very GROOVY!!!!! Yes, that's right. Those nicely aesthetic lines cut into the top-case add to the SH-101's cool look but they also gather all sorts of dust and crap over the years. Even if kept in a nice, clean environment, the grooves in the SH-101's top case do get dirty and getting it out can make a Roland SH-101 service a little longer than anticipated. 🙁
The brittle plastic, the weird decolourisation and the dirt gathering grooves in the top case don't of course detract from the SH-101's attributes. That classic analogue, mono-synth sound and the pure ease with which it can be manipulated, are what the SH-101 is really all about and perhaps decades after its launch, the niggles now simply add to its cute character.
Anyway, at long last, this Roland SH-101 now looks, feels and sounds fantastic. Nice and shiny, smooth and responsive controls and a solid keyboard, it's almost like new! It's always really exciting for me, when customers come over to collect their gear and I know Dan's busting to check out his refurbished Roland SH-101. 🙂
Launched in 1983, the humble but amazingly well-known and popular Roland SH-101 is pre-MIDI not that many seem to care! Being equipped with CV however, means that the SH-101 can be controlled by another source and as many of my customers will know, my favourite MIDI gadget / upgrade manufacturer, Kenton Electronics, offers a couple of options to to get your SH-101 controllable via MIDI. The SH-101 MIDI CV kit for example, is installed into your SH-101 and although requiring holes to be cut into the case for MIDI sockets, it does mean that you won't have another box floating around.
Kenton also makes a range of stand-alone CV / MIDI converters like the USB Solo, Pro Solo Mk 3 and Pro 2000 Mk 2. These gadgets are very fast and accurate and don't require any modifications to your synth's case. I've already mentioned that I've always been a big fan of Kenton's products, so if you do want to get your SH-101 connected, then I strongly suggest you check out their MIDI / CV converters, here.
As well as owning a SH-101 myself, I've worked on hundreds of them over the years and know this Roland classic, inside-out, so if you've got one that's in need of a service or if it just needs a little TLC, please don't hesitate to get in touch. 🙂
Recently, one of my customers brought in a Roland MKS-80 for repair. Well, no surprise there but... Tom also brought me a poorly sounding Roland SBF-325, one of the best ever flanger / chorus units ever made.... in my humble opinion.
Roland brought out the SBF-325 in 1979 and before things were designed with built-in obsolesce, this machine was on the market for seven years, just before I joined Roland (UK) Limited as Group Technical Manager in fact (oh, those were the days).
The SBF-325 reeks analogue. So much so, that if not tuned properly, you'll easily hear the LFO leaking into the audio via the Matsushita MN3007 bucket-brigade-delay-lines (BBDs). When set up correctly however and in accordance with Roland's service notes, this thing just sounds sweet.
The Roland SBF-325 is of course, a stereo flanger with three modes; mono (only Channel A is actually active but is split later on down the line to the two outputs), stereo and stereo with cross-mixing which outputs an extra wide stereo flanging effect by incorporating panning between the two delays.
The chorus was obviously designed to deliver Roland's famous, tried and tested chorus sound of the time and I guess there just wasn't a need to mess with it. The Juno-106, the JX-3P, the Boss CE-1 and so many more machines, used the very distinctive, smooth but rich Roland chorus effect.
In chorus mode, the modulation section works as it should but the feedback control doesn't do anything. Why would it?
The modulation section is very comprehensive with all the usual controls you'd want on a unit like this; centre frequency, rate (speed) and depth. For flanging in particular, 'feedback' is also important.
Now-a-days manufacturers seem to have the need to bung on a load of stuff that only they know what it does and that 'we' don't even want. The simplicity of machines like the SBF-325 reminds us of a time when things were just simpler but sounded new and cool!
The input and output levels are switchable between -16dBm and +4dBm. Unfortunately none are balanced, something that we take for granted, now-a-days. Actually, the sockets aren't PCB mounted which means that you might be able to make balanced inputs and outputs. Hmm... I have to think about that.
With input and output sockets on both the front and rear of the unit, there are also various options to invert one output with respect to the other and even invert the modulation on Channel B. Best of all however, is the provision for CV. Pre-MIDI, the front panel 'Ext CV In' jack, allows the LFO on the SBF-325 to be clocked from another machine including an external LFO. Even today, using a MIDI-to-CV converter, it's easily possible to link the SBF-325 to your DAW. How cool is that?
So, Tom has quite a lot of American gear and indeed this unit was a 117V example, as was the MKS-80 he brought me.
He told me that the unit was distorting and to be honest, I kind of had an idea what might be causing this.
From a service perspective, the problem with this early Roland stuff is that while the service notes go into as much detail as ever, the PCB is really quite difficult to navigate. Roland had this weird finish on the components side of their PCBs which after several minutes, can make you a little dizzy and trying to read component references is almost impossible. Having said that, the tracking on the underside of the board was graphically copied to the components side so once you got used to the bloody thing, this aspect of the board design could work in your favour.
So it took me a while to switch into 'Seventies' mode but it soon became apparent that one of the BBDs wasn't biased properly. Okay, not a problem, I thought. Let's go through the process. Ah! I couldn't actually bias it and soon found out why; a little resistor had gone way out of spec'. Ten minutes to change that and let's try again. Wow! We have no distortion in any of the flanger modes but... there were artefacts still present on channel B when in chorus mode. On top of that, it was obvious that there was excessive LFO clock leakage into the audio on the same channel.
The age of this machine made it a perfect candidate for a BBD swap-out and so I dropped in a pair of new Xvive MN3007s.
Tuning out the LFO noise is a little tricky on these machines as the pre-sets are so incredibly sensitive but I got there in the end.
Once the machine was distortion and LFO leak free, I cleaned all of the pots and switches. It seemed that they'd never been touched since the machine was made and I have to say, dialling in parameters suddenly felt and sounded very smooth, indeed.
Ah, that's more like it. Be warned however. If you're used to plug-ins or even digital processors, you might hear things in this old analogue gear that you don't like! There's a lot more interaction between harmonics and so the sound is more 'organic' than that of a digital processor or a bit of software. At some frequencies, things happen which might seem a little unexpected. This gives machines like the SBF-325 a certain character and it's not everyone's cup of tea. On the other hand, this is proper analogue flanging and chorusing as they were meant to be.
I love this stuff. I really do. In fact I'm actually thinking of designing a modern version of this classic analogue processor, perhaps using MIDI for external control instead of CV and give it some memory, too. Now there's a couple of ideas...
In the meantime, if you have a vintage effects processor like the Roland SBF-325 that needs a little TLC, give me a shout. Like I said, I just love this stuff.
Towards the end of the summer, one of my regular customers brought me a Roland MKS-80 for repair and full upgrade. While previously upgrading Jay's MKS-70, I mentioned my Aurora project to him and also showed him one of Guy Wilkinson's OLED modules that I'd installed in my own MKS-80. Jay was already familiar with my Live Forever battery upgrade.
Jay bought his Rev. 5 from Japan and while in excellent cosmetic condition, it did have a fault. Depending on the tone and parameters, one of the voices was either distorting or not tuning properly. 🙁
After learning about Aurora and seeing one of Guy Wilkinson's OLED modules in the flesh, Jay was keen to have his MKS-80 upgraded as well as repaired. As it turned out, Jay was going to be my very fist Aurora customer and we were both very excited.
Then, on 12th August, things turned upside-down for me as Hemel Hempstead got hit by a storm which overwhelmed many drainage systems, including one which was in the road leading down to the rear of my premises. Within ten minutes, my studio floor was under more than 20cm of dirty flood water.
Over subsequent weeks, My wife Julie, my youngest daughter Tsunami and I cleared out the rest of the studio. The lab was left 'till last however, as I had several customer units which were in mid-fix, Jay's MKS-80 being one of them. I also had to dry out and repair a lot of my own gear. It been a heavy few weeks with very little sleep.
Before proceeding with any upgrades, I wanted to fix the distortion / detune issue on this machine. The MKS-80 is very involved and the interdependencies between the analogue sections and even individual components, can yield some very surprising and unexpected results. Despite knowing this machine inside-out, fault-finding isn't always that straight-forward. I got there in the end though and changed two CEM3360 VCA chips, always dropping in turned-pin sockets when I do swap out ICs.
I'd already built and installed Aurora into my own MKS-80 so I was confident on the process and that it all worked. Doing the same for someone else's unit is still a little daunting, though.
I love the Roland MKS-80 and know it really well. So if you have one that's in need of repair or perhaps you're even considering one of the upgrades mentioned here, please don't hesitate to get in touch.
In the meantime, you can read about Aurora here and my RE-MKS-80 rack-ears here. Visit my shop to check out prices for my Live-Forever battery mod and installation of Guy Wilkinson's OLED module.
Following on from my post covering the installation of a replacement power supply into a Roland MKS-70, I decided to do another post on a whole bunch of cool Roland MKS-70 upgrades which I discovered during lock-down 2020. Apologies if some stuff is kinda repeated.
Back in April 2020, I got a Roland MKS-70 in for repair. It was powering up but wasn’t booting. While replacing original components that were over thirty years old on the power supply, another MKS-70 came in with err… power issues.
This all happened during lock-down so progress on the repairs was kinda slow. I did however, have lots of time to see what I could find on-line.
I very quickly came across supersynthprojects.com and over a period of days, got to know Guy Wilkinson, a vintage synth enthusiast with a very relevant background. Guy has developed a switched-mode power supply for the JX-10 and MKS-70.
Guy also supplies a variety of displays, one of which particularly caught my attention, the Super-JX OLED upgrade display. As many Super-JX owners will know, the original vacuum fluorescent display (or VFD) as well as the FIP coil that drives it, is just about impossible to get hold of now. VFDs and FIP coils fail, so any potential replacement is well worth checking out, especially if it's going to be OLED cool.
I've always wondered why some people use the adjective "sexy" to describe tech'. Guy's Super-JX OLED looks stunning and now I know. I just can't stop looking at it! 😛
As I continued my research into the world of Roland Super-JX upgrades, I came across vecoven.com and the Vecoven PWM upgrade; a kit which provides the Super-JX sounds with pulse-width modulation. WHAT!?!?!?!
Fred Vecoven sells the PWM upgrade as a self-assembly kit comprising two small PCBs (one for each voice board), lose components, three EPROMs and two replacement 80C320 processors (again one for each voice board). An option to buy populated PCBs is also available.
Neither the self-assembly kit or the pre-assembled PCBs kit are however, supplied with cabling or connectors, presumably because there are several potential mounting options. Guy's website has detailed installation instructions for Fred's PWM kit, both for the JX-10 and MKS-70.
Below is a pair of Vecoven PWM upgrade PCBs which I have made up myself.
The keen and eagle-eyed will have noticed that the ICs aren't soldered directly to the PCB and that instead, I've chosen to use turned-pin sockets; always a good idea!
Fred Vecoven has also rewritten the Super-JX firmware and has developed a flash upgrade module which, apart from increasing the memory to the equivalent of thirty-two Roland M64C cartridges (yes, that's right... 32 x M64Cs), allows firmware updates via MIDI. Fred's firmware also gives you some control over how Guy's displays work. Hey, is that teamwork or what?
Well it just so happens that I also have a Roland MKS-70 (yeah, I know... you're really surprised, right?) and all this stuff just sounded soooo exciting. Within a few days, I ended up with a switched-mode power supply PCB and an OLED kit from Guy and a PWM kit and a Super-JX flash module from Fred. My wife wasn't happy.
And I thought lock-down was going to be oh soooo boring!
I had to buy all the components for the P0004 power supply but conveniently, Guy has a very detailed bill of materials (BoM) on his website. This made components purchase very easy. The OLED module came fully assembled and Guy e-mailed me instructions on how to install it. As previously mentioned, Fred's PWM kit doesn't include connectors and cables so I also had to buy some bits to get this going.
Getting to know Guy and Fred was a privilege. In fact, I eventually struck up a deal with Guy and I am now offering ready-built versions of his P0004 switched-mode power supply board, as well as an installation service for this fantastic upgrade and his Super-JX replacement displays.
If you're fitting the switched-mode power supply module yourself and your MKS-70 or JX-10 has a 2-pin IEC mains input socket, then you must replace it with a 3-pin IEC mains input socket. The replacement switched-mode power supply MUST be connected to earth as must the chassis of your Super-JX.
I offer a comprehensive earth bonding kit comprising the following:
1 x IEC 3-pin chassis socket.
3 x pre-cut heat-shrink strips.
1 x insulating boot for IEC socket.
1 x M3 earth tag.
Installing these Roland Super-JX upgrades into my own MKS-70, was hard work but I had a lot of fun doing it and... I got to know a couple of seriously intelligent dudes.
My humble contribution to the awesome work that Guy and Fred have done, is a simple bracket which makes mounting the PWM boards into a MKS-70 a little easier. IMPORTANT:Since the bracket secures to the transformer mounting studs, it can only be fitted if Guy's P0004 switched-mode power supply is also installed.
The IDC connectors I've used, don't have the tidy fold-over clamp (retainer). That's because those ones are too high and this neat little mounting solution won't work as the whole assembly will simply be too high to fit in the MKS-70's 2U case.
The other point to note is that the V01 mounting bracket puts the Vecoven PWM daughter-boards, in very close proximity of the voice-boards. Hence and unlike if mounting the Vecoven PWM daughter-boards to the voice-boards, vertical and NOT right-angle IDC headers must be fitted to the PWM boards.
I wasn't going to offer this bracket as an item as it didn't seem worth it but I've been persuaded to get some made up and so I’m selling them with fixing hardware (screws, washers, spacers), as a kit for 27.60 GBP. This includes tax but excludes shipping. If you fancy one, you can either buy now from here or just message me.
Note that the bracket isn't necessary when fitting the PWM kit into a JX-10.
Inspired by Guy's switched-mode power supply, I've proposed a couple of joint projects so watch this space!
!!! WORDS OF CAUTION !!!
These machines are over thirty years old. As such, nuts and screws have seriously bedded in. You may find some glue around the nuts and even some signs of corrosion.
If you're upgrading one of these machines yourself, please take care when undoing nuts and screws. The studs which secure the massive heat-sink plate of the original power supply and also the transformer for example, can become lose. When trying to remove the nuts on the inside of the chassis, they'll just spin around and they won't undo. If this happens, you'll need a pair of mole-grips to carefully hold the studs from underneath the case while gently loosening the nuts with a box spanner on the inside of the case.
Mole grips can be a little aggressive so you might want to think about protecting the case with some thick tape. Put the tape around the lug of each stud and also put some tape on the tips of the jaws of the mole-grips. I found thick masking tape best for the case and lugs and cloth (or gaffer) tape is good on the mole-grips.
When re-assembling, I would recommend replacing the nuts and soaking them in a lubricant like WD-40 prior to fitting.
!!! NOT FOR THE FAINT HEARTED !!!
The second point I should make is that with the exception of the Vecoven Flash module, all other upgrades mentioned here, require some considerable experience of soldering, desoldering, working with surface-mount devices and respecting electrical safety and electrostatic sensitivity. You should also be prepared to drill into existing PCBs and / or original chassis metal work.
!!! Remember, if you get it wrong, you might permanently damage your synth !!!
Today, my MKS-70 still looks pretty much as it did when my good friend Rob donated it to me, several months ago. Under the bonnet however, it’s quite a different beast. The sound is still lush and beautiful but...
As a result of installing Guy’s P0004 switched-mode power supply, not only has reliability and longevity been increased but this machine can be plugged straight into just about any mains supply on the planet.
The sounds can now benefit from pulse-width modulation thanks to the Vecoven PWM upgrade.
The Vecoven Super-JX flash module has increased the memory to a ridiculous amount; more patch changes and less SysEx transfers!
Firmware updates can now be performed over MIDI.
Guy's Super-JX OLED display looks quite simply, beautiful. To the experienced Super-JX user, it might be the only indication that something is err... different.
The Super-JX OLED will live much longer than the original VFD and FIP coil which can only give peace-of-mind.
LIVE FOREVER BATTERY MOD
This is something I do which isn't unique to the Roland MKS-70 and which can be fitted into almost any synthesiser or effects processor. It's NOT literally a 'Live Forever' battery mod as nothing obviously lives forever. The chances are however, that it'll out live you!
The damage caused by battery leakage can be irreversible. It's not just a case of losing all those tones and patches that you err... forgot to back up. Battery leakage can seriously damage the PCB on which the battery is mounted; usually the CPU board in most machines.
I mount a high-capacity lithium battery off any PCB giving you the following three main benefits:
Will last a lot longer than the standard CR2032 which is found in most synthesisers and effects processors.
Mounted off-PCB so in the remote event that it does leak, sensitive electronics inside your equipment is protected.
Positioned such that battery voltage can be easily checked by only removing the top of your machine.
If you missed it earlier, all my prices can be found here.
SUPER-JX EDITORS, CONTROLLERS, PROGRAMMERS
Anyone with a Super-JX will be aware of the Roland PG-800, a programmer / editor, specifically for the JX-10 and MKS-70. Today, PG-800s are hard to find, relatively expensive and quite honestly, you'd be lucky to find one in really good condition. I'm not talking cosmetically but electronically and it's worth bearing in mind, that parts are becoming ever scarcer.
Thankfully, a company called RetroAktiv makes a small collection of hardware programmer / editors for several popular vintage synthesisers... including our beloved Super-JX.
I don't have one of these myself but I've heard only good things about the RetroAktiv MPG-70. On top of that... damn, it looks good!
At 875 USD, the RetroAktiv MPG-70 costs a couple of hundred USD more than an original Roland PG-800. The thing is, even if you forget about the fact that this box is going to be considerably more reliable than thirty-something year old electronics, you're getting a lot more for your money and (I'm going to say it again) it just looks awesome.
If you're still not convinced, then RetroAktiv also makes a smaller Super-JX editor called the MPG-8, which retails for just 349 USD.
One of the many features of both of these controllers, is full compatibility with the Vecoven PWM upgrade and firmwares.
For some time now, I've been using a plug-in called Ctrlr. It’s basically an open-source environment for Windows, OS X and Linux, which allows users to develop programmers and editors for just about anything. Many users share their ‘panels’ on the Ctrlr website and I was so surprised to find a panel specifically for the Vecoven V.4 firmware upgraded Roland Super-JX. This doesn't really fall into the category of Roland MKS-70 upgrades as such but I think it still deserves a mention. Available for Windows and OS X, 32 or 64-bit and in plug-in or stand-alone format, you really need to check this out. Oh and it's free! 😀
The RetroAktiv programmers will work with Super-JXs running standard (factory) firmware although some sliders and knobs won't do anything as there's no PWM to modify, for example. The Ctrlr panel above will ONLY work with Vecoven version 4 firmware. While I've seen Ctrlr panels that'll work with Vecoven version 3 firmware, I haven't come across anything that'll work with bog standard Roland firmware.
It's been most reassuring to discover that I'm not alone, that there's a whole community out there that share my appreciation and even passion, for this underrated monster of a synthesiser. I'm so grateful to people like Guy, Fred and the RetroAktiv crew, who after more than thirty years from it's launch, have embraced the potential of the Roland Super-JX, developing upgrades that ensure this magnificent machine lives on.
I'd love to contribute what I can so please don't hesitate to contact me if you'd like more information on any of the Roland MKS-70 upgrades (or JX-10 upgrades) mentioned here. I'd love to hear from fellow fans of this awesome synth. 😎
In the meantime, here's a few links that you might want to check out: