UPDATE: After you read all this exciting stuff, go to this link to find out how to get the panels:
I finally get to share the project I’ve been working on for the last month or so: customized front panels (face plates) for 4ms Pedals’ (www.4mspedals.com) Eurorack-format modules. As mentioned in the previous post, I designed alternate panels for the Rotating Clock Divider, Shuffling Clock Multiplier, and Rotating Clock Divider breakout expansion. Oh, and I can’t forget about the DIY quantizer from electro-music.com; that one turned out the best. I think most of them turned out really well and, if the interest is there, I will be able to sell them. More on that in a future blog post. Take a look at the higher-resolution photos, at the bottom of the page, first.
Necessity was the inspiration for this project. It’s as simple as that. I had ordered the parts for the DIY quantizer, but I had no front panel! This is a common problem for the DIY community, especially the for the synthesizer sub-group; you build this VCO or whatever, for pennies on the dollar, but you have nothing in which to house it! After you build something cool, you just want to use it and hacking together a case or front panel is an annoyance. Besides being a pain, it usually looks like crap, let’s be honest. I figure that there are some people out there like me who like to build these electronic kits and want something functional, cool, and inexpensive in which to house the devices.
The quantizer project (“QUANT,” as I call it) was the perfect opportunity to test my theory. After seeing someone’s rendition of a 4HP module in Eurorack format, I thought, this is the perfect size for two of the quantizer units. Not five minutes later did I open up Inkscape and start designing. As opposed to the last time I designed something for Ponoko (the Shruti-1 case), I had clearer dimensions and references to work with, thanks to Doepfer’s “Construction Details” page. I followed the table and made my dimensions 128.6 x 20.1 mm–this is a fraction over the recommended sizing, but Ponoko suggests adding 0.1 or 0.2mm, to allow for laser material burn-off. Since the panel is 4HP, I only had to put one set of holes at the appropriate coordinates. I would use this template for my other designs; all three panels use this 4HP size.
The idea behind the designs was to make them as minimal and legible as possible. Four HP is a really small space to work with, so you can’t paint the Sistine Chapel on these things.
My thought process went like this:
So, what is it? Uh, it’s a quantizer, so let’s name it, “QUANT”. Ok, that works. What does that knob do? It’s a mode switch. Great, let’s call it, “MODE.” What’s the universal symbol for pointing at things? A triangle! Fine: one triangle for “input,” two for “output.”
Most of the time designing QUANT went into the typography. I won’t tell you what font I used, but it’s a nice, free, sans-serif font. I think this panel came out the best.
With QUANT out of the way, the second panel I tackled was 4ms’ RCD breakout expansion, which is an essential partner to the Rotating Clock Divider. The kit is essentially just some wire and switches, so there were no wacky dimensions to account for. I used the 4HP template and placed six 6.35mm holes on it, to match the switches I got (Mouser part number, 108-0001-EVX). (By the way, I chose that switch simply because it was the cheapest; however, a very important thing you must remember if purchasing one of my panels is that the barrel/thread length must be more than 3mm in order to clear the front panel!)
Again, the most important thing about these panels is that they are easy to read and that the functions are easy to discern. I liked the theme of the original RCD breakout panel, but I thought I could “sharpen” it up a bit. Once again, a sans-serif font in all-caps was used, which gives the design a clean, modern look.
Not much was done for the Rotating Clock Divider panel; I mainly wanted it to match the breakout panel, but I did find that the original 4ms panel was hard to see, from a distance. White text on black or purple would make for greater contrast. The color-coding of the original is nice and functional, but I wasn’t interested in adding that to my design. Side note: I don’t have any pictures of it right now, but the LEDs look really cool behind the purple panel; they’re diffused in a pleasant way.
The final panel I chose to redesign was the Shuffling Clock Multiplier, the RCD’s “sister” module. It turned out pretty good, but it’s a lot less extravagant than my initial idea. Again, it’s very basic, but very legible and the functions are well indicated: x1, x2, and x8 are the “steady” outputs; s3-6 and s8 are the “shuffled” outs; the ubiquitous triangle points to the input jack.
So, the designs were set, but what about the material and type of engraving? I already knew a black acrylic/white text motif was in the cards, but I wanted to do something a little non-standard. Perusing the Ponoko materials page, I found a couple new hues of plastic: purple and silver. The decision to go with purple was instant. I mean, c’mon! Nobody has a modular panel in purple!
I had never done engraving on plastic, so this was the big variable for this project. There are lots of options, ranging from light-to-heavy vector and raster engraving. Some say vector looks better, others say raster. The few examples on the web are deceptive because it’s remarkably difficult to take good pictures of acrylic, due to its reflective nature. (Trust me, the results don’t look like this, unless you’re looking at the piece, straight on.) I figured, since this is mainly a “prototype” run, I can afford to experiment with a few things, so I did a couple of each style.
Preparation and Production
Formatting the P1-sized template (181 x 181mm) for Ponoko can take a while. It involves putting several of the designs on one sheet and optimizing the layout, to reduce “making time”. More than that, you have to make sure all of your text is considered a “path,” rather than a “text” object. However, even when you perform this optimization, it may cost more than when you had haphazardly placed your objects on the sheet. Weird. Whatever; it worked out well this time: I saved something like $3 by placing my panels next to each other.
I uploaded the file, paid my money, and the waiting began. Oh man, it was torturous, but it wasn’t so bad this time. It took a total of 8 days to make my two P1 sheets, but an additional 5 to receive the order, due to Ponoko being on the other side of the country. I really wish they had more shipping choices or “rush service”. Or hey, how about a Ponoko hub on the east coast?!
When the friendly-looking Ponoko package arrived, I was like a Prawn to cat-food. I ripped that thing open oh so quick. I was simply wowed by the way they looked, even with the protective adhesive paper covering the facets.
In my haste (and curiosity), I pulled some of the panels apart and took the adhesive paper off of the face. I just wanted to see if the engraving really looked as deep and dramatic as some of the pictures I’ve seen. Well, the vector text certainly didn’t, and the raster was decent, but it probably needed to be heavier. Still, this came as no shock to me, as I anticipated that I’d want to fill in the engravings with white paint, anyway.
Taking cues from Wilba, the “Ponoko pioneer” and the one whom inspired me to use Ponoko, I decided that painting with a small brush (or painting sponge, for 0.59$) would be the best way to go. See, the protective adhesive paper acts as a mask, so you can simply paint over the text; when it dries, you pull the paper off and your text is right there, pristine.
I used Dupli-Color, Vinyl and Fabric spray paint, which works amazingly on plastic. I don’t know if anything works better.
I messed up a little on the first batch (the black sheet), where I just slathered the paint all over the panels. Sure, the facets were protected, but the sides were not! I noticed this after a couple coats of paint had dried. Meh. Ok, lesson learned. For the purple sheet, I did two things to improve the process: 1) I didn’t separate the panels and 2) I masked the channels between the individual panels. This worked for the sides and saved me some time cleaning the panels up.
Patience is not my strong suit, but I waited as long as possible to remove the protective paper, which amounted to about 24 hours for the black sheet and 12 for the purple. As Charlie from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” did, I peeled that paper back like it was a Wonka Bar with hopes of seeing a glimmer of Golden Ticket goodness. Well, my patience was rewarded with the brilliant contrast of classic white text on the black acrylic.
Very nice. My job was hardly over. How do I scrape the tiny pieces of paper that lie between the letters, which were left behind after removing most of the adhesive, without scratching the paint? How do I get rid of the paint that flowed on to the sides?
The first problem wasn’t as bad as I thought. I’m sure there’s a better method, but I just used my fingernail to carefully scrape away the excess paper that still stuck to the letters. It took a while, man. Like, a freakin’ while. By the end of all of it, I had scraped off maybe 500 letters with my thumbnail.
The sides of the black panels were covered in paint, which couldn’t stand. Taking some medium-grain sand paper to the sides did seem to work, but one panel took more than 20 minutes and the results weren’t ideal. A trip to the Dollar Tree yielded a simple paint scraper, which worked perfectly! Just a few strokes back and forth sheared the paint from the plastic. I got through the rest of the blacks and moved on to the purple, which were less festooned with paint. (“Festooned,” I like that word. I remember hearing the character, Bill “The Butcher” Cutting, use it in “The Gangs of New York,” referencing the spraying of someone’s guts all over the place. Hum…maybe that’s not the best word to describe the paint situation. Anyway, I digress…)
I shined each of the 20 panels up and took lots of pictures. Then, the moment came: I would assemble a few modules and put them in my rack! (Note to self: do this before you start painting or anything like that!)
First was the QUANT. This was a big test because I wasn’t sure the acrylic was strong enough to withstand jacks plugging in and out. To my satisfaction, the 3.0mm acrylic didn’t move much. You’d have to really push hard to break it. Sizing was perfect and the holes align, as if it was any other Eurorack module. Great success!
Next, I put the switches into the RCD breakout module. Another great success! The barrels stick through the panel quite a bit and everything is sturdy.
The SCM/RCD panels had some problems; the main issue being that the jacks included with the kit were just too short to fit through the panel. That really sucked because I worked very hard on those panels…well, all the panels. They will not be salable. Maybe I’ll give them away, at cost.
Two out of four designs ain’t bad, considering that this was my first time with engraving (and panels for modulars, for that matter)!
For Next Time
Here are some notes for the next prototype run. Maybe some of these tips will help the neophyte DIYer save some time and money!
1. Make sure all components will fit through the facade. I already knew that my material was 3.0mm, but forgot to take into account the jacks that were supposed to poke through. Ordinarily, this would not be a huge mistake–it could be remedied by just purchasing some jacks with longer barrels–but the SCM/RCD jacks were made to fit on the PCB and a lot of stability would be lost if I just used some flying, panel-mount ones.
2. Use mainly raster-style engraving, for better contrast. There are times where vector lines may be more appropriate, but I found the thin channels to be less than ideal for legibility. Besides that; since there’s such little paint that can fit in that groove, it’s easier to scrape off, by accident.
3. Be patient and apply a few coats of paint. The black sheet of panels turned out better than the purple one because I was liberal with the paint and waited a longer amount of time. A couple of the purple ones have inconsistent lines and don’t look as sharp.
4. Experiment with more designs. Ponoko was pretty good this time, but 3 weeks is an eternity in this internet-age. Next time, despite the extra “R&D” cost, I should do a few more experimental designs to get the most bang for my buck. I already have a couple cool color combinations lined up and I’m definitely going to try 2.0mm clear acrylic, for those SCM and RCD panels.
Yes, this tome has a conclusion! And this is it! 2265 words is enough! Now look at some pictures: