Archive for December, 2012


And by Comic-Con, I mean it in the “obsessively geeky, an infatuation with detailed reproduction of favorite characters or situations” sense, like the guys who compete to see who can make the best Stormtrooper costume. Credit for the phrase goes to my friend Raman, who was there with me.

I went to San Franciso a few days ago with a friend to see a band, The Musical Box, who specializes in the reproduction of a concert tour by Genesis originally performed in 1974, the last when Peter Gabriel still fronted for the band. This tour was a front-to-back rendition of their The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway album, which was a double-length “concept” album following a New York City hoodlum, Rael, through a psychedelic-tinged adventure that makes very little overall sense in the conventional sense, but still provides a framework for some of the group’s most well known songs from their early period which continued to be favorites even in later tours, such as “In the Cage,” “The Carpet Crawlers,” and “The Colony of Slippermen.” The music is heavy on highly virtuosic instrumental solos, impressive costume changes for the Peter Gabriel lead singer, and a continuous illustration of the story via a backdrop of 3 slide projectors, totalling over 1100 slides during the course of the night.

What made the show so impressive was not only the meticulous reconstruction of the original staging (with formal licensing from the original band, plus copies of all the original slides, and reproductions of the costumes), but just how well these guys manage to play the material, using the period instruments necessary to nail the original sounds, and an extraordinarily accurate ability to hit all the original flourishes and fills. I found the faux-Phil Collins to be particularly spot-on, being very familiar with the original drum score myself, and certainly the rest of the band was easily on par. I just happen to be a drummer and not much of a guitarist or keyboard player, so my ear is more tuned to follow along – this album has some extremely tricky keyboard solos, and the Tony Banks-alike definitely can play his stuff as well.

I discovered Genesis around the age of 13, but by this point Gabriel was long gone, and they were already on to their later pop stuff like Abacab and the “Mama” album. However, after being initially hooked in by what they were playing at the time, I discovered and gravitated toward the earlier work, which was far more entertaining given the complexity and substance of those albums. Given that I was four years old when the tour The Musical Box is reproducing originally went on the road, and there aren’t any widely available films or videos of it, I really couldn’t tell you whether it was truly accurate or not to the pace or feel of the original live show. Regardless, this band (and the other fans, pot smoke and all) really made me feel as though I had been put into a time machine and landed with a jolt in the early seventies. While I still love that album, the overall flavor of the album is not particularly “timeless,” but rather, it’s very representative of the time period in which it was born. As a result, sadly, it’s probably not likely to rope in a “new” generation of fans. As such, it’s probably only a matter of time, with the aging of their audience, before The Musical Box becomes as much of a museum piece as the group they’re representing. With that in mind, I feel pretty lucky to have had the chance to see them while they’re still in their retro prime.

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Soldering is a skill lots of hobbyists learn out of necessity, but for most people this limits you to working with through-hole parts which were state of the art in the 70’s and 80’s. These days, anything electronic actually being professionally designed for production is using surface-mounted parts, with the solder applied using a silkscreen-style stencil, the parts robotically placed on the paste pads, and then the whole thing goes through a reflow oven to melt the paste and voila, the whole board’s done at once.

Things get tricky when you discover a design flaw during the development process and you want to rework the board to test potential fixes before committing to a new manufacturing run. Today, I had to move a few resistors to alternate locations on a board we’re designing at work. The resistors are there to configure a chip with certain “hard-coded” settings at boot time. They’re also incredibly small- SMT resistors of the 0402 variety- this means each one is .4 x .2 mm in size. That’s really, really small. Reworking parts like this evidently usually involves specialized tools like special hot-air soldering tools to heat multiple leads simultaneously, or irons with very fine pick-like points, and a binocular microscope is really the only way to see what the heck you’re doing. Luckily the lab does have most of these.

I was the only one in the lab today and this was really at the edge of my skills. There did not appear to be an SMT desoldering tweezers, available, so I tried using a very small hot air nozzle to heat up the leads. I tried higher and higher heat and air volume settings, but for some reason I just could not get the solder to reflow. I still haven’t figured out why. I then resorted to a standard iron with an extremely fine point. This melted the existing solder easily, but it was impossible to nudge the resistor off its pads without damaging one or the other of the extremely fine leads which wrap around the sides, to the bottom where they meet the pads. I’ve been able to do this with larger smt parts, but these are just too delicate. Luckily there was a tape reel available with additional resistors of the correct value and size, so I opted to just dispense with the damaged ones and use new resistors on the correct locations. Manipulating them into the correct location and orientation and then getting a good solder joint on both sides was a challenge as well, but ultimately I think pulled it off successfully.

This took quite a bit of time, and it made me wonder just where do the professional lab techs who do this kind of rework learn these skills? I sometimes see some very nicely done “blue wire” jobs with a tiny little 30- or 32-gauge wire neatly creating a new trace, and I just don’t know how these guys do it, or where they learned how in the first place. I’d love to raise my game.

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