Friday, December 11, 2009

Bastard Tracks

Hi everyone,

My friend Bob, who participated in the projects listed here at Mr. Break-It, has started a music review blog called Bastard Tracks. Check it out for short, to-the-point music reviews covering a pretty wide spectrum of genres. I will occasionally provide guest reviews for rock and metal albums, so if you like my work, give it a look!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

North American source for piezoelectric sensors

A number of comments have been posted asking where you can order piezoelectric sensors suitable for use as replacement drum sensors.

For anyone in North America, sells brass piezo discs for about $1 apiece. They also sell pre-wired piezo discs (with the wires already soldered to the discs) for $3 apiece. They ship quickly and cheaply, and if you buy ten or more, the prices drop relatively sharply.

I ordered 10 pre-wired piezo discs for $20 USD, and they arrived at my house about a week later by regular mail. They will be used in an upcoming project, in which a disassembled GH:WT drum controller is used to play with a practice drum kit.

If anyone has a good source for other locations, or a better or cheaper source for North America, please let us know in the comments!

Friday, February 6, 2009

Do-it-yourself Guitar Hero:World Tour Cymbal Repair

Has one of your drum kit's cymbals stopped working some or all of the time? Does it register hits when it's not supposed to? If either of these things happens to you, it can be pretty frustrating. Your scores will plummet, your bandmates will ridicule you, and worse yet, instead of having fun, you'll be bummed out.

If the wire's cut, you can easily repair it by removing the outer sheathing, stripping the two wires inside and reconnecting them. Then you can tape them with electrical tape, or if you're so inclined, solder them for a more permanent fix.

But if the cymbal itself is the problem, what can you do, apart from send the cymbal back to the manufacturer and wait for a replacement? Well, if you don't mind doing a little bit of soldering, you can actually replace most of the cymbal for very little money.

What you need

Quick Fix Materials
  • Phillips head screwdriver
  • Soldering iron
  • Solder (with flux if needed)
  • Electrical tape (optional)
  • Scraping tool / knife
  • Wire cutters / strippers
Full Fix Materials
  • All of the above, plus:
  • Wire (I used hookup wire, which is cheap and sturdy)
  • Mono audio jack
  • Pliers (optional)
  • Glue suitable for gluing plastics together
  • 'Helping hands' (optional)
  • Pencil (optional)
Identifying the Problem

The underside of a GH:WT cymbal looks like this. There are four small screws which you should carefully remove with your Phillips head screwdriver. Once the cover is removed, you're ready to find out exactly where the source of your trouble is.

This kind of problem is usually due to one of the connections inside the cymbal having broken loose. There is a kind of white compound covering each solder point, as the picture to the right shows, and this can make it difficult to find out which connection is having trouble.

The transparent tape in the picture was not originally present; I added it as a cheap fix to low sensitivity.

The first thing to do is to slowly tug on each wire to see if you can find out where it's loose or broken. If you're lucky, you'll only have to resolder a single point.

If you find one or more loose wires, this usually means you simply have to resolder them, and you can use the Quick Fix method listed below.

If you don't find anything wrong (or everything is wrong), don't panic! You can use the Full Fix method below to get back on the skins in no time.

The Quick Fix

If you find one or more loose wires, great! Simply clean the white rubbery compound off both the wire and the area underneath it, which will reveal the original solder point. I usually find it easier to resolder the wire slightly away from the original solder point. If you're resoldering one of the connections on the piezo sensor (the round copper ring with a white center), remember that you must have one wire soldered to the copper ring and one to the white area in the center. Strip a short length of the wire with your wire strippers. Tin the wire by applying a small amount of solder to it (apply flux if necessary), take a small drop of solder, and apply it to the wire while it's pressed down onto the sensor (again, apply flux if necessary to the sensor). Your cymbal should be working fine again. You may want to apply some electrical tape to keep the newly soldered wire from becoming loose again.

The Full Fix

If you're unlucky, like I was, you might find out that you have more than one broken connection, or worse, that the little board or the audio jack have malfunctioning connections. However, all is not lost. In fact, the board does nothing but provide a way to secure the audio connector to the cymbal. It's not required, and with this fix, we'll bypass it completely and still have a fully functional cymbal.

In this case, we'll assume the worst and consider the board and/or the audio jack are completely broken. Start by removing the screw keeping the board in place, and remove it entirely. Remove all the white compound around the wires on the piezo sensor and cut the wires, as we will have to replace them with longer ones.

Take the audio jack and place it on the cymbal, with the single pin facing upwards (it's a mounting pin, but we won't be using it). Place the plastic cover on top to make sure you have the jack lined up with the hole in the cover. We will be gluing the jack in place here, so you may wish to mark the position of the jack with a pencil before proceeding further.

Once you've done that, measure two lengths of wire, each one long enough to connect the jack to one of the areas of the sensor (one for the copper ring, one for the white ring inside). If you have a 'helping hands', as shown in the picture to the right, use the clips to hold your audio jack.

Hook the two wires into the two parallel connectors on the audio jack, as shown to the left. Use the pliers to make them nice and tight. If needed, apply some flux to each connector, then take a small drop of solder with the iron and press it to the area where the connector and the wire meet.

Once you have the jack soldered to the wire, position it in the proper area (use the plastic cover to check if you haven't marked the position).

Solder each wire to the piezo sensor, applying flux if needed. One wire has to be soldered to the outside copper ring, one on the white area inside. Once the wires are soldered in place, you can put some electrical tape over the sensor to minimize chances it will come apart again.

Glue the audio jack to the cymbal. I used a small amount of quick-set epoxy, but many types of glue should work for this. Wait long enough for your desired glue to set before replacing the plastic cover. The picture to the right shows a completed fix.

Test your new cymbal by playing a song or two. Mine works flawlessly!

Monday, February 2, 2009

Kick Pedal mod for Guitar Hero: World Tour

[EDIT] I made the pedal a bit tougher and added some more pictures along the way.

Well, it had to happen. I broke my kick pedal again the other day. I had a bit of a hard time fixing it up (more on that later), so I figured I'd go all-out and build a real kick pedal controller for my Guitar Hero: World Tour drumset (like the ones you can buy on various sites).

If there's one thing I appreciate about the Rock Band / Guitar Hero instruments, it's that they're very simple. The drums, for example, are simply piezoelectric vibration sensors that you can attach to pretty much anything you like, such as a tabletop, a real drum kit, a book, or anything else you can think of. Piezo sensors create DC output when they vibrate, so basically, the drum controller uses this electric signal to tell when you've hit something, and also how hard you hit it. This is why an overly sensitive drum head sometimes experiences 'crosstalk', because the sensor is picking up vibrations that it's not supposed to (or it's badly soldered onto the wire and coming loose).

The GH:WT kick pedal also has a piezo sensor, contrary to the Rock Band 1 pedal, which uses a magnetic switch. Both are about as simple, however: each one uses two wires connected to a mono audio connector like the ones you can buy in electronics stores. This makes it really easy to create a functional replacement pedal (it doesn't even have to be a pedal at all).

I went to a local music store and bought a cheap, run-of-the-mill chain-driven kick pedal. I was talking to the guy behind the counter when he mentioned he had a drum practice pad with a broken sensor inside of it. Since the sensor he was talking about is for real electronic drums, I took the pad off of his hands.

The pad looked pretty cool, since it had a socket for a 5/16" bolt on the back. I figured it would fit nicely on a metal pole, especially if I could find one that was pre-drilled with holes. At my local hardware store, all they had were solid lengths of steel pipe. I'm not equipped to drill holes in pipes, and they couldn't do it on request either, but I brought a suitable length home anyway, thinking it was at least good enough for a prototype.

My friend Bob, plastic guitarist extraordinaire, has participated in my fake instrument mods since we started playing Guitar Hero a short while ago. I enlisted him to give me a hand in creating a suitable base for my new practice pad. This monstrosity is what we came up with:

Yes, those are tie-wraps. We used a whole bunch in this prototype, mostly because we're lazy, and we like cheap things that do a great job. It's easier than drilling holes through steel pipe, at any rate.

The first thing we did was grab a piezo sensor I had lying around and soldered the wire from my broken GH:WT pedal to it. Connecting a piezo sensor to an audio connector is simple: take one end of a two-conductor cable (the GH:WT wire resembles a regular audio or speaker cable), solder one of the wires to the ring on the outside of the sensor, and the other to the the inside of the sensor, which is usually white. Then take the other end of the cable and solder each wire to one of the audio connector's terminals. I'll write a separate entry on this later, with pictures, since this is basically everything you need to make a trigger for Guitar Hero: World tour and Rock Band. This is also called a contact microphone, and you can test it by plugging it into a set of speakers, putting the sensor against a surface, and then tapping on the surface. You should hear a kind of scratchy thump if it's wired correctly. There's not much else to it: if you've soldered the wires to both ends correctly, it'll work, nothing else is needed. As you can see, this one has been used a few times, but these kinds of sensors are pretty tough and the extra bits of solder don't do any harm.

In order to protect the sensor, we wrapped it tightly in electrical tape. The solder could get shaken loose if you leave it exposed, especially if you have a tendency to be rough. You'll also want to make sure the wires aren't exposed. This is what the finished sensor and cable looks like.

Once the piezo sensor was wired up, we glued the sensor to the inside of the practice pad, as this image shows. We used some quick-set epoxy, which is a pretty resistant glue that bonds almost anything. We also taped the wire down in a few places in order to avoid having any extra hits being created by the wire moving around. Adding some sort of soft foam on top of the sensor in order to contact the practice pad's drum skin might enhance the sensitivity, but we didn't have any lying around, so we saved that option for the updated version.

We reassembled the pad and strapped it securely to the length of pipe I bought.

So far, so good. Bob went to work, creating a suitable wooden base that allows us to drop the steel pipe in and attach the pedal. We had something much more ambitious at first, but Bob's love of tie-wraps took over, and we ended up with this:

Okay, so it looks a bit weird. The question is: how does it perform? I've only tested it once, but so far, it's been great! Double and triple kicks have never been easier, it hardly makes a noise, and every bass hit is accompanied by a solid thumping sensation, which is way more interesting than playing on a plastic pedal.

The great thing about this kind of mod is that once you've wired that piezo sensor up, you can connect it to almost anything you can tap, whether it's with a drum stick, your hands, feet, or anything else.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Welcome to Mr. Break-It!

Hello, dear visitor. You have stumbled upon Mr. Break-It, a blog dedicated to breaking things (and, of course, fixing them up afterwards).

The site's initial focus will be on fixing and modifying Guitar Hero World Tour / Rock Band instruments. I am an avid fake plastic drummer and guitarist, and after having broken my drumset a dozen or so times, I discovered there is a serious lack of information about these fake plastic instruments. Not only that, they happen to be almost amazingly simple, and by extension, almost endlessly customizable.

If you're a fake drumming enthusiast, you've surely seen aftermarket replacement drum pedals for sale. Those are great, professional-grade products, but they're also quite expensive, especially if you're a Canadian, like me, and have to pay incredible amounts just to get the things shipped.

Well, when I first started playing fake plastic instruments, I was playing on my neighbor's second-hand, out-of-warranty Rock Band 1 drum set, with the absolutely horrible kick pedal. After less than a week, I smashed the pedal in half during a particularly grueling session. Needless to say, I was both embarrassed and annoyed, having broken someone else's toy. I repaired the pedal several times, using glue, duct tape, epoxy, and none of these solutions were enough to last longer than a week (I know, I know, I'm not supposed to stomp on the pedal like it was some sort of undesirable vermin, but I get excited. Sue me). After I got sick of the whole 'break & repair' cycle I finally took the whole thing apart... only to discover that the whole thing is no more complicated than a simple alarm circuit sensor, like you would put on a window or a door. I found an old drum pedal, strapped the appropriate electronics to it, and voila! Better than the original.

Of course, I'm not the first person to discover this... these aftermarket drum pedals are a great example of what someone can do with a bit of knowledge. However, I've found that there are no real reference sites for repairing out-of-warranty instruments. That's what I aim to do with Mr. Break-It: allow players of these wonderful games to continue to rock out despite the (sorry, Activision and Harmonix) rather shoddy design and/or assembly of some of these instruments. I understand that it's really hard to make an entire band kit that lasts a long time for under $200 USD, but that doesn't mean people should constantly be either sending their instruments back for repair or replacement, especially when most of the needed fixes can be accomplished in the home in less than an hour, often for no cost at all.

A big shout-out goes to Jeff Atwood at Fake Plastic Rock, who seems to have the same problems (breaking his drum set) and the same ambitions (documenting the Guitar Hero / Rock Band / hardware scene) as I do. Jeff, you rock, even if it's in a fake plastic way.

Cordially yours,
Mr. Break-It
A.K.A Raphael Schmidt