MIDIfying Jenny – A Call To Arms

Isn’t it about time my beloved Jenny got her own MIDI interface?

JEN SX-1000 front with ATMEGA chip

To be sure, microcontroller-based interfaces for the JEN SX-1000 do exist. Apart from the commercial CV/Gate solutions by Kenton, there is Neil Johnson’s keyboard interface design. But even if you can get hold of the PCB – a supplier in the JEN SX-1000 group on Facebook had a batch made – the design has an intimidating parts list, and takes some serious time to build.

Is it possible to do it simpler? Emboldened by my success building a small Arduino-based MIDI controller, I decided to start a midification effort that is

  • easy to do (requiring only basic soldering skills, if any)
  • easy to get (by using components that you can buy on Amazon if you have to),
  • easy to develop (using standard solutions from the Arduino community),
  • easy to schedule (because the project is divided up into little steps, each of which is a small afternoon sub-project with instant gratification),
  • easy to participate (by contributing own ideas and code for parts of the project).

I will describe the basic layout of the MIDI upgrade kit project here. Each step, i.e. each sub-project, will then be treated in a new post, depending how fast I (or the community) get them done.

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Caveat

Nachdem ich gerade billigen und schnellen Erfolg beim Bau eines eigenen MIDI-Controllers hatte und deshalb ersthaft darüber nachdenke, ein größeres Analogsynth-MIDIfizierungs-Projekt mit Jenny anzugehen: eine kleine Erinnerung.

"Wenn einer, der mit Mühe kaum/Geflogen ist auf einen Baum,//Schon glaubt, dass er ein Vogel wär - //So irrt sich der." Der Frosch, der auf der Nase landet.
Wie sagt doch ein guter Freund immer:

„Das Schlimmste, was uns passieren kann, ist, dass wir Erfolg haben.“

A love letter to Jenny: Tremolo and Key Tracking Mod

This JEN SX-1000 belongs to Stéphane in France, who wrote to tell me of the three mods he did. I have never seen two of them before – a Tremolo control, and variable filter tracking. Which would make Gordon Reid very, very happy.

So here is Stéphane’s letter:

„Hello, here are some modifications for the Jen synthetone SX1000. Nothing is disconnected. Components are added.“

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A new glide pot for Jenny

A bit of TLC for my oldest synthesizer: Jenny is getting a new potentiometer. As the synth’s pots were rather cheap, open types that gather dust, and are 40 years old now, they have become all scratchy and jumpy. As I have mentioned before, I am not the greatest fan of Kontakt spray and similar solvents/cleaners, so I bought replacements. But I never found the time to actually replace them.

JEN SX-1000's

This knob is a good place to start: The „glide“ potentiometer is in charge of portamento, and it is one of the first things that might make Jenny fail (see Neil Johnson’s site). A faulty glide pot means that the synth will only ever play the same note regardless of which key you press. So I did replace that pot, which is pretty straightforward – you’ll find some pictures in this gallery. (It is a 2.2M linear type BTW.)

Overview of potentiometer values

This is an overview of the potentiometer values, some of them are linear, some logarithmic, a few antilog. The most obvious candidates for replacement, apart from the glide pot, would be Frequency (100k) and Resonance (100k) for the filter, and Tune (10k).

Whitening Jenny’s smile: Bleaching old synth keys

Jenny – my old 70s monosynth – is a beauty, and I love her knobby face. Her smile, though, has yellowed over the decades. So to make Jenny even more attractive, I decided to try and bleach the keys with hydrogen peroxide.

TL;DR: Effect has been minimal, so it’s probably not worth it. But it was fun. If you try it, make the Retrobright bleaching gel, don’t use a hydrogen peroxide bath. And have a good UV source.

Old keys with a slightly newer key on top of them

Jenny’s keyboard compared to a key from a mid-80s Roland JX8P synth

In School, I used to hate chemistry. Did I mention that I used to hate chemistry? Okay, I did (when successfully reviving Jenny’s keyboard contact springs by cooking them)

So here’s what I did.

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Securing Jenny’s power supply

Pretty straightforward, this one: Replace the JEN SX-1000’s fixed power cable with an IEC socket. (Like weird German words? You’ll love this: In German, this thing is called a „Kaltgerätestecker“, more precisely, a „Kaltgeräte-Steckverbinderbuchse“, which translates to „Cold unit connector socket“. Don’t ask me.)

Jenny's backside

No problems here apart from cutting a hole for the socket; I used steel drills to mark the corners of the cutout and then cut the steel with my Dremel tool. Lots of metal dust but fast, and it did the job precisely.

A word on Jenny’s power supply: It’s extremely oldschool – a transformer and a diode bridge generating +/-18VDC, two 7812 regulators generating +12V and -12V, and another 7805 regulator generating the +5V supply rail from the 12V. If you would like your JEN to be a bit more eco-friendly I’d advise replacing those regulators by the 2931CT low-dropout type, but apart from that, there’s hardly any reason to look at the power supply – it’s rather solid and possibly not your primary concern if the synth does not work.

Adding a slightly odd sub-oscillator circuit to Jenny

Let’s start with some good news: Jenny’s here to stay with me, so I can start some serious modding. The single VCO and the filter design make it hard for her to growl credibly, so I tried to make her bark and her bite a bit tougher, using bits and gates from my basement supplies: adding a sub-oscillator, and pre-filter overdrive.

Jen SX-1000 oscillator/mixer section

Subjenny

The sub-oscillator is simple and has been done by many great modders: You add a divider circuit to produce a one-octave (or two-octave) square-wave sub-oscillator and feed the signal to the unused „Off“ terminal of the noise selector switch (over a 100k resistor so that the sub-osc signal is not overly loud). So now when the noise generators are switched off you can use the noise dial to add some deepness.

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When exactly did analog synths become cool again?

Have a look at this picture.
First picture of the JEN SX-1000 after it arrived
Do you like what you see? Of course you do.

Analog is cool. Prices for analog gear are consistently going up. Just when processing power, sophisticated audio algorithms and smooth user interfaces have become ubiquitous, manufacturers have started developing and selling new analog synth hardware. Yes, I know: Analog sounds different, you say. Tell you what: I don’t believe it. Reminds me of those types who swore that golden CDs sounded better than the silver ones. It’s not the sound. Like I said: Analog is cool.

Just about thirty years ago, analog became uncool. Yamaha’s digital DX7 synth proved that digital was cheaper, more reliable, and more versatile than the old technology. Analog became harder and harder to sell, even in the discount variety that came without all the expensive knobs and switches, and one by one, the former giants went out of business: ARP. EMS. Oberheim. Moog. The whole Italian synth industry. Poof.

When did analog become fashionable again? The simple JEN synthesizer I am fixing and upgrading may provide an answer to this question. To be honest, there is quite a lot not to like about this machine. Single oscillator: tends to sound thin. Simple filter design: lacking bass punch and proper key tracking. Only one LFO with only one waveform (triangle). Portamento but no legato. Not to mention the no-brainers of modern (ie 1980s ff.) technology: preset memory, MIDI and USB interface, stable tuning.

On Sonicstate.com, there is a review page for the Jen SX-1000. Users may rate their synth from 0 to 5 points, 5 being the top rating. Taking these reviews, you can see the gradual change from fairly mixed reviews to an unanimously positive opinion.

jensx-cool

Granted, there is a systematic bias: why should anybody who didn’t like analogs to begin with acquire and rate a Jen? Still, this graph shows one thing to me: The point where analogs became cool again was somewhere around 2001 to 2002.

Now we know when. If you’ve got the patience, let me argue why.

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Reviving Jenny, or: contacts cooked to life

An Italian beauty, fallen on hard times – starting her career as a budget singer, forced out of business, living in a basement for more than a dozen years – and come to my house by accident. Now I am trying to get her back in shape – and to make her voice fuller than it has ever been. Her full name is JEN SX-1000 Synthetone, but she is affectionately known as Jenny.

Jen SX-1000 Synthetone after basic cleaning. Some pot caps missing.

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