Friday, December 13, 2019

DIY Front Panel Fun!!

Graphics time! How did I get here?

I never thought I'd do any graphic design (ever) but when you are into A-DIwhY I guess you are forced. What's an old rock and roller supposed to do? Use a Sharpie? A cardboard box? I guess that works. But I am finding with the right tools and time to kill, even for someone like me with a really crappy eye, front panel design is hours of fun.

How I do it to date. You've heard of good-better-best?  I have crappy but works ("CBW"), "A-OK", and "pretty good".

"Crappy but works": I order "alubase" blank front panels from PCBWAY in China and then use Brother P-Touch tape for legends. CBW method is a pretty new thing for me--I have been doing the metal-n-tape thing lately to test my designs before committing to a real front panel.

"A-OK": I can make Lazertran panels at home for cheap, and with some work they come out, well, A-OK. I peel the CBW ptouch labels off a working module sometimes and then replace it with Lazertran; that way we know the metalwork is already done and is good to go.

Lazertran has been tricky to get the hang of; but after some practice I can usually get good results. Read my post about how to apply Lazertran to your metal panels here.

"Pretty good": Front Panel Express.  FPE can actually be really pro looking as long as I don't make mistakes in the design and generally punt it. Post on FPE is here. Problem is FPE costs about $40-50+ USD per panel, and if you make a mistake, well, maybe you melt it down and use it as a beer can but pretty much your dough is gone.

Update! 1-10-20 New kid on the block (for me anyway).  "Mr. Label" Use laser printed vinyl cutouts to dress up your panels. Simple, and it works! I put the quality of results somewhere between Lazertran and FPE--good enough for a lot of use cases. Post is here. If you want to further economize by sticking Mr. Label a front panel using a PCB, take a look at the post here. Using the Mr. Label and PCB's you can get decent custom front panels for next to nothing.

So What? I am working on 5 panels at once right now: Let's start with Morphlag. 
I am going for a crazy look--think pinball machine; thinking of these guys a bit? The Super-D!! "logo" (why would a one off need a logo anyway??) is intentionally smeared, and arrows are going all over the place. TILT. Don't know why but this module seems to have that feeling.

I use Illustrator for all my Panel artwork. Illustrator has a lot of good arrow creation tools (arrows are created in AI by creating a line and clicking "stroke"--you knew that right? I recall in older versions that wasn't how you did it, but for whatever reason: knowing we are all blind, Adobe moved around the furniture.)  We use a lot of arrows in what we do, I guess?

Since I'm still messing with this circuit I'll use Lazertran for this, but I am going to experiment with sanding and painting the front panel first, so it's not brushed aluminum. Painting the panel then applying lazertran may work better, or may be a complete bust, but for me it's something new. Hours of swearing!! Hours of fun!!

Next up: the balanced line driver. I went for a Mutron sort of look.  No idea why.  Just came out that way.  This will be FPE.  I have been using this module for weeks and all my rack's buzzes and hums are gone. And it's easy.  And it was a quick build.  Why didn't I build this years ago?

Yep, I'll ship this design out to Front Panel Express after triple checking all the measurements. Then I'll retire the sheet metal and Ptouch CBW ugliness.

Another one on the chopping block is the Arduino Pro Mini based Gate Delay. I am probably rushing this one since I pretty much just got it into the rack with a test panel but I need to keep moving.
Why "Gatemaster 2000"? I had to call it something. I was thinking "Wife Gater" or "WifeGater 2" but when I threw that idea out to my synth nerd friends they said I was crazy. Self evident. This will go straight to FPE, which I may regret--to not end up with a beer can I have to be super careful about the measurements. I can expand the drills if they are too small, but can't make 'em bigger right? 

This one has arrows pointing everywhere, and I still don't know if the all the lines and arrows mean anything to anyone including me, but I couldn't come up with anything better to indicate "gate-off follow" or "gate-off ignore" without getting too wordy.

And here's what I've been testing in my rack--Gate Delay in CPE form. Works!

Next on to an old one, a mixer I built on perf in 2005.  I am still using it today, and surprisingly it sounds really good I think.  No blog post on this, but you can find a bit about it on my website here.
I will go with FPE for this.  Here it is in my rack, check out the combo of custom waterslide model car decals and CBW tape. Go A's!

Finally the CEM VCO--will these damn VCO 3340 modules ever get done? I have been working on 3 of these VCOs: design, fab, build, octave, debug, etc., for quite a bit. Enough! I am going right to FPE on this and will have FPE make two front panels, so let's double down. As a guy I used to play music with (bass player of course) used to say: if you're going to make a mistake, make it loud.  

Here's the CBW test unit in my rack; seems to be working fine:

Here's the artwork for the VCO. Going for a clean look. May need to flip the octave switch 180 degrees but that's not hard.

Who's next? After fab for all this I'll post all of these as blog updates. This is a reasonably sizable chunk of dough for FPE, less $$ for Lazertran, and front panel creation and fab is time consuming. so let's measure once, cut twice. 

Until next time: don't breathe the fumes.

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