Vintage reliability?

How long can an all-analogue vintage monosynth last? Without CPUs, software of any kind, chips, just pure discrete circuitry, can they be maintained ‘indefinitely’?

I’ve flirted with buying cheap Japanese monosynths for quite some time and was hoping some of you could share your experiences.

MS-10, CS-5/10, SH-09/1/2

I’m assuming these are all discrete without any sort of CPUs or chips that cannot be replaced. Can they all be repaired easily if need be? Owning a 40 year old ticking time bomb isn’t something I want to get myself into.

If anyone here knows, please educate me, I’m naive.

Some vintage synths still have cpu. It depends how vintage we are talking.
I have an MS20, SH101, did have a Mono/Poly but that one went to a new home.

Basically the only thing you need to do is play them. Mine are totally fine. Things wear out, like the keyboard contacts, but that is an easy fix. What they dont like is being stored for decades collected dust and insect nests.

When you look at one just test every knob and make sure it does what it is supposed to do. I wouldn’t buy a vintage synth if it had any non working buttons, knobs sliders etc.

(Actually, I wouldn’t buy a vintage synth at all)

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Definitely don’t assume that these synths are 100% discrete, because they and many other vintage pieces have plenty of ICs that are custom or rare.

I get what Microtribe is saying about not buying vintage, but I think it all depends on the price. DEFINITELY do not pay “vintage prices” or collector-level money when you can use those fat stacks to buy a modern piece of analog or whatever gear that kicks ass, but if you can find a screaming deal on an awesome vintage synth, BUY IT. Obviously right? Because worst case scenario there is that you play it and sample it and sell for a profit.

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Do your research on the net for common issues that spring up before you purchase a particular vintage synth. For example, Juno 106s are known for the voice chips going out.

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Lots of vintage Roland and Yamaha synths used proprietary ICs for VCA, filter, etc. These might be hard to come by these days if they fail.

Owning and playing vintage synths can be quite satisfying and inspiring, but if you’re worrying about upkeep, I’d recommend buying something modern instead. Service and maintenance are a big part of owning vintage synths. It breaks my heart when goes wrong with one of my old synths (and there’s always something amiss with at least one at any given time) but I have the ability to troubleshoot many issues and do basic maintenance, and have associates that can repair the things I can’t.

These things are getting scarcer, more fragile, and more costly. At the same time there are lots of modern variants and clones coming into the market that can handily replace many of them and come with a warranty.

Having said that, there is often something special about playing a well-maintained classic.

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Nope. All electronic components ages, especially capacitors.

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Capacitors, particularly older ones, are one discrete component that have a tendency to fail, and change value. Also anything mechanical – switches, pots, sliders, keys and also connectors. Also older plastics run the risk of being poorly formulated for long life. These are often repairable.

Anything MIDI has a processor.

ADDED: Good to see we agree tnussb.

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Ditto… there are modern equivalents for almost everything now, so unless you get a particularly good deal (like an uncle giving away his stuff) there is no reason to own a 40 years old ticking time bomb.

Not to take into account the pleasure to own old rusty things of course, but that’s something beyond sound.

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Plastic and rubber are the first thing to die in old gear.

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having owned/still own lots of vintage Japanese and American synths, I worry more about the American ones than the Japanese ones. kinda like American vs Japanese cars… but I digress…

if it’s 40 years old… yes, it will occasionally need maintenance. yes, make sure it’s working 100% and has been serviced recently before you purchase it (none of these “I found this in my cousin’s closet, I think it’s fine…” auctions). yes, it’s MUCH better for the health of it to simply power it on regularly and play it than to let it sit for decades. yes, maybe some day it won’t work any more and your tech won’t be able to find parts or they’re too expensive. but… that’s life, right? (again, kinda like cars…) you’ll likely get decades of enjoyment out of it before that point. vintage stuff was made ridiculously better and is generally easier to find parts for/repair than new stuff. you just have to accept that occasionally it will need to be serviced. watch out for weirdness, learn how to fix simple stuff, find a local tech…you should be fine.

but back to the synths you want… I own an SH5, SH7, SH101, MS20, and a handful of other synths from Roland and Korg. and I have owned some of the CS Yamaha synths. they’re all really damn stable/reliable (again, built like absolute tanks compared to pretty much everything modern). it’s the 70’s era Moog/Sequential/Arp that you have to watch out for… anyway, crack it open and look for bulging capacitors. ask if the power supply has been checked/rebuilt recently. ask when it was calibrated last. those are your biggest concerns. not sudden explosion.

it’s a wonderful world, worth exploring, and there are still many gems to be found. have at it!

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My inherited SH-1’s square wave stopped functioning a good while ago, and the PWM only works intermittently and under manual rather than LFO or envelope control. I’ve not yet opened it up to have a look - and wouldn’t really know what to do if I did, while finding a local tech round these parts is not easy - but I still enjoy every other aspect of playing it as the filter sounds lovely, especially when latched. Sometimes the glitching is fun too.

An MC-202 a friend lent me the other week after sitting around gathering dust for decades had terribly scratchy filter frequency and resonance sliders, but a few hours of working them well and a drop of contact cleaner seems to have cleared them up for now.

Meanwhile, a Prophet-600 has been languishing in a basement for ~15 years, never having worked since I got hold of that, and once again it’s the cost of repairs that put me off doing much about it, though I really should one day. However, a couple of other vintage synths are functioning perfectly (so far…) and get plenty of use.

I’m not sure I would buy ancient synths as a result of these experiences, but I plan to enjoy having and using the ones that work until they eventually and inevitably conk out, or are in turn passed on to future generations.

Generally, I find it’s my new gear that starts failing 3-5 years after bought while the old stuff from the 70s and 80s keeps going strong. YMMV.

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I sold a few synths of the late 70’s early 80’s vintage, which worked perfectly, for brand new ones, which were immediately faulty.
If you have a tech look at your old gear the second you get drifting notes, cracklings etc, they should last till you go deaf of old age.

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I’ve been collecting, repairing and restoring vintage gear for years. Here’s a few tips if you’re thinking of going vintage.

1 - Make sure it’s complete. Nothing more annoying than missing knobs and fader caps, especially if you’re intending to get the instrument back to, or close to, factory condition.

2 - Do your research. As others have already said some synths suffer well known issues (Juno voice chips, PolySix CPU board etc). There are solutions out there to get around some of the more common/well known issues so factor the price of replacement parts (and labour if your not doing the work yourself).

3 - Not everything is available. While there are now a couple of sources for some previously obsolete parts such as 3340’s and 2164’s etc not everything has been remanufactured. Many vintage synths rely on chips like the 3328, quite a commonly used LPF chip but to my knowledge out of production since the 80’s. Like wise the CA3080 OTA and LM 3046 array are unobtainable new. There are plenty of CMOS and TTL chips that have ceased production too. You can sometimes find an alternative but not always pin for pin so some modification or daughterboard may be required.

4 - Be prepared to have to fettle from time to time. As well as general cleaning you might have to lube some sliders and get a bit more in-depth if you find you need to tune or scale stuff like oscillators. It’s not something you’ll be doing every day but you’ll prob need to pop the lid from time to time so a few hand tool and some test gear is super handy.

5 - If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I’ve seen plenty of issues caused by hamfisted ‘upgrade’ work. I’ve watched folk spend a small fortune re-capping and doing other pointless work because they’ve misdiagnosed an issue. Yeah, caps dry out and drift but I’ve got plenty of original components still going strong and doing their job. Electrolytic caps have fairly wide tolerances and many will perform perfectly well after decades of use.

Vintage ownership is a joy, I’m not trying to put you off, just be aware of some of the pitfalls.

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All good points. I should have added that I keep my stuff well-maintained by a knowledgeable techie and that some stuff with hard to obtain bits (e.g. my Prophet 5 and CS-30) I didn’t keep.

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Definitely - I really must find a replacement fader cap for the SH-1 at some point.

A wise approach. Some instruments can be kept going indefinitely with attention, occasionaly maintenance. There’s very little in a VCS3 or Synthi that can’t be replaced or substituted - same with a Minimoog. However, something like a Yamaha CS may be harder to deal with or remain out of commission for longer while looking for replacement parts.

I still keep my Prophet-5, despite the fact that I wouldn’t dare try to work on/in it myself. However, I live a couple of hours from Mike Metz, a well-respected vintage synth tech. If I didn’t, I doubt I’d have kept it around.

As a (muted) laugh, here’s a list of vintage gear that needs servicing in my studio at the moment:

Minimoog - needs j-wires cleaned, one rocker switch replaced, one rotary switch rewired
ARP 2600 - needs sliders cleaned, one minijack replaced
Roland SH-09 - needs flaky CV input jacks replaced
Yamaha CS-40M - mixer section needs looked at (osc 2 often suddenly changes level)
Roland CR-78 - needs re-capping
ARP Odyssey - needs j-wires cleaned
Another ARP Odyssey - needs complete restoration
PPG Wave 2.2 - needs keyboard rebushed, j-wires and buss wires cleaned and straightened
Linn 9000 - needs new disk drive
ARP Omni II - needs full restoration

That said, with the exception of the Linn, Omni, and one of the Odysseys, all remain playable and currently in use in my studio.

And as smokyfrog points out above, new gear is prone to fail, too - maybe more so. I’ve sent more new gear in for repair than old in the past ten years, and when the new gear fails, it tends to fail in a much bigger way, and often needs to be sent to a service center. However, there is often a warranty in play.

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Are they the same as those for the SH-09? If so, I’d be happy to mail you out a couple for no cost. I have a bunch of them in a drawer.

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Thanks for all the responses. I’m learning a lot. So it comes down to how easy (or difficult) it would be to acquire specific parts for the specific instrument. I’ll just have to do detailed research on each one then.

It’s a wise approach but only one factor you should bear in mind. All components can fail and there are plenty of synths with hard to obtain bits that just don’t fail on a regular basis. The vast majority of repairs I’ve carried out on have been down to a simple diode or op amp failure rather than a CEM chip or matched pair. So try not to worry too much about repairs, just bear it in mind.

Case in point. I be got two Jupiter 4’s, both bought for repair and restoration, both in varying states of operation. They’re stuffed with BA662’s and IR3109 chips, fairly rare and pricey to replace…with equally vintage parts. Apart from general bits and bobs, some caps etc. The ‘big’ (expensive) looking repairs turned out to be nothing more than a few common op amps, comparators and some logic chips Less than £10.00 in parts for both synths. Of course something expensive could give up in the future but that’s the case for any part.

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