The Kit Is It

Feb 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Eddie Ciletti

EVOLUTION OF THE D.I.Y. MOVEMENT

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The magic combination of three ingredients — do it yourself (D.I.Y.), curiosity and tenacity — are essential to the success of audio entrepreneurs who have more passion than cash. Thanks to the Internet, that tradition has been reinvigorated on message boards, user's groups and by companies that have found new ways to help everyone — from newbies to veterans — learn and build stuff that looks less like a homemade prototype and more like the first in a new professional product line.

THE WAY IT WAS

The industrial revolution fueled the growth of technology well before the 20th century, but D.I.Y.'s evolution was sparked in the early 1920s when vacuum tubes brought AM radio into the home. Back then, people listened on the “crystal” sets — passive radio receivers that required no batteries or power supply. Believe it or not, there is enough current in the air to drive a pair of 2k-ohm headphones!

Figure 1a: One of Ciletti’s students took advantage of ExpressPCB.com by laying out this circuit board for a simple JFET preamp (circuit courtesy of Scott Hampton/Hamptone.com).

Figure 1a: One of Ciletti’s students took advantage of ExpressPCB.com by laying out this circuit board for a simple JFET preamp (circuit courtesy of Scott Hampton/Hamptone.com).

Before active electronics (and loudspeakers) became affordable to the masses, D.I.Y.'ers made their own crystal sets using many household remedies, such as winding coils around an oatmeal container or coupling the headphone to a horn to provide enough acoustic amplification to share with a friend or two. Kits and plans are still available for these simple, yet remarkable devices.

When high fidelity arrived in the '50s, kit companies like Dynaco, HH Scott, Fisher, McIntosh, Eico, Heathkit, Allied Radio/Knight-Kit and Lafayette Radio made hi-fi ham radio and electronic test equipment affordable for D.I.Y.'ers. Buying the kit version was a no-compromise way of getting a name-brand product, with the educational bonus of D.I.Y. Fully assembled Japanese goods arrived in the '60s and '70s that rivaled American prices and quality.

As those classic American companies were nudged toward the fade-out, one kit company — PAiA — was fading in, with electronic musical instrument kits as its D.I.Y. niche. PAiA's first products appeared in the late '60s, and 40 years later one of my students walked in with a brand-new FatMan analog MIDI synth that he built and wanted to modify.

GET BENT

It had to happen sooner or later, but from vintage analog it's a natural progression to vintage digital. These days, there's a geeky, underground electronic music movement known as “circuit bending.” It starts simply enough with the poking and probing of everyday toys and games to get unusual “internal” sounds, but that quickly evolves into a remarkable artistic and technical subculture and support group. Creating software and interfaces — such as adding a MIDI to a Game Boy — provides access to the primitive sounds of the “low-bit” world (2, 4 and 8-bits' worth) to make music that relies heavily on creative ways of making a little go a long way.

GOT THE PAPERWORK?

In 1985, about 10 years into my audio career, I built a reissue of a Dynaco PAS-3X, a vacuum tube preamp kit — the one I always wanted but couldn't afford. Looking back, every step was meticulously detailed (and part of a checklist), with much attention paid to soldering and wiring basics. Helping a friend sell a kit online, plus teaching, has made me that much more aware that the documentation is just as important, and possibly more important, than the kit itself.

CREATING MY LESSON PLAN

Which brings me to my most recent D.I.Y. project: teaching a 10-week basic electronics course in which students build their own preamp. On one hand, the technology is simple enough, but interconnecting it all can be a challenge for students without much specialized, fine-motor-skill experience. (Live and recorded videos were projected to assist students in developing their geek technique.) I refine this course every quarter, but I am always struggling for balance. Making the project easier would dilute its educational aspects, but it still has to be easy enough to complete within approximately 40 hours.

In addition to the basics, students are required to analyze the power supply by midterm and be able to draw the audio circuit schematic from memory for the final exam. In between, they stuff and solder all the components on the printed circuit boards (see the PCB in Figs. 1a and 1b), then wire all the connectors, pots, switches, etc.






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