Introduction: How to Get a Free Synthesizer
Want a music synthesizer but short on cash? Did you know you can get one for very little (< $50) or perhaps even free? Read on and see how...
Step 1: The Secret
OK you knew there was a catch - you aren't getting an Oberheim, Arp or Moog for cheap here. But you do get a lot, especially if you need parts, like to experiment or want to relive a bygone era of cheesy middle-class entertainment and analog sounds.
The secret is: look for synthesizers called "home organs."
Home organs were popular in the West during the post-WWII era up to the early 1980s. You know, back before the internet and cell phones, when people did social things together for entertainment - like playing music, or at least that was the idea sold at the time.
Anyhow, with the advent of modern forms of electronic entertainment and the collapse of the western middle class, home organs have plummeted in value. What was once (vastly overpriced) thousands of dollars is now essentially worthless. No "normal" person wants these things. However, they are excellent as a source of parts, for hacking and many of them are still pretty good at making music.
Pictured below are two good examples of what you can easily find for next to nothing or free. On the left we have a Lowrey Holiday H-100 from 1977 and on the right a Viscount F20 from about 1979. These are both squarewave, top-divider synths built with TTL waveform generating logic and analog filtering. More on that in the next parts.
Step 2: How to Find Them and What to Look For
How do you go about finding these things? Since they're big and heavy, eBay isn't the best choice, unless you get a local seller willing to let you pick it up. You're better off with something like Craigslist, classifieds, estate sales and yard sales.
As mentioned earlier, transistor (and hybrid digital/analog) home organs are almost all essentially worthless. They are big, heavy, have dated sounds, have a limited sound palette (though not in all cases) and in almost all cases can't be repaired unless you are willing to do it yourself. With few exceptions you should treat any home organ produced during 1970-1990 as being almost worthless even if in perfect condition (they usually aren't) and completely worthless if anything at all is wrong with it.
Certain models like the Eminent 310 and the Lowrey MX-1 may still command prices in the multiple-hundreds range. You may also come across recent-vintage Lowreys which supposedly sold for $10-$60K (most people traded-up, though still got ripped off). You're welcome to consider those if the price is right and you are a serious organ player, but they're just ROMplers and aren't hackable.
You may also come across Hammond Tonewheel organs. Usually the seller is savvy enough to look it up and find there is still a market for these. So, prices for Hammond Tonewheel organs may still be high. But, not always.
Step 3: The Psychology of the Home Organ Market
So here you are looking for free stuff to hack or play on and on the other side is the seller trying to get the maximum money for his junk.
The Home Organ market can be divided into two parts:
- The person selling the organ because a deceased relative left it to them, they have no use for it but have some vague idea or memory that "it cost a lot of money when it was new."
- The person who used to play it but now for whatever reason wants it gone and may or may not have any idea what it is worth.
In the first case, the seller is clueless or is in denial about what the organ is really worth. They will initially put it up for sale at some hugely unrealistic price that, to them, seems like a discount off what it was originally purchased for.
In the second case, the seller has some clue and will have a slightly more logic behind their pricing.
Though the approach to each is slightly different the fact remains the same: there is almost no market whatsoever for home organs and they have almost no value.
Step 4: Even a Hammond Is Usually Worthless!
Let's take a short diversion here and talk about "Hammonds". Some Hammond organs are in fact quite rare and valuable. There are exclusively from the all-tube and the tube-and-tonewheel era. Transistor Hammond organs are, like all other transistor organs, worthless.
Take a look on eBay and see what Tonewheel Hammond organs go for - quite a lot, sometimes. Just for fun, look up what a Hammond Novachord goes for - a lot, even if it's junk - those are truly rare.
But as for tonewheels, they're collectible and in demand BUT only if they're working, and even then only worth top-dollar when FULLY RESTORED. That means replacing every single old carbon resistor, replacing every paper and electrolytic capacitor (of which there are many), cleaning all the contacts, overhauling the lubrication system etc... lots of time and effort.
So, don't let anyone try to fool you into thinking it's a Hammond so it must be worth a lot.
Step 5: Finding What You Want and Buying It
So you've spotted a few organs on Craigslist or whatever, now what? Remember the psychology of the seller. They are probably in denial about their organ (or husband, mother, grandad's etc...) being worthless junk. So you must wait them out. Even if it's something cool - maybe a Lowrey D325 which was a late 70's spinet with really good Arp Solina-style strings. Let them post it for their unrealistic price and let the price come down at least once.
Once the price has dropped, visit the seller if you like, be friendly, tell them what a nice organ it is but it's a lot more than you can pay. You can't tell them the truth (it's worthless), they will just get mad. Let them know they can contact you later if they change their mind on the price.
The idea here is to keep yourself in the sellers mind for when the finally give up and just want it gone. This way it's a win-win. You get the organ BEFORE it goes out in the carport or out on the driveway to get all dirty and they don't have to pay to have it taken to the dump.
You may also come across the pragmatic seller who knows right off that it's worthless and posts an ad "come get it before I throw it out". Those are fine too, but please, don't pay anything if there is something wrong with it.
Step 6: You Got It - Now What?
You got your organ home. Does it work? There going to be something wrong, I assure you. Often if a switch or key is not working right, pressing it over and over will often clear it up. Likely your organ sat for decades with no use. Otherwise, you may want to troubleshoot it a bit.
Before opening it up, a bit on the technology. Home organs from the 1970s to the early 1980s were top-divider synthesizers. That means they start out with a master squarewave oscillator running at high frequency and run it through TTL logic divider chips to create octaves. It's simple, keeps things in tune and allows for unlimited polyphony. The catch is that the signal is a square wave, so to make it sound different you need filters. You can filter a squarewave into all sorts of shapes - triangle, saw, sine etc.. but this alone is not enough to make instruments. Real instruments have changes in volume and timbre. This can be emulated with envelope generators and voltage-controlled filters. Usually, to keep costs low, the keyboard keys actually switch on each note in each octave - there isn't usually any scanning or steering logic to route a key to an available voltage-controlled filter (VCF). Usually there is just one VCF and it does not retrigger until all a new key is pressed or all keys are released.
Almost all organs from the era also came with simple auto-accompaniment, auto-chords and a rhythm generator. These primitive drum machines usually create drum sounds using shaped transistor noise and ringing filters.
Step 7: Use It, Fix It or Part It Out?
If it works, maybe you want to play it. Cool. Some home organs had very nice sounds, even by today's standards. If it doesn't work and you think you can handle the repair, go for it - but be prepared for work. I say if you can't find the service manual online for free, forget trying to fix it. Find another free organ that works.
Anyhow, here is what the Lowrey looks like inside. Looks nicely laid out, but uh-oh, every inter-board connection is wire-wrapped! That would be a major pain to take apart to try to fix.
This one actually came with the auto-chords, bass and accompaniment dead. There was a broken wire on the CPU clock coil. Soldering it back on fixed it.
Step 8: Another Style and Hacking Ideas
Here's the inside of the Viscount F20. Notice it is a lot neater inside and the boards plug into the wiring harness. But it's still a boring, buzzy transistor organ. I'm going to part it out. See how the keyboard is nicely mounted on a rail system? It will be easy to re-use it in another DIY synth project.
So what do you get parts-wise from these things? Here's a short list:
- easy to use keyboards, usually not matrixed and often with multiple contacts per key
- various circuit boards for sound generation; plenty of logic chips but usually the power-hungry TTL variety
- drum machine; easy to interface into other musical projects
- power supply
- some organs had decent cabinetry with real hardwoods; this Viscount here is particle board and vinyl junk - the legs are actually molded hard rubber!
The other photo is of the Lowrey, which I will keep to play for now if I can get the cigarette smoke odor out of it. This is a shot of the underside, where I put a pot and selector switch to change the resonance and cutoff frequency of the "wah" circuit.
Helpful hint: before you part it out, power it up (if possible) and measure the voltages at each board. Assuming the power supply is not bad, you will know what each board needs for power. Write it down on the board before you toss it in a box and forget. This way later on, say if you want to use the drum machine, you'll be able to without a lot of trouble. If you can get the service manual for free, skip this.
Step 9: Conclusion
Home organs aren't often sophisticated like a performance synth, but they really are synthesizers. You can get them for next to nothing and they are easily hackable. You might even pick up a new hobby of learning to play keyboards.