Front Panels

Stopp,Gene gene.stopp at
Fri May 29 23:46:00 CEST 1998


Many times the topic comes up about good ways to make a front panel for
your DIY synthesizer. Recently I've been working on a new modular, and
I've decided to use a different approach than my old

Let me back up a bit, and explain how this all came about. This is what
goes through the mind of a totally addicted synthesizer builder (that
would be me) in the course of everyday life:

The company I used to work for was closing. There was a lot of material
left over, headed for the scrap bin. We used to make rackmount datacomm
equipment. As I cruised around the labs, helping out with the materials
disposition, I couldn't help but eye every piece of metal and roll of
wire with a thought of "how could I use this to make a new
synthesizer?". Sure enough, the enclosure tops to our mid-size LAN hubs
were nice big flat plates of aluminum with mounting holes around the
edges. To a normal employee, these were fodder for the metal dealer. To
me, they were front panels for modular synthesizers. So I got a bunch.

Knowing full well how much time it takes to hand-letter and pinstripe a
nice front panel, I realized that corners would be cut if I undertook a
big new project (i.e. knobs would go un-labelled), I started to think
about some kind of graphics tool solution to this problem, so I started
to play with PC-based paint programs. First I messed around with circles
of various diameters and thicknesses, printing them out and picking the
ones that were the right size for all the knobs and jacks and switches
that one would normally expect on a well-endowed analog synthesizer.
Then I started to make dial markings around the knob circles, with
numbers and all that. I chose the 12-position clock-face style, with a
blank zone at 6 o'clock (where the knob pointer never ventures), and
labelled them 0 to 10 (you could label them 1 to 11 if you're really
into Spinal Tap). Once I had a good graphic, I saved it for use on any
panel that I could dream up. I did a couple, for big knobs and for small
ones too.

Since the plates were larger than a normal piece of printer paper, I
divided up the dimensions of the metal plates into sections that could
easily be printed out. This also allowed me to build up an archive of
modules which I could fit together later as desired. I discovered that
after a bunch of modules had been created, I could quite quickly create
a new module by simply editing an existing one. The library grew fast. I
now have a pretty good panel-making system put together.

Here's what I do:

1. Divide your panel into sections (like VCO's, VCF's, etc.).
2. Figure out a good size for one section that prints well on your
printer (laser, ink jet, whatever).
3. Draw up some panel graphics using a PC "paint" application (or
MacDraw, whatever).
4. Print out the panel sections and cut them out with scissors.
5. Laminate the printed paper panel sections with a standard office
6. Trim the excess laminating plastic off with scissors.
7. Punch out the holes for the panel parts (I use various sizes of brass
tubing in a drill press).
8. Locate the drilled-out panel sections over the panel plate with
scotch tape, and pencil in the holes.
9. Remove the panel sections and drill the holes in the panel plate.
10. De-burr and paint the panel plate.
11. Use spray adhesive on the backside of the laminated panels and stick
them to the plate.
12.  Install the panel parts.

I invested in an office laminator, for around $100. The brass tubes for
the hole punches can be found at any decent hobby shop, in a wide
variety of sizes. I sharpen up the drilling end with a file. The spray
adhesive can be found at your local home improvement warehouse.

This works great. The finished panel looks very high-tech and
professional. I just use plain white printer paper and it ends up
looking like a cross between a Serge and a Moog. Someday I might even
try other paper colors, like blue for that "Sonic Six" or "Emu Audity"
look. Yellow kinda grosses me out. Red is a possiblity, and maybe pink
if I ever build a little synthesizer for one of my daughters.

One possible drawback is that the laminated panels are quite glossy and
reflective, which may bug users who use their gear under bright stage
lights. Personally, the panel markings are to impress other people - for
me, I built the damn thing, so I already know what every knob does! For
those forgetful synthesists, it might be possible to use some kind of
matte finish spray on the panels before final assembly.

Anyway, there's some food for thought for you prospective panel-builders
out there.

 - Gene

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