Continuing on in the Sunday series “Andy’s Porch” (now a bi-weekly event, as I don’t have an interesting enough life to have a weekly offering), I wanted to go a little into detail on how I got started with electronics, a hobby that comes in handy as far as keyboards go.
My interest in electronics began while I was in school for audio engineering. At the time electronics were more of a necessary evil than a hobby. Audio gear, especially vintage gear, needs quite a bit of upkeep, and learning the basics of electronics were a must. Another perk of learning the basics of electronics was that I could acquire cheap vintage gear that was broken, refurbish it, and then use the hell out of it for a fraction of the cost that it would have cost me otherwise.
While I was in school I managed to score a few electronics classes that would go on to teach me the very basic principles behind electricity, components, and basic skills needed to service electronics. I hadn’t even finished the class when I acquired an old analog StudioMixerII recording console from the late 70’s. It had lived the previous few years of it’s life in a barn, and desperately needed some work done to it. Some channels didn’t work, others mangled the audio to sound like alien transmissions, and nothing about console lived up to it’s true potential. I immediately decided to dive right into recapping the entire console, and fixing whatever else I could find along the way. I had never used a soldering iron in my life, nor did I have any of the equipment, but Amazon fixed that in 2 days flat. Amazon Prime is a necessity these days after all, am I right or am I right?
Being the first time that I had ever really used a soldering iron, I made heaps and heaps of mistakes, and learned from those along the way. One of the first things I learned was not to touch the end of the iron, ever, for any reason. I also learned that scotch and soldering don’t mix very well. Fortunately I managed to get the console back in prime working condition, which I still think is a small miracle. By the time I had finished the project (which took around 6-8 months) I realized how much I enjoyed tinkering with electronics.
After I graduated and moved back to central NC I had a job that left me with a decent amount of free time to pour into a new venture. I am a complete work-aholic and despise free time, so I began conjuring up ideas on how to be productive with my time. As someone that had played guitar for years in all sorts of bands, guitar pedals had always been hugely fascinating to me. With the explosion of boutique pedal makers that were popping at the time, I decided to hop on the train as well, and my company Analog Culture was born.
By this time I had gotten pretty competent with electronics due to the fact that I had to constantly maintain all of my old analog gear, and I took apart anything I could spare just to figure out how it worked. I started making prototype pedals that slowly developed into a small line of retail ready products. I spent the better part of 2013 hunched over my workbench soldering away on my hand wired pedals. It was during this time that I also realized that I was a terrible business man, possibly the world’s worst. I was selling pedals for a much lower price than competitors, and would often see my pedals sell for 4 or 5 times the original cost on online forums. Even after knowing there was a small demand for my pedals I couldn’t bring myself to charge more for them. I was completely against the price gouging, yet at the same time couldn’t build them fast enough to keep it from happening. My low prices meant that the business was only self sustaining, I wasn’t actually making a dime, and the issues I had with the culture surrounding the pedals eventually led to the company’s demise. I successfully ran Analog Culture Pedals straight into the ground within a year and a half. (Keep the second half of this paragraph in mind during the upcoming Artisan Series, lots of parallels…)
All my work was not in vain though, I had learned quite a few lessons on the importance of respecting my own time and worth. I still can’t say that I’m a great businessman, as I’m constantly giving things away, or selling things for lower prices than I should, but I’m getting better. I did walk away with a very nice set of soldering chops though, something that has made my keyboard hobby much more exciting.
There is just something special about building something with your own hands, and keyboards are no exception to that rule. The first “keyboard” I ever built was a small hand wired macro controller out of a switch tester I had lying around the house. The first real keyboard I built by hand was a Winkeyless custom. Since then I’ve made quite a few keyboards, both from kits and from scratch. Even today I’m already planning on my next Planck build just to try out the new PCB’s, even though I already have two.
If you think that mechanical keyboards will be a lasting hobby, I can’t recommend learning the basics of electronics and the art of soldering enough. It is relatively inexpensive to get into, and it is much less scary than I feel like most people think it is. Fortunately there are many people in the community that not only provide keyboard kits to make builds easier, but there are even more people willing to help out on the forums. If you have ever built a keyboard I’d love to see a link below of what you’ve done!
People often ask what I use for my electronics work, so I’ll list the items below:
- Soldering Iron (This model includes a heat gun which is extremely useful, especially if making custom cables and needed to use heat shrink)
- Non Magnetic Tweezers (I use these almost every day for something, hence the “must have” status)
Nice To Have: