Some Advice for Musicians Whose Gear Was Water-Damaged by Hurricane Harvey

Shortly after the Shuttle Explosion in 1986, the computers onboard the Challenger orbiter were retrieved from the floor of the Atlantic Ocean.  Each ‘set’ of boxes was sent to a different NASA Center for analysis.  One set came into the IBM Federal Systems lab in Clear Lake, Texas, where we dried, partially disassembled, and reassembled the hardware in hopes of recovering any clues regarding the accident.  I was the sub-contract manager at IBM at the time and was tasked with engineering support for the effort, including electrical test, micro-soldering, cable assembly, and such.  I am proud to report that the unit came back to life after two weeks of salt water immersion, and the data in the memory core was intact up to the point that vehicle power was lost; That information contributed greatly to the accident timeline.

So I want to weigh in on some strategies for musicians who found that their gear was water-damaged in Hurricane Harvey, which is still affecting Coastal Texas as I write this.  Let’s get going!

  1. Don’t turn anything on to see if it still works.  Odds are, it won’t.  And it won’t because you turned it on, dumbass.
  2. Unplug everything.  Your power is probably off anyway, but it never hurts to be sure.
  3. Remove ALL the batteries.  This includes tuners of all kinds, even the ones built into an acoustic guitar, guitar pedals and effect units, portable recorders, laptops, microphones, everything.  Same process as when your cell phone falls in the toilet.
  4. For all stringed instruments, slack the strings.  You don’t have to remove them, but just remove the tension.  Loosen the pegs on your violins/violas/cellos/basses to slack the strings; don’t bother with the fine tuners.
  5. For instruments with truss rods in the neck (guitars, basses, etc.) slack the truss rod.  Just a half a turn in the direction of ‘more loose, not more tight’ is the way to go.  For most instruments, that’s counter-clockwise.
  6. Drum heads on banjos and drum kits should be slacked as well, if the shell was wet.
  7. Many woodwinds will be OK if you were treating them with sweet oil on a regular basis.  The case will be in worse shape than the instrument.  Wipe everything with a dry towel and let it air dry for a week or two.  Inspect any pads and remove the reed; the reed will need to be replaced anyway unless you use synthetic reeds.

Now that everything is stable, let’s consider the recovery options.  The challenges we face are as follows:

  • Acoustic instruments made of wood are not damaged by a little water.  A lot of water will swell the wood and stress/break the glue bonds.  The sooner the liquid water is removed from the surface of the wood, the sooner we can begin the process of drying the instrument.  Wipe it down with a dry towel, inside and out.  There are instances of classical guitars stored in a basement in Central Europe that had absorbed TWICE THEIR WEIGHT in water that were successfully dried and returned to play-able condition.
  • Acoustic instruments made of wood ARE damaged by too much drying.  Shrinkage causes the wood to pull away from glue bonds and pull away from itself e.g. crack.  This Peavey neck became over-dried in hot attic:Fortunately, we have (and will continue to have) PLENTY of humidity so a good, slow, open-air drying over the next couple of weeks will cause the least damage to our acoustic instruments.  Resist the urge to pull out the hair dryer!
  • Solid body instruments are, more impervious to liquid water by virtue of the fact that they are usually finished in polyurethane or other rugged finish.  Again, wipe it down with a dry towel.  We’ll come back to work on the controls in a moment.
  • Martin guitars with the composite bodies, and Ovation guitars with their famous ‘bowls’ may be difficult to recover.  The sound board expands and shrinks at a different rate than the rest of the guitar.  Ovation will (upon request and sufficient $$) replace a wet top with a new one.  The Music Factory in Pearland has done this with a few of their new Ovations following the last hurricane.  I have not spoken with Martin but my guess is, you might have to call them and discuss the options.  Many of the composite/laminate guitars are under $500 which limits the range of repair options.

The areas of concern with our electronics fall into these categories: (1) cabinets and grille  (2) loudspeaker cones  (3) controls and switches.

Note that I did not say anything about the electronics themselves.  Electronic assemblies built after, say, about 1990, are mass produced by a process that uses water as a cleaning solvent.  This is called ‘aqueous cleanup’ and is almost ubiquitous in all electronic assembly shops around the world.  Your electronics will fare fare better in the flood than you think, particularly if we don’t energize them while wet.

  1. Let’s start on the cabinets and grilles.  Remove the grille and dry what you can with a towel.  The frame is almost always wood, and the fabric is almost always a synthetic.  The wood should be allowed to dry slowly over the next couple of weeks.  Do not apply any heat.  The frame may still warp a little, but we will deal with that when we reassemble the cab.
  2. Wipe all water from the cabinet, paying particular attention to the inside and bottom of the cabinet.  Remove the reverb tank, if it is present, and set aside.  Again, with the cabinet, a slow dry may be all it needs.  If the cabinet is made from particle board, you will see swelling which may spoil the appearance of the unit.  The particle board will never be as strong as it was before it got wet.  If your cabinet is particle board, you might convince yourself that Harvey has given you permission for an upgrade to a pine or plywood cabinet.
  3. Carefully remove any remaining liquid water from loudspeaker cones.  Let everything dry out for a week or two.  Then GENTLY push the cone evenly forward and back and listen for any rubbing or scratching noises.  If you don’t hear any noise (called ‘motor noise’) you may be OK.  Unfortunately, some magnets have a high concentration of metallic iron, which will rust (and swell) in the presence of moisture.  If the rusting is bad enough, the loudspeaker needs to be reconed or replaced.

Let’s take a look at the electronics.  The controls and switches on guitars and the controls and switches on amplifiers are treated in a similar manner.  Circuit boards and wiring harnesses are not hard to clean up if you are handy.  If you are comfortable disassembling your amp head or accessory, then Read On.  If not, there are many shops (not just mine) that are on Facebook that are competent to perform these repairs.  I am detailing these procedures so that the do-it-yourself-er can have some confidence to proceed, and also so that the non-do-it-yourself-er can speak competently with your chosen tech.

  • Compressed air is your friend.  The air blast will remove any liquid water present.  After disassembling your gear, get compressed air underneath components, connectors, transformers, anywhere there is a place where water can reside.  Those little cans of ‘electronic dusters’ are cool but expensive.  Pull out the air compressor.  Pull the bottom plate off your pedals to gain access to anywhere water may be lurking.  Remove those pick guards and blow everything dry.  Open up those battery boxes (you did remove the batteries, didn’t you?)  Dry everything!
  • Switches need a rinse and then lubrication.  I use ‘Blue Shower’ as a rinse, which is for cleaning television tuners.  There are other products that work as well.  Google “CAIG” read up, and go shopping at Fry’s for some of the CAIG products they carry.  Start with the CAIG F5 stuff as a rinse, then the CAIG GOLD stuff as a protector lubricant.  I use the CAIG GOLD product as well as some MIL-SPEC stuff (because I Am Cooler than you and can get MIL-SPEC stuff and you can’t.)
  • Hit the input and output jacks with a little CAIG GOLD on a cotton swab.  This is just good routine maintenance, and is particularly vital now that your instrument may have been wet.
  • For controls that were working fine before the flood, I would just use a shot of the CAIG Fader Lube (same aisle at Fry’s) as a water displacer and a lubricant.  Don’t try to rinse good controls because you may displace the factory lubricant and put it where it may create noise on the resistive element.  Keep It Simple.
  • Cables may be problematic.  My advice would be to toss the wet ones and get new ones.  My reasoning is this: Cables are often the weak link in any setup, even when new.  You know this.  Water will deteriorate cables because it will penetrate each end of the cable.  Copper and its alloys react readily in the presence of water and contamination (dirt from flood waters, for example.)  Also, the connector itself may be compromised by corrosion, as will be the solder joints or compression welds performed when the cable was new.  It will only get worse.  Toss the cables.  Just do it.  Life is too short.
  • For pictures of what I do with controls, check my previous post on https://www.unbrokenstring.com/noisy-controls-in-an-swr-red-head-bass-combo/
  • Most guitar pickups are encapsulated with wax or epoxy.  While the pick guard is off, blow out and dry what you can reach.  There may be some very fine wires exposed where they may be damaged, so don’t go crazy with the towel.
  • Reverb tanks have small transformer wound with small wire, like guitar pickups. Also, the springs are fairly delicate. Do what you can to dry them out before rust and oxidation set in. If they need to be replaced, reverb tanks may be purchased on-line for $30-$40 or so.
  • The CAIG Fader Lube is a very good lubricant for tuning machines.  While you’re at it, give them a shot of lube, directing it in such a way that it can enter the tuning machine.  Rinse.  Repeat.

UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES USE WD-40 ON YOUR GEAR.

 

WD-40 is good for your wet car ignition, but it has fish oil in it, which is just plain nasty considering that this is the 21st century and you can get modern products for your equipment.  Some people swear by WD-40, and I use it on lawn equipment and tools.  When people use it on electronics and musical instruments, I swear AT them.

Now that you are Poseidon and can command water to go away, here’s another tip.  If your flood water was muddy or contaminated, you can use clean water at anytime on most electronics.  This includes switches, controls, circuit boards, and all the stuff we’ve mentioned so far.  Your electronics were built in a factory that used water to clean the final product.  You can do this, because you know how to remove water.  And you are Poseidon.

FYI, full disclosure – I don’t own stock in CAIG.  However, their products are Top Drawer and are available at Fry’s in the hard-hit Southeast Houston area where I work and live.  In the Northwest part of town, ACE Electronics has the Blue Shower and equivalent lubricants.  These are the products that are available NOW (er… when the power comes back on and the roads are passable..) and are not vaporware.  Just tryin’ to help.

Again, there are several VERY COMPETENT shops in the Houston area that are willing and able to assist with an attempt to recover water damaged gear.  Check the musician groups on Facebook, and do a search for ‘repair’ before you post anything.  Turns out, some guy posts the same question every week or so, looking for a good repair shop.  And the same answers keep coming up again and again.  Don’t be that guy.  I am booked solid out through the end of September and may not be able to take on your work right away.  If you care to contact me directly, I can discuss some options and recommend some Good People who can get you going again.

Thanks for reading all the way to the end!

CONTACT – David Latchaw EE
281-636-8626

Maxtone CB Wah Wah Pedal Repair

George had this wah pedal in his collection but realized one day that it didn’t work.  Could the Unbrokenstring Crew help?

These pedals are common but there is very little literature available on them.  That won’t stop us!

 

On the bottom of the unit, we find this text.

 

And, we find this text.  Not made in PRC (Peoples Republic of China!)

 

The power jack is the older mono 3.5mm jack often seen on period pieces such as this.

 

Peering between the pedal and the base, we see the rack and pinion that runs the potentiometer, and the bypass switch.

 

When we open the unit, we see that the potentiometer has come loose from its mounting fork.  The battery has not leaked.  In fact, it’s still reading nine volts!

 

You can see the fork where the potentiometer mounts.  All of the hardware is present and accounted-for.

 

We have re-mounted the control where it belongs.  This requires some adjustment, as we will see later.

 

From the outside, we can more clearly see the rack and pinion that drives the potentiometer.  Also, the bypass switch is really high.  This needs to be adjusted first so that it switches only when the pedal is all the way down.

 

Here we see the bypass switch is mounted much lower.  When the pedal is pressed downward, we hear a clean ‘click.’  This is an indication that it is adjusted correctly.

 

On the inside of the unit, the jam nut is tightened so that the switch stays in this position.

 

A little bit of petroleum jelly serves as a lubricant for the rack and pinion.  The screw to the right adjusts the mesh ‘pre-load,’ keeping the teeth aligned, yet minimizing the sideways load on the shaft bearing inside the potentiometer.  The gears are ‘slipped’ until the desired portion of the pot shaft rotation is in the correct place (relative to the pedal) to give us proper ‘wah’ action.

 

The actual ‘wah’ circuit is little more than a treble boost/cut circuit.   Now that everything is together, the unit is tested with a guitar and amplifier.  Now that we have confirmed that the portion of the pot rotation is OK for this unit, all the screws are tightened.

 

George said that he installed a new battery, so this one stays.

 

We are all back together and ready to return to the pedal board.

Thanks for reading all the way to the end!

CONTACT – David Latchaw EE
281-636-8626

Ibanez / Stratus TS-9 Clone Pedal Repair

What do we have here? This pedal is completely custom inside and out.  Who made it?  And why does it not work?  Can the Unbrokenstring Crew decipher this jewel and get it working again?
Matt received this as a gift after a live show, from an appreciative fan.  It has an honored place on his pedal board.

 

Google is of absolutely NO help deciphering any of this text.

 

Very nice circuit board!  This is a Tube Screamer circuit, with several types of LEDs and diodes selectable in the clipping circuit.  Nearly every aspect of the circuit topology is ‘bend-able’ in this pedal.  Very cool!

 

This unit uses a very nice, high-quality Burr Brown operational amplifier chip and precision components throughout.

 

Our principle problem is immediately apparent.  See the broken wire on the output jack?

 

We have another broken wire on the switch.  Solid (unstranded) wire is easy to work with, but is prone to cracking and breaking more quickly than stranded wire.  But solid wire is widely used in the pedal building world.

 

Stratus is a supplier of ‘build your own clone’ pedal kits.  Their catalog confirms that this is a Tube Screamer clone.  Oh, and we found more broken wires.

 

The common ground circuit at the output jack relies on the conductivity of the enclosure.  When the enclosure is painted, as this one is, one can have an intermittent electrical connection.  Here, I’ve removed the jack to scrape some paint and add a toothed lock washer for better connection to the pedal enclosure.

 

This tool is handy to keep jacks from turning while the nut is tightened.  These are designed for hollow-body guitars, but work almost anywhere a quarter-inch jack is found…  for instance, here.

 

I wonder whose cat this is?

Thanks for reading all the way to the end!

CONTACT – David Latchaw EE
281-636-8626

Sovtek Small Stone Pedal Refurb and Update

The modulation rate control on this wonderful Sovtek Small Stone phaser effect pedal had broken. While the unit is in the shop, could the Unbrokenstring Crew also add a 21st century DC pedal power jack to the unit?

Like a message in a bottle, this pedal has the look and feel of a relic from another planet. Even the switch looks like alien technology.

Removing the top cover reveals a heavy steel plate that holds the major components.  Look at the LED holder!

The control for the phase modulation had disintegrated.  Not much was left holding the shaft in place.

The back side of the modulation control was not out of the ordinary beyond the Cyrillic alphabet. Perhaps it could be rebuilt using parts from another similarly-sized potentiometer.

We have removed the old potentiometer from the circuit.

The tabs on the back cover of the potentiometer can be peeled back in order to disassemble the unit.

Interestingly, the internals of this control are completely different than what we might expect from a domestic control.  This potentiometer is a ‘reverse audio taper’ component.  The Russians achieved this by mounting the resistive element on the opposite side of the main wafer of the control, effectively reversing the direction of the taper.

So, it appears that we need to find a control that is close to the physical size of the old part, so we can reuse the knob.

We are working in millimeters here, in case you are wondering.

An aluminum bushing allows this smaller shaft to fit in the Russian knob.  Perhaps we have another degree of freedom in our search for a proper replacement.

This bushing can be removed…  a good thing that will allow us to do some gun-smithing if we need to do so.

The knob is not quite big enough to allow a quarter-inch shaft to be substituted.

So, we located a reverse audio taper control custom-designed for Neve recording consoles.  Yeah, I got connections.

This part has an appropriately-sized shaft that will permit us to use the original knob.  Good news!

The new control is wired into the circuit in the same manner as the old one.  Teflon spaghetti tubing handles the high-temperature insulation duties here.

These little spacers were rattling around in the enclosure after the circuit board was removed.  Where do these go?

Turns out, they are spacers that go on top of the cast bosses in the bottom of the original box.

The new power jack is mounted and wired into place, along with new steel Switchcraft in and out jacks.

The whole arrangement is now fitted back into the case.

An internal nine volt battery is used for powering this unit for checkout.

We have a winner!  Time to tighten down the screws and button this unit back up.

Here is the top cover with the new control installed.

The case cover is now back on.

The owner wanted to leave no question regarding whose pedal this was.  Mine!!!  Mine!!

Thanks for reading all the way to the end!

CONTACT – David Latchaw EE
281-636-8626

 

Vintage Boss Chorus Ensemble Pedal Refurb

Wonderfully-preserved from the era when one could still see Stevie Ray Vaughn perform live, we find a Boss Chorus Ensemble pedal that had been stored for decades.  In the years since, many advances in computer sound modeling has made an infinite universe of tone available to the aspiring guitarist.  However, there is just ‘something’ about the Real Thing.  The owner wanted this wonderful piece of history refurbished and placed back into service.

Years of storage in the high Houston humidity has taken a toll on the outside.  What’s up with those screws on the HIGH/LOW input level switch?

Forget that stuff made in China.  This is the real thing, from Japan!

Since when was an electric guitar considered “HOUSEHOLD ELECTRONIC EQUIPMENT”?

The nomenclature for the input and output jacks appears on the top of the unit.

Let’s make a quick tour of the unit.  This is the left half of the front panel.

This is the right half of the front panel.

Several pictures of the circuit boards were made, to verify that the service literature used for this refurb matched reality.  This is the top half of the circuit board’s component side.

This is the bottom half of the component side of the circuit board.  Those fuses are on the AC output of the power transformer.

Most of the screws in the bottom of the unit were missing.  This unit was balancing on two feet.

The interior layout is actually pretty cool, well-representing the line-powered Japanese gear of the period.

I’m going back through and documenting where the various wire colors go.  Note that the wires are just tacked to brass eyelets swaged into the circuit board.  The AC power wires get their own riveted tie points.

Looking closely at the wiring.

Wiring closeups.

More wiring closeups.  This is factory wiring, I believe.

More colored wires.

The black ground wire gets its own lug.

A quick jab of the soldering iron frees the circuit board from the wiring harness.  All passive components were checked and anything that was out of spec was replaced.  Most of the forty-year-old electrolytic capacitors were replaced.

The outer jacket of the AC cord dry-rotted.  This looks gnarly, but the inner insulation seems to be fine.

A new cord is identified with the same outer diameter and wire gauge.

The blue and green wires are the input to the primary wiring of the power transformer.  Note the cable clamp pressed into service as a strain relief for the power cord.

The old cord is gone.  We can keep the cable clamp and move it to the new cord set.

This grommet would not ‘fly’ with UL today, but was fine for the 1980s.  This will be used again.

The new cord is stripped back.  Note the authentic cotton filler.

The cotton mop is trimmed away and the original cable tie is slipped on the new cord.  Next comes the grommet.

The original strain relief was retained.  The white and black wires were later terminated to the green and blue wires seen above.

Both foot switches were ruined.  Out they come!

This is the wiring side of the original ‘effect/bypass’ switch.

Out it comes.  The escutcheon is in rough shape.  Maybe we can freshen it up.

Here we’re trying to salvage some of the original hardware.  A sideways blow the old foot switch damaged the threads.

Here is the wiring side of the chorus/vibrato switch.  This switch was intermittent.

Rather than desolder the wires, I trimmed them off square.  They will be stripped and re-terminated on the new switch.

A pair of DPDT foot switches will adequately replace the foot switches in this unit.

The original trim nuts were in good shape and will be reused, to preserve the original appearance of the unit.

Now let’s move our attention to the potentiometers and switches in this unit.

The nuts were rusty but in good shape otherwise.  Here, one of my deep sockets with the felt cover is used to remove the nuts.  The felt prevents the socket from marring the soft aluminum face plate.

Note the letter “C” after the first line of text.  This denotes a reverse taper pot, used for the vibrato rate control.

Vibrato depth control is a linear taper control, thus the letter “B.”

The chorus intensity control is a linear control as well.

And who would have guessed that the level control was an audio taper potentiometer?

Each potentiomenter was flushed with Blue Shower.

A blast of Rid-Ox really does the trick on dirty contacts.

Some synthetic lubricant keeps the shaft turning smoothly.

Until I get the air compressor line plumbed to the bench, Air In A Can will have to do to dry everything out.

This process leaves everything spotless and clean, inside and out!

A soft tooth brush works well with the crinkle finish paint used on this unit.

The toothbrush cleans the grooves around the indicator lamps.

A lint-free cloth carries away four decades of gunk.

Before going further on the outside, we need to get under the front panel.

With the potentiometers and switches removed, the aluminum panel lifts right out.

Placing the aluminum panel flat on a carpeted surface, gentle pressure will allow us to remove dents.

With the front panel set aside, we can turn our attention to the power switch.  This switch needs cleaning as well.

It gets a treatment similar to the one given the potentiometers.  This is much better!

With the individual pieces reconditioned, it’s time for reassembly.

Controls and switches were installed and wired.  The wiring harness was returned to its factory layout.

We’re starting the process of restoring all the connections made by the colored wires.

Testing was performed with a sheet of cardboard between the circuit board and the metal chassis.

I spotted these parts at a local hardware store.  These screws and bumpers are perfect for replacing the rubber feet.

This guy is ready for another four decades of vintage guitar sound.  This unit sounds AMAZING!

Thanks for reading all the way through!

CONTACT – David Latchaw EE
281-636-8626

Big Muff Pi Pedal Refurb and Update

Matt owned this pedal FOREVER and needed to put it to work in the studio for a project.  But, the foot switch had disassembled itself years ago, and the audio jacks were worn out.  This pedal needed an update to the 21st century, adding compatibility with the distributed power in a pedal board.  Could the Unbrokenstring Crew make this happen?

The knobs and controls were in great shape.  Beyond the audio jacks, switching, and power, the unit works great.

With the top cover removed, we see the VERY heavy gauge frame that takes the force from the foot switch.  Yes, stomp boxes get stomped on!  The LED mounting scheme is obviously some Soviet military hardware.

The top view of the circuit board show the ‘in’ and ‘out’ jacks.  The originals are plastic and completely shelled out.

The circuit board is more Soviet military goodness.  Clearly, this board was ‘hand taped’ and not laid out with an automated.CAD program.  I’d call this ‘one step beyond hand wiring.’

Note that all the wiring insulation is white.  This harness started out as ribbon cable, and each wire was pulled out of the ribbon as it was wired to place.

A modern epoxy-sealed foot switch is trial-fitted.  This one is triple-pole double-throw on/off to handle both the required functionality of the old switch and to implement ‘true bypass’ when the effect is deselected.

Here is the user-side of the foot switch.  We need to be sure that the mushroom button is installed as high as possible to simulate the height of the old foot switch.

For those of you who know your ‘one-line’ electrical symbols, you know that these two terminals are ‘no connect.’  What?

These ‘no connect’ terminals are used to mount the current-limiting resistor for the LED.

So the current-limiting resistor is moved to its own spot in the wiring harness.  Yes, that is clear heat shrink tubing.

More ‘one-line’ electrical symbol goodness.  The body of the switch is phenolic.  It is badly cracked and ready to shatter.  Had I been able to find the missing switch hardware, this switch could not be returned to service anyway.

And for those of you who understand the Cyrillic alphabet, this pic’s for you.

The input and output jacks will be desoldered.  The gray plastic is quite brittle after all these years.

Now that they have been removed, we can complete the schematic.  Those jacks have switches in them that need to be analyzed in isolation.  The switching function is not necessarily what Western manufacturers utilize in their jacks.

The printed circuit board is temporarily reinstalled so that we can check the fit of the new jacks.

The new jacks are genuine Amphenol units, professional grade, as they say.

The terminals are bent slightly inward to clear the internals of the pedal.

The stereo jack functions as a power switch, disconnecting the ground to the 9v source when the plug is disconnected.  Both jacks need to be oriented in such a way to minimize mechanical interference with the circuit board.

The original jack escutcheons really dress up the jacks!

All new wiring was made with silver wire with a white Teflon insulation, matching the original SovTek wiring harness.

The new switch is installed.  Unlike the original foot switch, this switch is wired as ‘true bypass’ when the effect is off.

The edge of the circuit board was trimmed away to allow clearance to the body of the new Amphenol jacks.  The trace that was cut is for the sleeve terminal, which is duplicated in the array of remaining pads.

This pic shows the orientation of the notch in the circuit board to the body of the new connector.

A new 9v power jack is added between the two in/out jacks.  This jack is compatible with the ‘Boss’ pedal power “standard” with negative in the middle and 9v on the sleeve.

To reassemble the pedal, the top frame goes on first.

The cover goes on next.  This is beginning to look like a pedal again!

Matt would use the 9v power jack in the studio, but the functionality of the pedal with a 9v battery remains unchanged.

Here is a look at the finished unit, updated with steel jacks and the 9v pedal power capability.  This unit works well!

Thanks for reading all the way through!

CONTACT – David Latchaw EE
281-636-8626