2021 Jun 4

We need copyleft synthesizers

I have two analog synthesizers.

The Moog Prodigy was released in 1979. It has one voice, an unbalanced mono output, no patch memory, no MIDI, a punchy tone, and fetches absurd prices on the used market. Schematics and printed circuit board (PCB) layouts of the Prodigy can be found online. From these, I began my self-education in synthesizer design and cultivated a love of reading schematics.

In 2016, the LM3046 transistor array died. That part could still be sourced, and since it comes in a dual in-line package (DIP), I made the repair myself using just a screwdriver and a soldering iron. The instrument has been in service 42 years.

That same year, the Korg Minilogue was released. It has four analog voices, 200 patches, MIDI in and out, a built-in sequencer, and is lightweight, portable, and relatively affordable. The control circuitry is digital and Korg has provided some firmware updates that introduce significant new features, namely microtuning. Updates must be performed using software provided only by Korg which runs only on Microsoft Windows. I don’t have this operating system, so I don’t benefit from bug fixes. The surface mount construction of the Minilogue’s circuit boards helps Korg reduce production costs and deliver a smaller, lighter instrument, but also makes the unit harder to repair, study, and modify.

Will the Minilogue continue to please our ears until 2058 and beyond, or was it just meant to turn a profit for Korg in 2016? When Korg goes out of business or is acquired and gutted, who will maintain the firmware? Will the Minilogue be adopted by a community as a suitable hardware platform for new development, or will it be an orphan? Shouldn’t companies be planning for the next forty years today?

I wanted to learn how modern analog synths differed from vintage ones. I attempted to reverse engineer the Minilogue. I still learned a lot, but never really finished because of the difficulty of reverse engineering surface mount technology. Maybe corporations think that by hiding information about their products, they are increasing their competitiveness against imitators who would try to undercut them. But by making their products more opaque, they make them harder to fix and limit the opportunities of users to learn how synthesizers work. The also set themselves in opposition to existing communities of musicians and hackers.

The focus on the bottom line isn’t right for musicians, tinkerers, or the environment. It’s time to mind the harmful effects of proprietary technology—e-waste, artificial scarcity—and create technology which is designed in the best interest of our community.

Haxbli is my personal response to this situation. It’s a project and a company, and in time, it may be a community. I’m committed to copyleft technology because it’s right for you and I.

If this sounds interesting, take a look at our project feed. There is likely something you can help out with. Right now, we’re working on an analog distortion processor, and while I bring a lot of passion to the project, I’m still learning the ropes, and being a work-from-home dad with a toddler, I have limited bandwidth.

© 2021 Haxbli LLC — Lancaster, PA, USA