Vintage Synth Repair
Updated: Jan 27, 2021
I've owned a lot of hardware, but have shed much of it. The only hardware synthesizers I keep around now are ones that take a more unique approach to sound design compared to what is in the market. One of those is the Hartmann Neuron.
The Neuron is unique on a couple of levels. It's essentially a Linux-based PC running on a Celeron or Pentium III processor (remember this thing was released in the late 90s) with custom PCBs and audio card in a case with a keyboard and the controllers. Designed by Axel Hartmann, it's a beautiful looking synth with some pretty amazing real-time performance controls plus a unique approach to synthesis. (I'll put links to more info and videos at the end of the post.) There was also some software that allows you to create new "sound models." This runs only on older systems, so I also picked up an old G5 iMac for really cheap JUST to run this software.
I've had the Neuron since about 2012. It's always proven to be reliable, but one day I tried to turn it on and...nothing. No sign of life. Fortunately, a guy I met (because of the Neuron it turns out) and who has become a "social media friend"* is probably about as close to an expert on these machines as you are going to find these days. He graciously and generously offered to help me sort out the problem long distance.
With my wife's blessing, I made our dining room table a workbench.
The process took several weeks to complete. With my friend's help, I eventually determined that I had a bad PSU. I sourced a replacement, but that had to be modified to work within the context of the Neuron. Eventually (ALL of this is new to me) and after buying a second replacement CPU, I got the Neuron to fire up. Success!
However, since I had this open, I wanted to take care of some other things.
I wanted to replace the case fan with a less noisy one.
I have a spare motherboard that is better than the original. (The old board had a Celeron and 512mb of ram. The new board supports a faster Pentium III processor and up to one gig of ram.) So replacing the motherboard makes sense.
The CPU cooler fan was noisy so I wanted to replace that also.
I also noticed that the previous owner had glue gooped on every connector as well as some very questionable jury rigged wiring to the large on/off switch. (Supposedly, this keyboard was owned by Don Was of the band Was Not Was. I never really thought about that much, until I had to open it up and saw all of the glue. Perhaps he did that to keep the friction-locked connectors from shaking loose during a tour?)
All of this eventually got done, but not without a lot back and forth with my friend as well as buying a BUNCH of stuff I didn't have before (e.g., a multimeter, helping hands, a heat shrink wrap and gun, countless incorrectly specified nylon mounts and pcb headers, a hot glue gun, wire strippers, stripped screw pliers, 2 and 3 pin wires and extenders...). I also learned that I pretty much suck at soldering. BUT...
I had a blast, and I learned A LOT. Taking on this stuff is not an impossibility. And the sense of satisfaction you get from a successful effort is real.
So the Neuron is back and on the active list. I even pulled out the old G5 iMac to run Modelmaker and Remodelizer. I’ve got to refresh my memory on how to get them all speaking to each other again, but there’s time.