A series on the Stylophone can only reach a climax with the mighty 350S!
The question of why the original Stylophone sold in its millions and became a world-wide success story, and the 350S didn’t, has long been debated.
According to http://stylophonica.com (‘The official home of the Stylophone’), it was ‘too costly, and lost the key uniqueness of the Stylophone itself, which was its small size and mass-market appeal’ – but it certainly wasn’t through of a lack of features.
You may be familiar with the Stylophone, but not the 350S: if so, then to start with, a run-down of its capabilities is required:
First of all, it’s certainly true to say that it’s much larger than the regular Stylophone – which is, after all, about the size of an inch-and-a-half thick postcard. Here’s my 350S together with the regular-sized ‘New Sound’ Stylophone with which it shares many of its design cues:
The 350S is a souped-up Stylophone in every way: instead of the Stylophone’s 20 notes – an octave and a half – the 350S has 44. That’s three and a half octaves, and you can see in the picture the difference in length between the two keyboards.
Not only that, the 350S has eight voices, as opposed to one (or even the S1′s three), and some of these are themselves in different octaves.
The voices are designated ‘woodwind’, ‘brass’ and ‘strings’. In these days of sample-based synths, none of these sound terribly much like what they say they are, but they have the general qualities of these instruments – and, despite what you may read, one or two of them are quite like the distinctive tone of the regular Stylophone that we all know and love!
These voices are:
four ‘Woodwind’ voices pitched at four different octaves, and described (like organ stops) as 16′, 8′, 4′ and 2′;
two ‘Brass’ voices at 16′ and 8′; and
two ‘Strings’ voices at 4′ and 2′.
Because these voices are pitched at different octaves, from 2′ to 16′, in all no less than six and half octaves are available from the bottom of the keyboard to the top. This is almost as large as a ‘professional’ 88-note synthesizer keyboard. Up to two of the voices can be combined at any time, one each of the four octaves.
As well as this wide range of voices, the 350S has a variety of built-in effects. Like the regular Stylophone, one of these is Vibrato – and two speeds are available, rather than one.
There is also a two-speed ‘Decay’ facility: as well as the usual Stylophone ability to hold a note as long as the stylus is in contact with the keyboard, when the Long or Short (actually, ‘short’ or ‘very short’) Decay button is pressed, the note will fade out while the stylus is still in contact. According to the nicely-produced, LP-sized User’s Guide that comes with it, this enables the player to obtain ‘a percussive effect rather like piano.’
However, as can be seen from the above picture, this is only the beginning of the 350S’s abilities.
The fast or slow ‘Reiteration’ button (second from the left) can be used to imitate the sound of a banjo or mandolin, and the 350S even has a second stylus which is used to produce these effects.
Normally, whichever stylus is being used, the ‘regular’ or ‘reiteration’, it’s held in the right hand; but it’s possible to play two notes at once in reiteration mode by using the reiteration stylus with the right hand, and playing lower notes with the regular stylus in the left hand. It doesn’t work the other way round, and it doesn’t work in ‘normal’ mode, i.e. without either the fast or slow reiteration switch pressed.
The white tuning control can also be seen in the above picture – handily placed on the front of the instrument, unlike its counterpart in the regular Stylophone, which is always hidden underneath.
The most unusual effect, though, has got to be this:
Above the volume control is the 350S’s secret weapon – the ‘Photo Control’. This device, operated with the player’s left hand while the stylus is wielded in the right, can be set to control the volume, amount of vibrato or low-pass filter cut-off point – acting as a ‘waa waa’.
On the side of the 350S, next to the Photo Control, are three 1/4″ mono jack sockets.:
While one of these is ‘sound in’ and another ‘sound out’, the middle one is a socket for a foot pedal that replaces the Photo Control – either because the player would prefer to control volume, vibrato or waa with their foot, or because the ambient light level is too low for the Photo Control to be effective. A 50k – 100k potentiometer does the job, according to the User Guide.
My experience of light-dependent controls like this – and I’ve made a number of them – is that they are really only fully effective when quite a bright light is shining on them, which is not always the situation when you sit down to play.
Unsurprisingly, this magnificent machine requires a fair amount of juice, so it’s powered by not one, but two weighty PP9 batteries, connected in series to provide 18v of power to the 350S. These are housed underneath the rear of the instrument:
The battery covers look as if they’re held in place by screws, but these aren’t really screws: they click into place when pushed, and just require a slight turn with a screwdriver or a thin object to loosen them. (The User Guide suggests a coin, but in my experience modern coins are too thick to perform this function. Maybe a 5p would do it).
This is the User Guide that came with the 350S:
Reliable information on when the 350S first came on the market, how many were sold, etc. seems hard to come by. http://stylophonica.com says: ‘No more than a few thousand 350S’s were ever sold’; http://stylophone350s.com/ says ‘Dubreq, the manufacturer of the original Stylophone created and produced the Stylophone 350S beginning in 1971 . . . fewer than 3000 were ever produced’ and quotes a Ben Jarvis (son of Stylophone inventor Brian Jarvis and re-founder of Dübreq in 2003) estimate that only 200-300 working units are probably still available worldwide.
I’d be surprised if the numbers were quite this low, but they’re certainly not common, and those that appear on eBay in the UK frequently command in excess of £100, rarely less than £70. Stylophone350S.com in the States have access to a recently discovered cache of mint condition boxed examples, which are now on sale. Their website tells the story of this amazing find.
The back of the 350S is removed by undoing 4 large screws in the corners and two very small screws under the front, and reveals two printed circuit boards: a thin, narrow one at the front containing the keyboard and the resistor chain – not discrete resistors, but what I’ve previously called ‘resistor modules’, since I can’t remember what the proper name for them is – and a large, rectangular one with everything else on it, including potentiometers, sockets and switches:
The circuit boards themselves come away quite easily: there are 4 screws, clearly visible in the above photograph, which hold the keyboard in place, and 6 similar ones for the larger board. The volume control knob doesn’t need to be taken off – it fits through the hole surrounding it – but the plastic nuts on the three sockets need to be removed.
This is what the other sides of the boards look like:
Here we see the larger items across the middle of the board, from left to right: the three sockets, the volume control, the eight voice and effect switches, the pitch control and the on/off switch. If I was an electronics expert, I could tell you what the rest of the components do; but I can’t. I can only surmise that the round inductor next to the left-hand switch is to do with the waa circuit; the LDR (light-dependent resistor) to the left of that is the ‘Photo Control’.
The black ‘hood’ that partly surrounds the LDR was slightly damaged when I came to look at it, and it’s quite possible that I did this myself when I opened the case. It was easily repairable with a spot of superglue, but watch out for this if you’re looking inside yours.
The ferrite core inductor is a Mullard FX2236. In this close-up you can see that mine looks a bit broken. I don’t know enough about these things to know if this means it isn’t working properly, but, while by no means common, they can be found – perhaps more easily in the UK than elsewhere – so I shall certainly consider replacing it.
According to the experts at www.stylophone.com, under the heading ‘VITAL INFORMATION WHEN BUYING A 350S… PLEASE READ CAREFULLY!’, one of the components you can see here – which they describe as the ‘Amp-ic’ – is highly prone to failure.
The related website, the Stylophone Information Centre at www.stylophone.fsnet.co.uk says: ‘The circuit board carries an IC which controls sound output, and this component (long since obsolete) is the single- most likely cause of the 350S to break down. If this happens . . . the unit will only be heard if played through a separate amplifier, if at all.’
The symptoms to look out for are: ‘when the stylus is applied to the keyboard, only a very faint sound is heard (if even audible at all), which fades away rapidly . . . Even with the volume control turned up to max, the sound will still be very low – then quickly fall away. The user will then be left with a ‘dead’ 350S.’
The chip in question is this one – the black one with six legs in the top left-hand corner of the picture:
It’s a Motorola MFC 6070, 1-watt power amplifier - ‘designed primarily for low-cost audio amplifiers in phonograph, TV and radio applications’, according to the datasheet.
If you don’t know what a phonograph is, ask your grandad, he’ll remember them! The use of this antiquated vocabulary confirms what is said above. If you find the datasheet for this chip, it says ‘Device discontinued – consult factory’; if you try to buy one on the Net, you’ll mostly find specialist sites, dedicated to sourcing obsolete parts.
As a matter of fact, you can, at the time of writing, get one on eBay for about £20, but you aren’t going to want to do that: the problem doesn’t arise, apparently, just because 350S’s are now all old – it even used to happen to quite new ones.
Stylophone.com told me that ‘the original chips as fitted . . . were working very close to their breakdown point voltage-wise. Although theoretically all the chips supplied to them should have worked, Dübreq actually had to batch-test the chips to find those with an acceptable working voltage range, especially the maximum voltage’ (which is meant to be 20v). ‘We’ve seen some of these chips.’ they said, ‘ running extremely hot (basically too hot to touch) by simply switching the instrument on, before even playing a note.’
That’s not to say the MFC6070 was a particularly unusual part at the time – they were used all over the place, and even the venerable VCS3 synthesiser used one as a driver for its spring reverb circuit. However, as the site offering VCS3 spares, http://www.synthi.com, says: ‘The Achilles heel of the VCS3/Synthi AKS are the now obsolete and ultra rare semiconductors that it uses’ . . .
This made me think twice about powering the 350S with a mains-powered adapter: the increased risk of overdoing the voltage and blowing the chip might not be worth it. Dübreq themselves did apparently produce some 350S’s with an ‘adaptor socket factory-fitted’, but ‘this led to many of them blowing the chip.’
I’m not quite as worried as I was, however, as stylophone.com are now marketing a new module, the ‘Stylophone ACM’, which can be retro-fitted to an ailing 350S – or even to a working one, as a precautionary measure – to get round this problem altogether.
The circuitry inside this unit is not operating close to its limits, and makes it much safer to run the 350S from an 18v adapter. (And if you buy a reconditioned 350S from stylophone.com, it will already have one of these in it).
As a matter of fact, this is not the only ‘obsolete’ component in the 350S. Although the resistors, capacitors and transistors that fill the circuit board are not commonly used in new designs nowadays, they’re still readily obtainable; the round silver integrated circuit over on the right-hand side, just above the tuning control, isn’t.
It’s a General Instruments AY-1-5051, and what it does is frequency division (presumably for the 350S’s different octaves) – the kind of thing modern CMOS 4000-series chips do with the greatest of ease. There’s a description on this website: http://www.divdev.fsnet.co.uk/repair2a.htm of how one might make such a replacement (using the example of a 1960s Elka electronic organ). All I can say it, it looks feasible in theory, but not something I’d want to be faced with in practice – let’s hope this isn’t a part which is going to fail!
Returning to my 350s, it looked badly in need of a clean up. There was a lot of dust inside it, and over the years the keyboard had got very dirty:
The switches sounded OK – no crackling or intermittent operation, so I left those, and just cleaned the circuit board and keyboard. The keyboard in particular needed attention from, in order, a soft brush, switch cleaner, WD40 and Brasso. This seemed to do the trick, and it began to look shiny again.
I cleaned everything, including the switch rockers, the case and the tips of the styluses, and put it back together again. It now looked much better, and sounded clearly and reliably on every note.
In my next post, I’ll take a longer look under the bonnet of the 350S and see what there is to see.