Wednesday, July 20, 2016

'Radio wall of sound. Comin' up from my tower.'

Every single noise a pinball machine makes is loud.

There is the mechanical side – The cracking of the flippers, the rattling of the pop bumpers, the thwack of the up-kickers, the skittering of the ball down wire lanes and the chattering as it ascends and descends ramps. Even the mere movement of the ball across the playfield makes a low rumbling sound. Playing a machine with the glass removed is like listening to Lou Reed's 'Metal Machine Music'. Only it's a lot more melodic.

On top of this is the digitally generated sound. Pinball has evolved from the bells, clicks and whistles on old electro-magnetic machines through the Moog synthesizer-style pulses, throbs and wobbles of the 70s/80s to full soundtracks, sampled sounds and voiceovers.

This aspect of the pinball machine is a very important part of the whole experience. The soundtrack is the beat to the whole game. Not only do the voice callouts help the player stay informed to what is going on when they can't take their eye off the ball for too long ('Shoot again', 'Ball locked', 'Extra ball is lit'), but are vital to the machine's theme. The Star Trek: The Next Generation machine would be a greatly diminished experience without the TV show theme and the specially recorded voice work by the actual cast. This includes the majesty of Sir Patrick Stewart himself calling out in full irony-free Picard tones, 'All hands, prepare for multi-ball!'

Years of painstakingly hard study and craft at the Royal Shakespeare Company culminated in this.

The Dredd machine has a wonderfully cheesy metal rock soundtrack and a variety of voiceovers. This was I would imagine, the first time the Judges had been given actual voices. Before, the reader of Dredd's adventures in 2000AD would have invented their own voices in their heads. Remember, this was 1993, a beautiful time before the Sylvester Stallone Dredd movie was released and ruined everything. Non-movie machines tended to use local (AKA cheap!) actors for the characters with someone called Tina Fey providing voices for some characters in the Medieval Madness machine whilst she was with the Second City, a improvisational comedy company in Chicago – The home of Pinball. I've no idea what became of her...

Dredd was played by Tim Kitzerow, a voice-over artist who worked on dozens of classic pinball machines like The Shadow, Roadshow and Attack From Mars and videogames like NBA Jam and NFL Blitz. He did a great job, sounding gruff and authoritative without descending into parody like Christian Bale's Batman. I can't seem to find out who did the voices of Judge Anderson and the other characters in the game sadly.

All of this is well and good, but my machine's sound was more like sound leaking from an annoying teenager's headphones on the train rather than a boombox. It was weak, thin and quiet.

A pinball's sound is broadcast across the arcade from a pair of small speakers located in the backbox either side of the dot matrix display, facing the player and a single subwoofer facing down in the floor of the machine to provide some extra teeth-rattling bass. Even with the volume turned all the way up to the max (which normally would mean the machine could be heard from space) the main speakers were quiet and the woofer wasn't producing even the smallest of barks.

The wiring looked fine but the speakers themselves were very dusty, the magnets were badly chipped and the woofer had a connector unplugged and a tear in the cone. Time for them to go.

I ordered a complete replacement kit from Pinball Pro. These new speakers are bigger and a doddle to fit. Simply remove the old speakers and using the included wood spacers, screw in the new ones. All installed, I powered the machine up and hallelujah, the Judge now had nice, super loud sound! Job's a good 'un.

Original subwoofer on the right, new one installed on the left. Maximum power!


Well, this blog quickly died on its arse didn't it?

No, come back! There will be more to read very soon. No, really!

Monday, August 24, 2015

Harry Potter and the Mysterious Brown Envelope

There have been many stories told over the years about extra items that have been found inside the conveniently cavernous and relatively discreet innards of amusement machines. As with all tall tales, you have to discount most of them as damned lies, but the things I have heard about include piles of cash, 'medicinal herbs', 'marital aids', firearms, bottles of unlabelled moonshine, false limbs, musical instruments and of course bongo magazines. Essentially everything short of Lord Lucan and Shergar. My friend once bought an old Tempest arcade cabinet at an auction and found inside a box of 3.5" floppy disks (ask your granddad what these were, kids) with girls' names written in a serial killer scrawl in vivid pink ink on the labels. He threw them away straight away without looking any further and throughly washed his hands four times. I think I would have done the same.

Inside the Judge was none of the above, but a large fairly heavy brown envelope. Opening it, at first I was a little disappointed that there were no deeds to a castle inside but was soon happy with what was present. It was pretty much the machine's entire documentation.

A bit of light reading.

"Congratulations on choosing the Mega City One fascistic law enforcement officer.
Please read the instructions carefully and it should give years of trouble free judging, jurying and executing."

This paperwork is usually missing from well travelled machines. It is often separated and lost over time on the machine's long journey from owner to owner. It is essentially a collection of instructions and pages full of frightening Star Trek style schematics and illustrations listing switches, solenoids, circuit diagrams and bulbs – pretty much everything in and on the machine that you can refer to when it needs fixing, replacing or testing. Which it will at some point.

Yup, all looks straightforward...

Yes, I still laugh at the word 'flasher'. I am a child.
Whilst all of this bumf is widely available and can easily be downloaded gratis from the internet, I thought it was nice that I had the actual tangible document that I could refer to instead of peering at an iPad screen. I imagine these books will be heavily thumbed through soon with pages folded over, pencil notes written in the margins and dirty fingerprints adorning the edges like a Haynes manual for a classic car. It was now time to jump in as the replacement parts had started to arrive!

Thursday, August 13, 2015

'Let us hurry. There is nothing to fear here.'

After a little internet research I discovered the screwheads on the backbox lock were a 'Torx size 20 with centre pin'. So I went down to Masters (other massive Australian DIY centres are available) and came back with a hex key swiss army knife. The screws came out with no problem and the lock and surround popped straight out, success!

The lock itself was a simple looking one that should be simple and cheap enough to replace.

Lifting the backglass out revealed the panel with many blown bulbs and a clear message to the
unweary traveller...

What could possibly go wrong?

The machine was off, so opening this panel, I ventured further to the actual backbox gubbins – The various driver boards and the brain of the machine.

My luck seemed to be in. The holder that should have contained the AA batteries was empty – that would explain why the machine reverted to factory settings every time it was powered on. This was good news as leaking old battery acid is can eat through circuit boards like Alien blood. I whipped them out and put in some fresh new Duracells. There are more efficient and elegant solutions like installing an button battery cell with holder or even adding an EPROM chip, but I went with Occam's razor for the time being. Everything looked good, no capacitors had split, no wires were broken and nothing was missing. But hang on... What was this taped above the PCBs? It looked like... a key? It couldn't be, could it?! I removed the key and tried it in the coin door's lock. Bugger me, it fitted and opened the door! I didn't need to drill out the lock!

So some bright spark taped the coin door key in the backbox for safe keeping and then lost the backbox key? Genius!

Once in there I took off the lock bar, slid off the glass and lifted the playfield. It was heavier than I expected – Everything in a pinball machine weighs a ton it seems. My heart was in my mouth, what Lovecraftian nightmare had been sleeping dormant in here for nearly a decade? Was I going to be responsible for ending the world by releasing an unspeakable demon?

It was clear of life, both living and dead – result! Everything was covered in a thin layer of black soot, which I think was the result of the bulbs blowing, but nothing that would inspire Hieronymus Bosch.
Oooh look, two 1 dollar coins. Both from 1984, oddly. They were returned into circulation by buying me a very nice takeaway coffee the next day. 

'Dancing to electro-pop like a robot from 1984.' 

 There was something else. In the black corner there was a fairly large, old brown envelope...

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

'Too many problems, oh why am I here?'

Well here is Fix List 1.0. I should print it out and stick it next to my inspirational 'Hang in there baby' cat poster.

Problem: The keys to open the backbox and coin door are M.I.A.
So here's the reason I couldn't clean inside the machine. I know, I know, it’s pure stupidity to take on a machine without seeing ‘under the hood’. And even more foolish to relocate it into the house when it could be full of spiders, rodents, marsupials and chupacabras. I know that... now. 
Solution: The plate surrounding the lock in the backbox is held on with two Torx screws. 

These screws look like part of a Klingon Meccano set.

I don’t have the correct shape in my toolkit, so I’ll get one that fits. It’s either that or drill out the lock. It looks like I’ll have no choice but to do that to the coin door one. Then I’ll need a couple of replacement locks.

Problem: Many lights out. 
Solution: Hopefully just bulbs blown. Even if they had all been working, I would have still replaced them with LEDs. Many places sell a complete kit, so that is what I will get. The purists dislike them, but they are bright and will outlive me and the machine itself. No need for constant replacing globes again.

Problem: The perspex plastic display cover that sits over the speakers and DMD is cloudy.
Solution: Just a lot of dust built up, I’m hoping.

Problem: Lines missing on the dot matrix display.
Solution: Worse case scenario: the display board is dying, but more likely a loose connection, as I'm sure it worked fine before I moved the machine. Whatever the cause,  I’m aiming to replace it with a sparkling new ColorDMD. 
Update: Tapping on the front of the display brings the lines back again. I'm definitely thinking a loose wire. 

Good news that the dot matrix display now seems to be displaying all dots and matrixes.
Bad news that the plastic cover has more fog than an Nintendo 64 game.

Problem: The sound is very quiet. The subwoofer isn't working at all.
Solution: The volume might be at a low setting or perhaps the speakers are old and knackered. When I can get into the machine, I'll check the levels. Whatever the outcome, I’m going to get new, more powerful replacement speakers.

Problem: The balls are tarnished with rust.
Solution: Nobody likes their balls to be rough and speckled – they don't look very good and can damage the playfield. I could try and treat them with rust remedy and buff them shiny, but to be honest, they are cheap to buy so I'll get a complete replacement set.

Rusty Balls is my favourite blues singer.

Problem: Machine reverts back to factory settings each time it is turned on.
Solution: Three AA batteries are used to save the settings and high scores. These are certainly dead, I’m just hoping they haven’t leaked and damaged any boards. I'll check when I can get into the backbox.

Problem: The playfield and flipper rubbers have perished and cracked. 
Solution: I’ll need to buy a full kit for both and replace them. 

Problem: The left flipper button is a lot more stiff to press than the right one. 
Solution: No idea what the problem is at this stage, but I'd like to fix it as it is awkward and uncomfortable whilst playing. 

Problem: Start button is sticky, intermittently works and has no flashing light.

'Broken Start light. Five years in the cubes, punk!'

Solution: Could be rust in the fitting, broken plastic or just gunk build up. I will investigate. Very cheap to get a whole new button and the LED kit comes with ones for the buttons.

Problem: The glass slides up and down a wee bit. 
Solution: the plastic lip that holds it at the top is cracked, so that will be replaced, the lockdown bar at the bottom has a bit of play in it moving up and down. I'm guessing it has teeth to hold it locked in place and that these are bent. I’m hoping if I bend them straight, it will clamp down on the glass better and hold it in place.

Problem: The glass has quite a few scratches.
Solution: Hardly noticeable, but if I can find a locally sourced replacement or a glass cutter that can knock me up a piece to size, I’ll price it up.

Problem: The artwork on both sides and the front of the cabinet is very faded. This happens a lot to pinball machines. Years of sitting by a window in the sun doesn’t do them any favours. Oddly, the backbox sides, whilst a bit scuffed are still bright and colourful.

Artwork fade comparison. The backbox must have been wearing SPF 60.    

Solution: Complete reproduction decal sets are available but they are expensive and to apply them properly is a herculean task. The machine needs completely dissembling with the old graphics sanded off, holes filled, the cabinet repainted, the decals applied without damage and air bubbles and then finally all of the electrical gubbins put back in. I just can’t face doing that I’m afraid. I might try and touch up the artwork with spray paint and marker pens, but I think it is just something I’ll have to live with. I don’t want the machine to look pristine and new anyway, I prefer that it looks like its lived a good busy life, hence why I’m going to keep a few nicks and scratches.

Plenty to keep me busy, time to give the internet and my bank account a sound thrashing.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Cosplaying as Barry Scott

I put an all '80s playlist on, rolled up my sleeves and became a reluctant cleaning machine. I spent a good half an hour scrubbing away eight years of garage dirt in my own movie montage. Def Leppard's 'Run Riot' was a definite highlight.

What? I'm from Sheffield, you have to like The 'Lepp – it's the law.
Failure to comply means th'coppers come round 'n nick yer Hendo's. 

I'm was happy with the result. I didn't do the inside of the machine at this stage because... well, I'll explain that very soon.

Then after a lot of pushing, pulling and indoor language, the 140kg beast was in the house! No, not in the the living room (Apparently that's not an appropriate place for it!). The options I was given by the boss was that it was either to live in the garage or in my study. The former was certainly a lot easier, but it's rather dirty and dusty in there and would certainly get rather cramped what with all of the garden paraphernalia and of course, the car. Oh and several redback spiders live in there too. So I decided it was worth the time, effort and backache to get it into the safe, warm and arachnid-free utopia of my study. I refuse to call it a 'man-cave' as I am not a complete arsehole.

Of course, I'll not get any useful work done at all now...

Fun fact: the front and rear legs look the same, but are in fact very slightly different in design.
Enough to completely mess up the stability if got wrong. Which I did.
I really wish I'd tagged them whilst I removed them to get the machine into the car.

Monday, July 27, 2015

'Transportation is a precise business.'

The machine was in much better condition than the Baywatch. Nothing was missing, the playfield was dirty but looked in immaculate condition underneath the grime and joy of joy, after flicking the switch, the Judge woke up into life! It had some problems, but despite sitting in a dirty garage for just short of a decade in hibernation, Dredd was very much still alive. Here was my future project.

My wife had sort of, kind of, tentatively given me the green light to get a machine at some point. I would remind her and apologise when I got home! As for the money, he had no idea what it was worth (And I didn’t either), however he was starting a new business and for my sins, I’m a graphic designer by trade, so I agreed to create him a logo, brochure and various other stuff for his new venture in exchange. I have worked for money, food, booze and sex. Well, maybe not that last one, but now I would be working for a old, slightly broken pinball machine.

My car is a Ford Falcon station wagon. A preposterous example of Aussie automotive excess that I acquired due to some friends going back to the UK and needing to sell their car. We were in the market for a second vehicle and it was beneficial for us and them to take it off their hands for a song. Outside of garden centre trips and dog walks, the vacuous space within this hearse of a vehicle is completely superfluous to requirement. Today however, was the white whale's day to shine and earn its keep. Needless to say Moby's boot swallowed The Judge with no problems whatsoever.