Extreme Tube Synth Restoration

novachord beforeExtreme synth restorer Phil Cirocco has documented his amazing restoration work on a rare early synthesizer, the tube-based Hammond Novachord.

Cirocco is no stranger to restoration, having worked with ARP synth modifications and maintenance at CMS. It’s hard to imagine, though, that this would have prepared him for the scope of restoring a Novachord.

“I bought my Hammond Novachord around 10/2004 in Connecticut,” writes Cirocco. “After chatting with the few brave souls who tried to repair these beasts, I soon realized that replacement of all the passive components was necessary for reliable and stable operation of any Novachord. However, the sheer number of components and it’s complexity, make properly restoring a Novachord a Herculean task.

The before picture, above, shows what Cirocco started with. The case shows extreme wear, with scratches, flaking and what looks like spray paint overspray.

Worse for Cirocco, though, was the electronics. “All the custom value capacitors are unreliable, have increased in value and will continue to do so,” notes Cirocco. “The resistors from 1940 change value drastically depending on temperature and humidity. They all MUST be replaced. To replace just some components or even a section, would be a waste of time.”

mad synth restorationCirocco restored the power supply, keyboard, the “generator”, the control box and the cabinet. There are 12 oscillators, 60 frequency dividers, 60 band pass filters, 72 VCA’s, a pre-amp and a hex-vibrati in the generator. There are a total of 146 tubes in the generator.

This museum-quality restoration transformed Cirocco’s beat-up find into a show-piece. It’s also a fantastic-sounding instrument that may lead listeners to reconsider their ideas of what the first synthesizer was.

Cirocco’s conclusions after doing this restoration:

  • “It’s a synthesizer – Based on the old recordings I have heard, I was expecting a cross between an organ and a synthesizer. As you can hear from the sound files – It’s a synthesizer!
  • The direct output sounds great! – The balanced XLR output I installed in the preamp section drastically improved the sound of the instrument. Thanks to Mike Dal Sasso for advice on this. In my opinion, the speakers severly impeded the sound of the instrument. Probably the major reason why the instrument never caught on was the lack of any other audio equipment available at the time.
  • The oscillators and dividers are very stable -There has been no perceptible pitch drift whatsoever – From stone cold to being on for 7 hours. I haven’t touched the tuning adjustments since the first calibration. Considering how much the temperature changes inside, it’s quite remarkable.

Novachord AfterThe Novachord Restoration Project site features the blow-by-blow details.

The site also features MP3 sound files of this beast. Listen to Novachord Improvisation #3; it showcases the huge sound of the Novachord, the stability of the oscillators, and is all the more amazing because of the fact that the instrument was released 30 years before the emergence of polyphonic synthesizers as we know them.

Cirocco plans a full-length CD of his compositions for the Novachord for early 2006, and a sample CD of the Novachord in action to follow.

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