Before You Begin Your DIY Journey...

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Potato Cakes

Well-known member
Joined
Jul 1, 2014
Messages
2,299
Location
Nashville, TN
About four years ago, I stumbled upon this magical place. I found it to be full of wonderful people offering not only kits and parts to allow me to build actual, real, and almost always better sounding gear than a good portion of commercial offerings for a fraction of a price, but they also freely gave their wisdom, patience, and suggestions for build ideas and troubleshooting. Up to this point I had considered myself very experienced with soldering, but only with various cables and connectors. I did not see how I could not just instantly be awesome working at the component level. After all, it was just soldering. My arrogance would instantly be replaced with humility mixed with frustration, confusion, and a splash of sadness. I found it to be a very rough road of learning about solder bridges, cold solder joints, component polarity, and all the other fun stuff that DIY youngsters come here asking about when their build doesn't pass audio. Since then, I have built a myriad of gear that I use for studio and touring as well as building for clients and helping others do basic troubleshooting. And even though I have been able to complete a number of complicated builds, I still find myself sometimes putting 100k where 100R goes and similar easy mistakes. So after doing things the hard way and spending way more money than I thought because I wanted to build everything before finishing anything, I feel compelled to offer some advice to others who are discovering this magical place for the first time to help them avoid pitfalls and frustration that I have experienced my journey.

Before we begin, you need to know it is understood that you know how to use a multimeter, a soldering iron, and tools like a wire stripper before attempting any project. This might read as slightly condescending but rudimentary questions like where to place the probes to measure voltage have been asked while trying to help someone troubleshoot. Those types of questions will generally not get a response, not out of mean-spiritedness, but to encourage one to investigate and do simple research on their own. And please keep in mind that this is DIY, not done for you (someone else's quote that I'm borrowing). For all of these projects be sure you are using a fine soldering tip and small gauge, quality solder. You want it to melt quickly and flow easily to decrease your chance of overheating components and making bad solder connections.

First thing is an order of what to build, whether if it is the type of thing you are looking to build or not. Learning DIY is the same as learning anything else that is new, you start with the basics and move on from there. I have seen numerous posts from people on the more advanced build threads stating that they are new or this is their first build followed by they are not able to pass audio and then asking if anyone has any ideas on what it could be. More than 90% (maybe >95%) of the time the problem is usually a bad solder joint or misplaced component, but in a sea of components and wires it is almost impossible for a beginner to spot a problem as they have not developed any methodology for searching for errors or even know where to start. The other reason for this project sequence is that in the build guide for these items you will be shown things like metering resistors, transformer wiring, and other knowledge that will be essential for taking on more intricate builds. And don't get distracted by any modification that exists for these circuits. It's always tempting to hotrod your projects, but since you are beginning DIY just focus on getting the project to work. Here is my suggested list in order:

1. Passive DI - In the DIY electronics world this is about a simple as it gets. I would recommend a full kit from diyrecordingequipment.com. The instructions they provide are very clear and you won't have to search for parts. And if you're building one you might as well build two just to be safe.
2. Active DI - Bumblebee pro audio sells two full kits. The JFET version should be a little easier of the two. PCB Grinder used to sell a full kit as well but I think that is now discontinued. I do not know of any other full active DI kits at this time.
3. CAPI VP25/VP26/VP312 (either one - variable version)- You may not necessarily want to get into 500 series, but this is the easiest way to start dealing with preamps as there is no power supply to build. Instructions for these are very helpful as you will be learning about a wide variety of components. Also, you can also use one of chunger's legendary build guides with phenomenal photos and instructions as well. A two channel 500 series chassis can be had for around $200 on the used market or you can get one from DIYRE for the same price. Don't forget to also get an extension jig. Buy your DOAs already assembled. Once you have completed one of these preamps and it is working then you can go back and try building a DOA kit. I would get a couple if you do as if you mess one up, you will find as a novice that it is easier to start over than desoldering and moving parts that are crammed in a tiny space. Also after you finish this, I would order one of the stepped gain kits to replace the variable gain knob to get the experience of working with Grayhill switches and soldering tiny pins placed very close together. Jeff's kits sound fantastic and will open your eyes to what the original designs were intended to be.
4. Bo Hansen DI - This is a good exercise in sourcing all of the parts yourself as well as selecting an enclosure and doing a little metal work all at the same time. Here is where you will discover how many different types of manufacturers there are for all the various small components. You may even order the wrong part, which is also a fun DIY lesson. Get one of the transformers that fit directly on the circuit board. OEP is the cheapest option, I think. This project will give you an idea of what to expect when considering much harder projects at are PCB only. On a side note I can attest these are great sounding DIs. When touring these are the ones I prefer to use and they have impressed other audio guys and musicians on a consistent basis.
5. GSSL - PCB Grinder now offers a full kit for this project. During this build you will deal with wiring power transformers and how not to shock yourself. You'll also deal with building circuits into a case. The first one I did required drilling holes for mounting standoffs for the boards, but I am not sure if that is still required with the entire kit. DO NOT BE TEMPTED TO MOD AT THIS TIME! There are several really awesome add on circuits to this design, but don't go there until after you have built this as is and it works properly. I tried to do all the mods on my first attempt and it was quite the failure. This is also a much larger board, but if you go very slow and double check everything you should have a working compressor right out of the gate. You will also become familiar with the orientation indicators on DIP-8 (TL072, NE5532, NE5534) and SIP-8 (THAT 2181) chips. Putting just one of these in backwards can let the magic smoke out of the board. The thread on this guy is a mile long, yet the majority of the problems wind up being a bad solder joint or a misplaced component(s). Again, go very slow. Force yourself if need be. There are a lot of parts but at this point you would have seen almost all of them and shouldn't be confused on how to install them. This also has good instructions that will make things easier.
6. Hairball Audio FET Rack kit (A or D) - This is the easiest way that I know of to build a real 1176 that, in my opinion, outperforms the modern reissues for a quarter of the price. The added benefit of doing this kit is you have to learn about calibrating circuits to make them work properly. Again, go very slow. Follow the instructions in order and with no deviation.
7. Microphone Parts S or T series kit - It might beneficial at this point to build a condenser mic just to get the experience of handling a large diaphragm capsule. The kits from microphone-parts.com have very clear instructions that make navigating microphone assembly less scary. And the finished project sounds very nice.

Again, this is just my recommended order of projects to build as a path to go from completely inexperienced to a more confident, fresher smelling solder jockey without enduring the pain and suffering that I experienced. Think of this as a comparatively inexpensive college course where you end up with some very nice sounding gear that gets regularly used and elevates the quality of your projects.

After all of the above, you should have the skills to take on any number of other projects you find desirable. THIS IS WHERE YOU NEED TO BE AWARE OF THE DANGERS OF DIY. Now having the confidence that you can build great gear, you will want to build all of it. And at once. This desire will cause you to lose focus and start to hoard a mountain of boards and parts while starting a bunch of projects but never see them through to the end because you get make it halfway and then want to start something else. Before you know it you will have a heap of parts that cost you a fortune with nothing to show for your time or treasure. So before you start any project, be sure you know what all is involved as far as time and money, and then stay the course till the end. This is a lesson that I have also had to learn the hard way.

I hope this information will help other new DIY'ers navigate this journey much more smoothly than it was for me. I do not regret starting this path and gaining knowledge and skills that I did as well as all the great gear I now have, but I could have gone about it much smarter strategically and financially. I am eternally grateful to the senior members here and all the wonderful projects they make available to this community and hope this place continues thrive and nurture newbies into circuitry wizards.

Thanks!

Paul
 
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So true, I know a lot of what you describe!

So much frustration to overcome at the beginning, dozens of times asking myself, "Am I mad, why am I doing THIS deliberatly? I could be going swimming!" But then a glorious feeling when you completed your first complex circuit and it sounds just beautiful, that´s invaluable!
Also, it´s a good school for patience, self-discipline and a systematical approach, and these skills help in all fields of life...
 
I'm still a newbie after years of posting here, reading, doing kits, and taking on some harder projects like microphones. There is so much to learn; I'll probably never understand half of what JR and PRR bandy about in most posts. I've started to make my peace with that, and realize I'm not really an electrician or audio wizard. I'm a guy who loves working with his hands and ultimately making some cool gear.

When I built my poctop M49 I had nothing but problems. The mic sounded glorious but had intolerable hum. After consulting many times with Dany (poctop), I decided to rebuild my PSU, which I did. This did not solve the problem. After much frustration I actually rebuilt the whole microphone too - and this did solve the problem.

I never learned why I had the terrible hum - although I certainly did try to track it down. But the thrill of making a working classic reproduction stays with me, and I love using that mic.

I guess pride of creation/ownership is something you can't get from anything else other than DIY.

Wish you all the best out there, and remember electricity can kill! Don't be a Darwin Award winner.

And finally - DIY is a serious disease/addiction. No 12-step groups to be found here; just willing slaves. You'll spend more time and money than just buying a damn compressor or whatever, but you'll be hooked.
 
Excellent post Paul. I will be referring people to this in the future.

Only other three things I can think to add:

1. If you get into DIY to save money, you won't, even if your time is free.

2. If you get into this to save money, and expect the level of service of a commercial pre made product, on your terribly soldered, first project, most of us can smell that from a mile away.  ;D

3. If your troubleshooting a project of any complexity, BUY AN OSCILLIOSCOPE!  8)
 
iampoor1 said:
Excellent post Paul. I will be referring people to this in the future.

Only other three things I can think to add:

1. If you get into DIY to save money, you won't, even if your time is free.

2. If you get into this to save money, and expect the level of service of a commercial pre made product, on your terribly soldered, first project, most of us can smell that from a mile away.  ;D

3. If your troubleshooting a project of any complexity, BUY AN OSCILLIOSCOPE!  8)

I definitely second item No. 2.

I would say that you can save money doing DIY, but only after you start to become fairly proficient at the process. In the beginning, not so much unless someone new to this world never makes a mistake and incurs the expense of having to buy more components to replace the ones that get ruined along the way or because the wrong ones where bought in the first order. But after all of the initial pain and suffering, that same person could build something like a HairBall Audio FET kit in about 4-6 hours and have something that will be on par if not exceed the sound quality of the reissues which run about $2k.

And yes, if you are going to try to build gear that requires an oscilloscope, buy one. Or know a friendly someone who does.

Thanks!

Paul
 
DIY can be misleading for sure. If you are into it just to save money - you will be disappointed.

I started doing DIY because I wanted to build a huge modular synthesizer for cheap, and also vintage style recording gear. But I soon realised that there is so much to it, that it's easier just to buy what you want.

What has revolutionised my DIY, is when I started to build projects for paying customers.
In the past 2 years I've been doing, I've completed several dozens of projects that I would put against any boutique commercial brand.
And in the first 5 years of my audio DIY just for myself, I only kinda-sorta completed just 1 project, and it doesn't even work that well.

The fact that somebody pays you for your work forces you to have higher standards in quality, and also work against a deadline.
Also it allows you to learn, experiment and have extra cash to invest in your hobby. I just couldn't afford paying hundreds of euro's for parts just to mess around.  ::)

I recommend selling your work to any serious hobbyist.
 
Years later after the initial post on this thread, I want to reiterate the point about greater than 95% of build issues being related to bad/missed solder joints and/or misplaced components. On my highly modded TAC Scorpion (TAC Scorpion Overhaul Odyssey) that is used for all of my studio mixing, I had a dead channel at the end of the console that I never used and didn't realize it was bad till sometime last year. I tried to fix it several times but since it was not needed for the most part, I would give up and move on to projects with higher priority. Last night I was determined to find the issue and it turns out the coupling capacitor after the EQ section was never making contact with the solder. It stayed in place on the board and I would get continuity when testing traces but there was never an electrical connection to the capacitor itself. After turning it over and over several times searching and testing for faults, I saw one of the legs of the capacitor come out and when I touched it the whole thing fell off the board. I soldered it back in place and it now works after about a year of not finding something so incredibly easy to fix. The whole time I thought I was thoroughly examining and testing.

On a distant but related note, I had ordered some live vocal microphones and all of them had a high noise floor with static pops. The manufacturer investigated and found that they had a bad solder joint issue for a specific production run.

So for the newer members, if you rule out bad/missed solder joints or misplaced components when troubleshooting, especially early in the process, then it is highly probably that is what the issue is. For more experienced members, same advice. If it is something that can happen with machine built boards it is most certainly something that can and does happen in DIY.


Thanks!

Paul
 
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