Sunday, December 15, 2019

Building my dream system (system #2, DJ setup)

I have been messing with different mixers for a long time now.  I got my system with a very simple Numark.  At the time, I was not clear that the center compartment of my flight case was designed to hold 19" rackmount gear.  Even if I had, there are few DJ mixers available that fit that footprint.  I even messed with some very simple Realistic mixers for a while.  I eventually decided on a Numark M4.  I decided that I could get an 8U blank panel and cut out an opening with an angle grinder.

I was able to cut the blank panel with some difficulty and got it fairly straight.  I didn't account for some tiny screws on the sides of the mixer so those had to be temporarily removed to get the mixer through the opening.  I taped it off to give myself clear lines to see where to cut.

But the mixer was sold as 'not working'.  So I spent $6.99 on an AC adapter as well and took it apart to try and figure out what was wrong.  I did check the voltage regulators at the inputs and a couple of them seemed to be off.

Eventually I got frustrated and just returned the mixer for a refund.  I ate the cost of the AC adapter but I did keep the blank panel in case one day I try one of these mixers again.  Finally, I stepped my game up and after waiting for a long while, got a Beringer VMX1000USB.  I got it from Amazon Warehouse as a returned item and only paid $110 (at the time of this writing, new units are still over $200) so I got a steal.

There are zero imperfections however, on any side of the unit.  It is mint condition.  But from day one the sound wasn't great.  I first thought it was my stylus so I replaced them.  Didn't help.  So then I went all out and got entirely new headshells.  This didn't help either.  I had been using the #2 output from the mixer as the #1 was XLR.  But I got desperate and tracked down some XLR to RCA cables from a Guitar Center.

At first it seemed like this fixed the problem but now I am not sure.  I am beginning to wonder if someone returned this because they hooked up a line level device to the phono input and damaged them.  So I am still trying to figure this out.

In the meantime I started looking at the extra space in my 'rack'.  I started brainstorming on what type of devices I might be able to add.  I am limited in what is useful but also because the depth is not very great.  So the first thing I got was a rack mount surge protector.  I got this for nothing on ebay, used and pulled from a working studio.

This worked out great.  Mounted well and consolidated some of the countless wires I have running in and out of the flight case, plus I only paid $12.50.  I did have to make a couple modifications.  The turntable plugs are pretty low profile as they do not have a ground pin.  The mixer however had trouble fitting due to the depth issue as it has a pretty large stress boot.  So I chopped it off and installed a right angle plug (I actually stole this from my AC it is November I won't be needing it anytime soon).  But planning for the next unit I have on order (details below), I knew I needed to be able to accommodate a DC power brick.  I was worried that gravity would start to pull it out of its socket because it will be upside down.  Well I have these short little cables for dealing with this exact problem but once again, the damn stress boot would be in the way.  So I cut it off and installed a very slim and low profile lamp plug on the end (as this will be carrying less than 1A).

And as discussed, the last unit is a VU meter.  Why do I need this? I don't - just because it looks pretty! Got this used for $70 w/ shipping.

Last but not least, I got two 1U blanks (from the same guy that sold me the 8U months ago!) to fill up the remaining spaces.  I could have got a 2U blank, but my spaces are separated.  I can't put my mixer any further up because it stresses the wires (I modified the flight case long ago with a hole saw to make an opening for all the cabling).  I could move it down and leave both empty spaces up top but I thought it would look cool to split them up.

Looks beautiful, right? And this should be the end of the post because by my standards, that photo above certainly looks like my definition of a 'dream system'. But that is not the end! Because the phono inputs on this thing sound like trash! I could expound upon that but why bother when I have already publicly sullied Behringer's good name - see below....

i really needed to upgrade my mixer to something with more inputs. individual track and master VU meters also would be a plus so i narrowed it down to a few models and this was one. i made a major mistake by investing in this unit, and only wish i could rewind the clock and make a different decision. not just because of the money i flushed down the toilet but also the immense amount of time i spent giving this unit the benefit of the doubt and trying to attribute the issues i was having to other components in my signal chain. 
i am not a gigging DJ and have not spun in public in years. i have two numark TT1625s with my mixer hooked up to a kenwood reciever and some insignia speakers. i have fun making vinyl mixes for myself and perhaps once in a great while someone else. i also have a yamaha casette deck and an MPC 1000 and i really wanted to be able to connect everything to the mixer instead of some components to the receiver. so i needed at least 4 inputs and at least 3 outputs (one main, one to the yamaha and one to the MPC). i loved the look of this unit and also the VU meters which i already mentioned and i thought beringer was a reuptable brand (never owned any of their gear before though) but it was a little outside my budget. so i waited until a unit came up on amazon warehouse and i found one for about $110. 
now before i go any further let me address the possibility that the problems ive had (which i will describe below) can be attributed to the fact that it was a returned item, and that the previous owner somehow misused/abused the unit. the type of problems i have had i do not believe can be attributed to that but ill let you be the judge.
so i noticed right away that the sound was kind of muddy and tinny and occasionally a little distorted. i never noticed this before, and it was both turntables. but there was no way my shiny new mixer could be the culprit! it had been a while since i replaced my stylus(s) and they do see considerable use. so i got new ones - no help. 
now i got really dramatic and replaced the headshells entirely. I spent $70/ea on two numark CC-1s so I didnt break the bank. Guess what - sounded just as bad.
I tried different inputs on my reciever - no dice. then I went and got some XLR to 1/4" so I could use the main outputs. nope - sounded just as bad. I have to stress that the bad quality was still subtle - it wasnt a glaring issue and sometimes you wouldnt notice so much. but it was always there. i do have a third phono input on channel 3 which i was using as a line level for the MPC. i moved one of the TTs to channel 3 - sounded identically bad.
and now for the other issues:
1) crosstalk. it did not happen for months (though granted in this condition i did not use the system much) but i often get the meters to move on unused channels with the gain and fader at 0. you cant hear it but obviously this is not normal
2) crossfader selector switches. there is some kind of issue with the selectors where they wont work, then they will reverse from what they should be doing, and a power cycle is the only thing to fix it. this is obviously a logic/circuit board issue.
finally i did the most simple test of all and got an RCA extension cable and connected one of the TTs to the reciever directly via the unused phono input - sounded fine.
so now i guess i will try to sell this thing on ebay as a non working unit to be stripped for parts. i called a beringer licensed repair center and after a few emails they told me it 'wasnt worth it' to put any money into it. i could blame them for that but i have to think they are aware of the build quality.
i would definately think twice before buying this piece of junk
So my hunt continued.  But there slim pickings when it comes to rack mountable DJ mixers.  One that came up again and again (and one which I almost purchased instead of the Behringer) is the Numark CM200.  So I started looking until I found one on ebay for about $100 - brand new - with free shipping! I actually had to send the seller an email and confirm what I was puchasing but they assured me it was good to go. So a short time later it arrived, they actually used the original box as the shipping container.  So it was pretty beat up but the foam inside kept the mixer from sustaining any harm.

I set it up and I must admit, this one sounds fairly poor as well.  By extremely manipulating the EQ, I can get it to almost an 'acceptable' level.  Also this is a smaller unit so I had to buy another 1U blank.  And as I type this on a Sunday morning, I am listening to Jimmy Smith and it sounds pretty....OK (you didn't think I'd say 'good', did you?).

So here we are - my 'dream' system, with all its flaws, it will have to do for now...

Saturday, December 14, 2019

New (more) speakers!

So after I painstakingly put together my new stereo system, I say back and enjoyed the fruits of my labor (and bank account).  Day after day, I am astonished that finally at the age of 42 I have a system with fidelity as good as this.  But my work is never done! My reciever has two sets of speaker outputs and alas I was only using one.  Not good enough! So I copped the above set after some ebay-ing and they are great! I do have to turn the mids down to -2 (I keep it flat at 0 with my larger Marantz speakers).  I don't have enough room to set them up in a way that I can use both sets of speakers at the same time.  As it stands right now if I did that, I'd have the stereo image all muddied by not being able to keep the speakers alighned properly with one another.  So I basically use the larger Marantz set if I am sitting on my loveseat (and want the full fidelity experience, and want to crank it up a little bit).  If I am laying on my couch, I use the Technics, usually when I am listening to the FM radio.

But of course I like to tinker and build things, so the TV tray tables I had them on was not acceptable.

So using the design from my MPC stand, I decided to put together a small set of stands for these small speakers.  As usual, 2x6 and 4x4 were the available lumber sizes at hand.  After a day or two of brainstorming, I came up with a variation on the design from my MPC stand using a couple different angles on the feet, and a different mounting method.

After a few hours of assembly, and cutting and recutting some of the pieces as my whims changed, I had my speaker stands! The top is taken from a wooden crate that came in from overseas.  I used a single (long) nail to mount it so that I could rotate it as needed when I got them home.  I cut the flat section 1.5" wider in both directions than the speakers themselves.  The 4x4s I have are all 40" long, so I just cut one in half to get two at 20".  This is a bit shorter than what I'd prefer but there is something about the economy of material use that appeals to me (I do have more 4x4s).

Next up was paint.  I decided to try to do something interesting with the feet to accentuate the different angles.  All the paint I used is old and salvaged from other projects.  Though to be honest, I do not remember what the baby blue was from.

I have never done so much taping on a project before, and that was a bit tedious but I was determined to carry through with the plan I had in my tiny brain.

Finally after a long weekend I took my babies home.  I painted them on a Friday night but had to travel over the weekend and into the next week so they didn't get taken home as quickly as I would have liked.  Which is just as well since the black paint is actually exterior paint so it needs longer to dry so you don't die from breathing in the toxic fumes.  I should have done the baby blue on two surfaces instead of one to better create a 3D experience I think, but you live and learn.  Transporting them was a bit interesting because of the way I Kreg'd the feet on.  Looking back I should have done it differently, it is too difficult to explain but it could have been more robust.  But considering the work they are now doing, it is irrelevant.  But suffice to say, they needed to be transported upright and luckily I had a way to do so, and they weren't too tall.   I was (and am) so pleased with these little speakers that I had to send the seller a quick message to thank him and inquire on the lifetime of these little guys.

So my dream system just got a little more dreamy! It is great to have options on how to listen depending on my mood and my needs at the moment.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Technoir Records [Park Ridge IL]

Upon discovering the unfortunate demise of Raffe's, I simultaneous discovered the birth of Technoir.  As you can see in the store front above, it truly is the spiritual successor.

It was a quick dual bus jaunt to take myself from my door step to Technoir's which was nice on a bit of a blustery day.  I could tell from the outside that this place was well put together.  The inside followed suit, perhaps even upped the ante.

Extremely tidy, clean around every corner, this place is clearly curated carefully.  Brand new bins, simple but effective tables and nice well decor all around.  Again, more Raffe's memorabilia hangs on the west wall which is a very nice touch.

I tore through the jazz section, A to Z.  Everything is bagged, a small sampling of new vinyl was mixed in but mostly old stock (which I prefer).  Next I glanced at the 'new arrivals' bins, three of them nearest the counter.  I was the only customer and it was quite peaceful and the clerk (owner) was spinning an interesting array of genres.  I found three possibilities swiftly in these bins.  I let a Walter Wanderley release go, which I regret pretty shortly after and still do now.  That was dumb.  I grabbed a Shadowfax promo 12" single which I still have not listened to.  I hope I enjoy it but I worry I will not as I see now that it is truly a different era from the one I know best.  I found Lani Hall's 8th - I swore a while ago to a moratorium on her discography as I have the first four already.  For sentimental reasons (her's and my own), it was hard to leave this one behind as it recalls the Chicago neighborhood she hails from in it's title.  In my warped brain I thought I ought to save $3 by getting the Shadowfax over the WW album, but it isn't much savings at all when you consider it is a single vs an LP.  But these are the bizarre rationalizations that record collectors, drug addicts and other obsessives make about their sinful trades.

I've actually been listening to tapes lately, as if I need another type of media to collect.  But before I could explore that I started thinking about how much I've been listening to this Squeeze tape and I wondered if they had it in vinyl.  They did - no brainer, could not resist.  It was only $3.99, probably because it has some water damage to the jacket, but somehow the inner sleeve (original) and vinyl look clean. Next I did indeed dig the wall of cassettes and scooped a Judas Priest album (which I must say has amazing fidelity for it's age, already ran through side B).

Definitely was impressed by this shop and glad to know I can get there easily via Pace.  I shall return!


At some point I think this blog will just become a time capsule as every single place I have ever visited and documented will be gone.  I heard about one of the below closings earlier this week and got to thinking I ought to sit down and see what other shops I once enjoyed (or at least visited) are no more.

I've had only a few experiences like the one I had at Funk Trunk, the kind where you are one on one with the clerk or even the owner (as in this case).  And you can actually chat in a relaxed way, and peruse the vinyl and hopefully come up with something.  I had a great night in Rogers Park, had an awesome meal and got fairly drunk.  Not enough stores like Funk Trunk out there and they all seemed destined not to survive....too pure, too real. 

This one hurts.  Some of the early days of this blog were based around my visits to Logan Hardware.  Simple but very important records in my collection were copped there and many an arcade game were played in the back room.  I remember just feeling like I owned the place, it was never that crowded on a cold Sunday afternoon, and it was easy to get to via public transportation.  I'm just glad I'm not sitting here saying 'I wish I had gone more'.  I took advantage, thank god.  I was in Logan Square this week and I wanted to get a drink but it was pretty early.  I thought that Logan Hardware would be a great way to kill sometime but found out they were gone.  Ended up sitting in the library which was fun in it's own way, but today I mourn the passing of a great one.

Another one that was fairly easy to get to, a fun bike ride through Portage Park on a warm weekend.  Distinctly remember going there on Record Store Day one year and definitely pulled some important vinyl out of there.  This post was inspired by finding out about the closing of Logan Hardware just a couple days ago, but this place as well.  I woke up, still in bed on this fine Saturday morning and thought maybe I'd have another ride out there.  Again, stymied by time, now lost, and you just can never get it back.  The article you see about outlined the new store in Park Ridge which is interesting because when I went to Google Maps (why? Because part of me knew it had been a while and I expected the worst, apparently rightfully so) the new shop TechNoir kept coming up which I didn't understand.  I am still considering biking over there today or maybe taking the bus.  At any rate, Raffe's was grimy in the best way possible and I played and went to a few shows at Memories next door (which has changed names many times).

The most recent of all.  Can't say I will miss Val's...I went once long ago and never had any inkling to return.  Yeah, Val was there and yeah, she was rude.  If someone thought that stuff was cute or ironic they are a better man than me.  I paid way too much for what I bought that day but it was so long ago I didn't know better.  Oak Park Records is still kicking and certainly I'd recommend them if you are in the area, even if Val's was still open.

Very recent news here.  It does look like Old School survived but I had no idea they moved.  Interestingly, I went down to Madison St right around the date above because I went to the Army Surplus across the street.  I didn't notice or think about Old School, but I don't know why I didn't.  Glad to see (I think/hope) they are doing OK because I had a good visit there and remember it well. 

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Building my dream system (System #1, living room)

I covered a few months ago how I attained a bunch of vintage gear from my Uncle Rick.  I quickly purchased the other components I needed to make it work.  I got some speakers on craigslist and a receiver on eBay.

The speakers worked out great.  What an excellent purchase.  The turntable has had some odd mechanical issues but nothing that prevent me from using it and it too has been great.  However, I outlined early on that the receiver (an SR340) was giving me a ton of problems.  The FM tuner was wonky...I could get it going again but after a bit it would crap out on me again.  But more importantly (and I did not cover this in my original post, because I did not notice initially), I was having trouble with the 'phono' selector button.  I first noticed when I was listening to 'Three'.  I could tell something was muddy but it was subtle.  Finally I used the balance control to isolate the channels and noticed the left channel sounded horrible!  It was muffled and muddy and sounded like crap.  After some experimenting, I noticed that when I switched to 'phono', depending on how I depressed the button, it would actually sound fine, like it was properly 'engaged'.  So I got in the habit of sort of punching the button (with my finger) when I'd want to play a record, which is stupid because at this point I had given up on using the FM tuner so it was basically already always in phono.  At this point I started to determine that I needed to step my game up and get a working system.

But I toughed it out for a while longer and it seemed like the sound problem went away.  Out of paranoia I'd often check the channels using the balance control and both sounded really clear.  A miracle! Well, not quite.  One day I was listening to 'Dissident Aggressor' and during the chorus I realized that I could not hear the high pitched backup vocals! Now this damn receiver was playing the right channel out of both speakers! 

I took the whole thing apart looking to see if there was somewhere I could clean the contacts for the button but it is a more complex arrangement than I figured.  Eventually I decided that if I could replace the whole button it might work.  I even started to consider stealing one of the buttons from the other inputs which I didn't use, but then I realized that the phono button had a different number of contacts than the others.  This is the style of button in my receiver, but on a very different board.  

I did look at some individual buttons but at that point I was pretty bummed out on the whole thing and was starting to decide that I just wanted to replace it.  It is a pretty crappy receiver to begin with and I disliked a number of features, all of which was clearly implemented to save money.  So this is not a unit worth putting money into.

So I determined that if I bought a new receiver I had some criteria:

  1. has to be Marantz
  2. has to be a higher end unit that is worth taking somewhere to have fixed if necessary
  3. has to have a volume knob (old one had a stupid slider)
  4. has to have a VU meter or some other visual display with flashing lights and such
So I started searching on eBay for local pickup and came across the SR 8110 DC.  I loved this thing right away.  It had a 5 band EQ and a bunch of other bells and whistles.  

I found someone selling one (actual pic above) and I made an offer for $125 expecting a counter offer but they let it expire. I should mention the seller is in Blue Island IL which is less than an hour away.  I really wanted to do local pickup if possible because of not only the cost to ship, but the danger of damage.

Eventually I did talk to the seller :

But then I started to have second thoughts, and felt like I needed to shop around a little more, plus the guy made me wait a few days, plus an additional day and I really had wanted to pick this up on a weekend, and not during the week.  So I blew him off and went back to the drawing board.

I decided that if I was going to buy something that I wanted it to be tested and refurbished to some extent because I did not want to deal with any more problems right off the bat.  So I started hunting on ebay again and came up with something that looked almost two good to be true.  This is the actual pic from the auction and clearly not very good, better pics are below.

I was most impressed by the seller's extensive explanation of the unit and what he had done to it.

For your consideration is a Marantz SR-5100 that I have had for a lot of years.  When it arrived it had a blown power module (PM) (pins 8&9 shorted) and the AC plug was whacked off.  Both of the original power modules STK0050II (50 Watt) were replaced with Darlington Power Pack STK0080II (80 Watt)  It was used for quite awhile and then set aside.  It’s down size time and the Marantz was elected next to leave.  What’s been checked and adjusted to call it refurbished? Well, it got the dust blown out.  WHAT! you wanted MORE???????? Well OK!!
Tuner Section: 
The AM & FM just got the peak & tweak
In general I use HP 8648 & 3336C slaved to GPSDO (not necessary it’s just what I have),  RCA WR-52A, Tektronix 2465BCT, Fluke 87 and more.  NOTHING HAS A VALAD CAL STICKER
The tune up procedure in the tech manual looked good before I started but need a slight mod for setting the oscillators.  The “Full open and Full Closed” points left the slide rule pointer OOC.  Went back to what I have done since the end of the 50s.  Set the oscillators to the Max and Min dial markings.  The slide rule pointer now tracks just fine.
The FM mute level setting (with “FM Mute” was overly aggressive for the quality of the tuner at 12.5uV.  I set it at about 4uV and it unmutes full quieting and STEREO.  No use masking usable signals or having to put up with off channel noise.  Personally I leave the mute off so I hear everything anyway.
Signal level meter could not be turned off enough to just read full (5Points) at 500uV an absurd high level that also masked usable signals.  Another reason signal level meters are known as “Guess Meters” in other circles.  It is set  so you get a reasonable low end evaluation of signals
Tuning LEDs RED GREEN RED (meter) centered (GREEN) at center of FM STEREO decode.
Not part of tune up but I noticed the Mute was sluggish maybe a bit flaky compared to other units.  The FM chip maker NEC has a slightly different caps suggested for that part of the chip on their data sheet.  Putting in the NEC suggested caps made a BIG difference.  The original electrolytic caps tested OK but I have had lots of Electrolytic in audio service that would not work right test fine.
I also suspect the tune up instructions were “Cut N Paste.”   The old way with glue and scissors because of some wording.  This is NOT uncommon in SMs. 
POWER AMP check: 
Also tests the AUX input.
Power meter setting is specified 50W into 8 Ohms.  That’s 20V @ 1KHz or at 4 Ohms 14.1VAC @ 1KHz. Calibration pots bottomed out while still get the 50W LED at less than 50W.  50W seems to be about middle of the 50W LED not a bad thing
Power results: 
8 Ohms 1 channel driven wave form distortion on scope started around 19.3 VAC RMS on Fluke or about 91Watts.
4 Ohms both channels driven distortion of wave form started about 19.3 VAC or about 93 WPC
I suspect the limiting factor is the PM not the power supply from the above results.
Also I had been using a 2A AC fuse which promptly blew with both channels driven so I installed the specified 4A fuse for testing the PA and will include it in the box.  A new 2A fuse was installed after the 50wer setting
Pots and switches got DeOxit treated.  My experience with DeOxit over more than 30 years is you need to repeat it now and then.  I prefer to use a small syringe and large diameter needle.  The spray cans just make a mess and waste a LOT.
The brown stuff on the bottom of some boards is an OLD glue of some sort used to secure parts scabbed to boards most likely factory modifications that were not uncommon.
Power Supplies: 
Checked for AC ripple.  Nothing needed attention.
So what are the ISSUES?They are only cosmetic so Look at the pictures:
1) A couple of the grid openings in the top left of the case have been damaged and a small piece of wood glued to the inside for reinforcement.
2) The chassis around the power transformer has some what I think is moisture damage.
There are no electronic or mechanical issues I know of.
General Information: 
Those things we all knew back then but are not common knowledge now.
Most vintage amps are not immune to stupid.  Crank this one up past 50WPC 50 ohm or 63WPC 4 ohm something will fail.
Most likely first will be your woofs.  They sound real mushy when the glue on the voice coil melts and the coils start coming apart.  Old dry varnish on VCs fails faster than on newer woofs.
Got big CVs?  You can blow something amp easily enough.
The under rated 2A fuse installed may be little protection.
The rear accessory sockets are not protected by the fuse per the print.  One is switched and the other is not.  Plug a short into one and blow the cord or your breaker.  The other add the power switch to the list.

I corresponded after purchasing a number of times via email with the seller about music and audio and just life in general.  Steve is from Tennessee and was super helpful and just seems like a great guy.  I got the thing home and hooked it up and the heaven's parted - this thing sounds great!

I did finally get around to crimping a new spade terminal on my turntable ground wire because of course as soon as I dared to touch the wiring I had all kinds of ground hum but fiddling with things made it go away and now it is dead silent.  I kept the antenna from the SR340 and the tuner on this thing sounds amazing! Clear as a bell and very loud.  I couldn't be happier!

I love the VU meter.  The action on the tuner knob is satisfyingly 'heavy'.  At last I have a volume knob instead of a slider but unfortunately it is 'digital' - it increments and 'clicks' as you move it.  Still, I can live with this.  It has 3 tone knobs but just set at flat it sounds amazing.  At last I have achieved my dreams and I have a master system!