Sunday, 9 January 2022

What Would The DX200 Front Panel Look Like If It Was Designed Now?

Modding, modfiying or customising musical equipment is almost as addictive as GAS, the Gear Acquisition Syndrome that many synthesizer 'collectors' suffer from. But in my mind, there are two very different reasons for modifying a piece of music gear: 

Changing (usually enhancing, but not always) what it does or how it does it; 


Making it look different (better, but not always...)

I usually tend to go down the 'Enhancing Functionality' route, and so previous blog posts have covered a variety of mods:

- Roland TR-505

- Yamaha RM1x

- Rebel Technology OWL Pedal

But sometimes, I get a different itch. In this case, it was triggered by two otherwise apparently unconnected things. (Isn't that always the way!)

Thing 1

DJ Tech Tools are a small, DJ-owned DJ-equipment online store (physically located on the West Coast of the US) that also do some things which are much more oriented towards MIDI musicians. The MIDI Fighter 3D and the MIDI Fighter Twister are two MIDI Controllers (one for button mashing (finger drumming), and one for controlling lots of MIDI CCs) that are uncompromisingly professional, are built to withstand serious abuse, and I have both of them! (And I love them and use them all the time!)  They also do very nicely spec'ed audio and USB cables in a variety of bold colours. 

But their creative use of colour goes further than that - they also do Chroma Caps (replacement control knobs in bright colours) and Luma Caps (knobs which glow really nicely!). These are designed for use on stage in poor lighting, where you need to be able to find a specific control knob reliably and quickly. Gear manufacturers love black knobs, and the modern trend for soft rubbery knobs means that I have some examples where the knobs totally vanish in low light! 

One thing that bears repeating about Chroma Caps: Read the 'Technical Details' documentation carefully before ordering! The main diagrams show the view from BELOW the knob, not ABOVE! The first time I ordered I got it wrong, and my knobs were all 180 degrees off...

Anyway, I originally bought some Chroma Caps to replace a knob that had got damaged on a very old piece of Novation gear (I was using it, Officer!), and I really liked them. And late in 2021 I bought some to jazz/pimp up (you can use whatever era's slang you prefer) some of my vintage gear that tends to get used live, and when they asked me for a review, then this got me thinking...

Thing 2

Amplitube are known for their VST audio processing plug-ins (Parent company IK Multimedia does lots of other music stuff as well!). But recently, they have branched out into doing real physical 'boutique' guitar pedals that take the VSTs and make them available to a different audience: guitarists, but also the apparently growing number of synth/modular people who put audio through pedals (I can't help but point the finger at Christian Henson of Spitfire Audio for being a major populariser of this practice, and many other things!) 

The interesting aspect in terms of user interface is that each of the four pedals is colour coded and co-ordinated - but not perfectly. So the X-Space pedal is for reverb, and is blue - except for the display, which is green. The X-Time pedal is for delay, and is green, except for the display, which is orange. The X-Vibe modulation effects pedal is orange, and the display is orange, and the X-Drive distortion/overdrive pedal is red, with a red display. Notice how the X-Gear pedals are almost colour co-ordinated, but not quite...

(You may have also noticed that the photo above is strange... This is because I rotated an image taken at an angle showing the pedals in perspective, and so the viewing position isn't quite where you expect it to be, and so it looks peculiar. If you tilt your head to the left by about 30 degrees, then it should look fine!)

The Mod Proposal

The Yamaha Loop Factory 'desktop' series (the AN200, DX200 and the SU200) are arguably one of the quieter backwaters of Yamaha history. They are the sort of bits of gear which combine some very good features with some unfortunate omissions - and yes, I know that this is just the innate nature of musical gear (in fact, any gear!), particularly at the lower end of the range. But the limited front panel editing, and the complexities of trying to run late 1990s software on modern computers (How about a WebMIDI version, Yamaha, please?), probably put them in the 4 or 5 out of 10 category - although the prices on eBay or Reverb don't seem to reflect this... But I still love them and use them!

Warts and all, the AN200's early Virtual Analogue (VA) synthesis and the DX200's FM synthesis (with a VA Filter!) sound pretty good, even 25 years on, and I figured that live use would be much easier with some Chroma Caps. So here's the AN200 post-capping:

What is really interesting is that the AN200's orange colour-scheme works really well with the large chunky red 7-segment LED display and the little red LEDs, and the orange illuminated buttons.

And then to the DX200:

Oh dear! It seems that for the DX200, the green theme doesn't work at all with the red and orange LEDs. If anything, the green Chroma Caps actually make the orange feel even more wrong! It might have worked in the late 90s, but my modern-influenced eyes looking at the green (especially the rather primary green Chroma Caps - unfortunately DJTT don't do a cyan colour choice!) look at it and find it rather unsettling. 

In fact, it cries out for an aesthetic rework: change the 7-segment displays to green, and change the red and orange LEDs to green (or even an RGB LED with the green and blue LEDs lit!). But that's a huge amount of work! (Ok, so although the main PCB is surface mount, the boards with the LEDs are all thru-hole, but it is still a lot of desoldering on old lead-based solder! And I don't like the look of those soft, probably membrane switches at the bottom...) Assuming that all went well (ho ho), here's what it might look like after a lot of time and effort:

 Which, poor photoshopping apart, makes a huge difference. It now looks 'right'! So in my humble opinion, if Yamaha were designing the DX200 now, they would definitely use green LEDs. 

So, I now face a dilemma. Do I leave it alone, or do I replace the LEDs? (Or do I simply remove the Chroma Caps!) If you thought GAS was bad, then getting colours right when customising vintage gear might be worse!


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