Clever Updates

As the technology improves and the availability of full software development suites for relatively low cost processors becomes more common, there has been a whole raft of very clever update systems for a variety of synths and other music devices. August was a month when a a slew of them came our way.
The days of having to buy a very expensive and intrusive Kenton kit to Midify a synth are just about over, a variety of relatively straightforward upgrade kits are now available for a much cheaper cost and an easier installation.
Modern upgrades tend towards much better integration with the original hardware, either a new CPU module for the synths old one, a new EPROM operating system, or both.

Each of these types of upgrades have their good and bad points, both in terms of installation and in terms of the end user experience. None we have come across are bad or fail to deliver what is advertised but the path to full customer satisfaction can be a little trickier than we would wish.

There are a lot of them, and we will attempt to evaluate them from the installation aspect, and from how difficult it is to deliver a finished synth to the client. By finished we mean an instrument either full of presets or patterns if a sequence device. These kits are not cheap, and installation is not cheap so after spending a couple or few hundred Euro having your machine upgraded, you would expect to switch it on and have it make pleasant noises or patterns. Some kits leave you with empty memory banks (more of them but still empty) which is perhaps a little unsatisfactory.

Europa Upgrade- Jupiter 6

This is a relatively simple upgrade, it is just a CPU upgrade. The old CPU must be cut out from the main CPU board (not the voice CPU) and some track cuts and links made around the CPU, but these are very tricky and require confidence and a steady hand with a scalpel. The new processor is faster and has flash memory enabling firmware updates over MIDI. The new chip has a completely rewritten Operating System for the Jupiter 6 and apart from improving on the weaknesses of the original Roland code, it augments many of the MIDI features of the synth to bring it up to date, such as slider cc transmission, Sysex bulk dumps and a much augmented Arpeggiator and extra patch storage.
The website is http://www.synthcom.com/products.html

IO Upgrade- Jupiter 4

This upgrade came almost out of the blue a few years ago, pretty well the last synth anyone would have expected a major MIDI upgrade for, but it is very cleverly engineered. As a lot of Roland synths do, the JP4 has one CPU for keyboard scanning and a second on the voice board. It is not quite as simple on the JP4 though, being such an early Polysynth from Roland. The Keyboard CPU does just that, and the Voice board CPU handles the presets and the housekeeping for the voice cards. The IO upgrade offers solutions for both aspects of this machine. If you just want MIDI in, then just buy the keyboard interface part of the upgrade, it’s a small daughterboard that hi-jacks the keyboard interface. MIDI in is interpreted as a local keyboard press. Firmware upgrades have allowed JP4 keyboard activity to be sent to MIDI out.. The hardest part is drilling the holes for the MIDI sockets. If you stump up some more cash you can have a new CPU to replace the Voice card processor. This allows MIDI cc outputs from most of the sliders as well as many more presets than the original 8, as well as a second processor generated LFO. Again this is a simple replacement of IC in the socket that the original Voice CPU sat in. The 2 new CPU’s have to be wired together to allow the information from the Voice CPU to be transmitted from the keyboard CPU which transmits MIDI. All in all a very clever upgrade which offers maximum upgrades for minimal intrusion. If you own a Jupiter 4, this kit is pretty well your only and at the same time the best option.
The Programmer update comes with a set of facsimiles of the original presets built in, good!
The website is at midipolis.blogspot.com

CHD Elektroservis updates

This company from the Czech Republic supply a range of upgrade kits for a variety of synths, hence the slightly strange header for this paragraph. They supply a simple MIDI interface which mainly works on the premise of hi-jacking the original synth’s keyboard circuitry and using MIDI data to pretend that it is a keyboard press. The Synth itself doesn’t know or care about the difference. The Synth’s catered for include the Juno 6 and 60, and the Korg Polysix and Poly 61. All of the above allow MIDI clock control of the Arpeggiator excepting the Poly 61, and even this may change soon. The installation is neat and unobtrusive, the hardest part being drilling the Steel rear panel for the MIDI socket. There are no great frills here like Patch change control or MIDI cc’s but even the version of the Poly 61 with MIDI didn’t have a Spec. as good as this. Settings like Receive Channel and Transpose and such are programmed from a Java program on a computer and are retained in Flash memory permanently.

We can heartily recommend these upgrades as they cost around €100, are not expensive to fit and will allow one of these mid-price classics to be integrated into the modern computer sequencer environment with minimal effect to the essence of the original machine. Presets work as before, good!
The website is at http://www.chd-el.cz

The TB303

There are two major upgrades for the 303 to give it MIDI control built in to the actual 303 itself, both are tiny modern CPU boards fitted inside the 303 at different positions. They are both very good at what they do but differ in the philosophy of what they want and how they achieve it.

The first of these is called the MB303, created by Colin Fraser of Sequentix fame, and it has the distinction of not changing the main 303 operating system at all, it still requires a fully functional 303 for it to work. This tiny board intercepts the signals at the latch chip for the DAC which normally sends out the CV for the 303’s synthesiser section. This is a very clever design solution as the original programming system still works in all it’s weird glories but can now send the sequences out over MIDI for storage or modification by whatever computer sequencing system that you use. In essence you can create the ultimate amazing weird 303 groove on the machine itself and when you are happy with it, get your computer sequencer to save it, modify it and have it play back through the 303. As is the norm now, all the new system settings are programmed from a Sysex file and stored in Flash ROM so that when you set it up to your satisfaction once, it won’t forget. The issue of Preset patterns is kind of moot with this update.
The website is www.sequentix.com

One other point to mention is where to put the MIDI sockets, there are multiple possibilities depending on how precious you are about the original perfection of your 303, if you are thinking collectors item then none of these options are for you, but if you really need a 303 in your DAW system and your life, then at least one bullet must be bitten, how big a hole in the case and where it should be!

The other big hitter in the internal 303 upgrade world is called the Quicksilver 303. This kit replaces the original CPU with a small daughterboard system which plugs into the old CPU space after the careful removal of the original chip. The new CPU is an Atmel Mega which is a fast chip with lots of flash RAM in it, which holds not only the operating system but also the patterns. This means that the original memory chips that were used to store the patterns can (and should) be removed. As the new Processor is from a completely different family than the original, the operating system has been completely rewritten from scratch, and with all the extra CPU power available, many of the limitations of the original 303 have been eliminated, albeit with a large increase in the number of new functions and a much longer user manual than the original.

An option to buy a new full set of Tact switches for a reasonable price is available from the website, and I recommend you take it. The last Quicksilver kit we had did come with this, and we are delighted the client bought these. Of the original 303 tact switches (24 in all) we measured 8 out of the 24 as being in any way useable. In an update that requires far more button pressing than the original, dodgy switches would in a major way negate the value of the upgrade.

The kit comes with panel mounted PS/2 (mouse and keyboard type Mini-Dins) connectors which fit neatly on the rear panel of the 303, and comes with converter cables to connect to normal MIDI leads. A USB interface is also an option which is currently just used for OS updates but hopefully will gain greater significance in the future.

The whole upgrade went in “smooth and by the numbers” and electrically worked first time. Making sense of all the new features may take a little longer. Comes with empty pattern banks, not so good!
The website is at www.socialentropy.com

Kiwitechnics 3P – for Roland JX3P

This kit comes from New Zealand as the name may suggest, and is just one of an increasing range of products from this source, and as hinted at above, is a major upgrade kit for the JX3P.

The Roland JX3P is one of the unsung heroes from the early days of MIDI, it had six voices, like the Juno’s but had two oscillators per voice with versatile CrossMod and RingMod functions that not even the JX8P or JX10 could dream of. The Juno’s had sliders which was a plus, but the later JX’s didn’t even have these unless a fairly expensive Programmer module was purchased. If memory serves, the Juno 106 and the JX3P were fairly concurrent with each other but the two different design teams came up with two different ways of building a Six voice Polysynth at a reasonable (for the time) price.

The 3P part of the name stood for Programmable Preset Polyphonic which gives a clue to which research depatment in Roland may have instigated it. The ROM presets were the default on switch on, and as the Bender and LFO Mod switch were not left of the keyboard in the usual way, then it seems obvious that this synth was not meant for Synthesists, but perhaps more for the home keyboardist, Organist or whatever..

That being said however, the designers wrung just about every possible synthesis possibility out of the minimum hardware. The Juno 106 had the infamous voice modules, each containing the filter circuit and 2 VCA’s, while the 3P had the standard Roland filter IC’s (IR3109) along with VCA’s made from matched transistors and an OpAmp, a technique used by Korg in some of their earlier products to save costs, such as the Polysix, Poly 61 and Trident. As with the Juno 106 the Envelopes and LFO were digitally generated but the 3P didn’t have enough remaining CPU power for Portamento which the 106 has. The other slight downside of the 3P was that it only had one CPU for everything whereas the 106 has two. The MIDI, keyboard and front panel are handled by the main CPU board in a 106, and a second similar CPU is devoted solely to voice generation. On the 3P there is only one processor, and a much less powerful one at that. As the CPU has only one serial input port, you cannot use MIDI and the PG200 programmer simultaneously, you have to switch between one or the other. The upsides of the 3P are several though, it has two oscillators per voice, and they can be digitally Cross-Modded or Ring-Modded and/or Sync’ed, no other Roland synth of the time had this apart from the Jupiters. It has a Chorus circuit using the same IC’s and technology as the 106, a small onboard sequencer and the added security of not having to wait for the filter modules to fail, as they all will on a 106 in time. The 3P could also respond to Key Velocity over MIDI with the suitable CPU Firmware. This neatly leads to the Kiwitechnics upgrade. This upgrade is a Daughterboard type, the original CPU has to be either carefully removed (or cut out) and a new CPU module fitted. This module has a powerful Atmel Mega processor with much more ROM space than the original as well as a lot of Flash RAM for Program storage. The full list of new features is almost endless, best to download the Pdf file from www.kiwitechnics.com

The upgrade also recreates the 32 presets of the original fairly accurately given all the new features, but doesn’t come with any new patches for the RAM portion of the memory, which is much expanded, which is a slight shame as a bunch of RAM presets showcasing the new abilities of the JX3P after the upgrade would be nice, particularly for the customer to make them feel immediately that the investment was worth while.

All in all a good upgrade and well worthwhile if you have a 3P, it also allows CC control over parameters via MIDI if you have a suitable controller, it has space for multiple sequence storage as well as a new Arpegiator which does almost anything you could ask of it.

The Hawk800 for the Poly 800

This is an interesting kit in that it is a kit, you receive a few bags of parts along with a blank PCB. You have to build the circuit board yourself, not difficult if you have a workbench full of equipment and the ability to understand a Pdf full of instructions. We built the board without any major problems apart from the fact that several chip sockets were destroyed in transit, and were replaced by high quality turned pin sockets, particularly those that connected via ribbon cables to the main Poly 800 board. This turned out to be the easy part of the job.

To move on to the good points of the kit, and there are many, it contains a boot ROM for the Poly 800, lots of Flash memory for patch storage and the Operating system itself, which has to be loaded via MIDI after a fairly complex sequence of events. The number of available new parameters is considerable, extra programmable envelopes, LFO’s, new ways of mixing the oscillator waveforms, cc control of all parameters, and even the ability to use the joystick control as a MIDI cc controller sent out from the synth. The full list of possibilities can be obtained from the user guide at www.hawk800.com

The upside of all this incredible extra power for this inherently underpowered synth is a tremendous amount of operating system complexity, and it still is a work in progress, so constant OS upgrades are more the norm than with most synth upgrades, and more features are being added all the time, so being a member of the forum is probably more important than with most other upgrades.

Conclusions

If we may, let us analyse what we think is needed to make a great upgrade from a service technician’s point of view, time and simplicity is of the essence, the neater the physical installation the quicker it is and the ease of loading the latest operating system for the upgrade is very important. Some upgrade suppliers change the way that the Sysex updates are performed in mid flight of the development process, meaning that it is possible (and quite likely) to kill the new CPU at the heart of your snazzy new upgrade. Of course being an active member of the appropriate forum might obviate this but if you own several modded synths you could spend your whole life monitoring Fora and not getting any music done.

1 Design the hardware
2 Write the perfect update system, and stick with it!
3 Then write the firmware for the actual improved features.

Installing and working with other peoples updates is difficult on many levels, but the most problems seem to be firmware related, it also would seem to be non productive for synth repair workshops, let us face it, repairing the original synth is difficult enough, but add to that new CPU’s and daughterboards and the fact that updates and fixes seem to require joining yet another forum and the updating system seems to change from month to month, then it is plain to see that these are not really a viable source of income for any business.

A lot of people own old synths, a lot of people want the latest upgrades for their favourites and most of these owners might have difficulty holding a soldering iron, and certainly won’t be comfortable with the complex PDF files that are associated with these upgrades, so the bottom line is… make it quick and easy for a synth technician to install to the client’s satisfaction. It is just not funny any more to have to join yet another forum to access the latest bug fixes for one of the many upgrades.

This was August, signing off on this month.

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