Getting better at DIY

So I wanted to pick some of your brains. I know there are some really advanced builders here and so I am wondering how one graduates from kit building to the more advanced stuff. A good example of what I mean might be getting from DIY shruthi to Braids. I’m not looking to design stuff myself, that’s a whole other level that I don’t have time or resources for, but I would love to get more advanced in my DIY. Is there a good place to start? Maybe an older thread, maybe some good books?


Braids is a rather bad example of “advanced” DIY, since it’s certainly not meant to be a DIY project. I’m not sure it’s really worth going in that direction.

Things worth learning…


  • Level 0. Through-hole board assembly.
  • Level 1. Through-hole desoldering, rework.
  • Level 2. 1206 and 0805 SMT, SOIC, large pitch TQFP.
  • Level 3. Fine pitch SMT, advanced techniques (drag soldering).
  • Level 4. Hot plate techniques.

Sourcing parts:

  • Level 0. Buying kits.
  • Level 1. Shopping from a pre-compiled BOM for Mouser & co.
  • Level 2. Knowing the various parameters of parts, and how to use Mouser/Digikey/Farnell to look for the parts you need.
  • Level 3. Knowing the different types of capacitors, IC logic families, how to make substitutions when repairing vintage gear.
  • Level 4. Knowing where the good deals are; having lost a reasonable amount of money with dodgy Chinese suppliers to be able to identify the good ones from the terrible ones.
  • Level 5. Scavenging mobile phone parts.


(I personally recommend skipping the “etch your own PCBs” stage. It’s dirty, messy and ultimately the PCBs you’ll need for any serious synth DIY project will be out of reach of DIY etching, unless you’re Schrab)

  • Level 0. Buying pre-made PCBs.
  • Level 1. Knowing PCB tech and parameters, Ordering your own PCBs from Eagle files.
  • Level 2. Understanding the Gerber format. Generating and proofing Gerber files.
  • Level 3. Designing a PCB from schematics (for example creating a PCB of a classic synth circuit whose schematics are publicly available).
  • Level 4. Designing a clean-looking PCB that other people will enjoy building.


  • Level 0. Buying pre-programmed chips. Not frying them with ESD discharges.
  • Level 1. Logic gates. Learning how to flash a microcontroller (AVR, PIC, ARM…).
  • Level 2. Learning the basics of a microcontroller or development board (arduino) for simple tasks like MIDI control.
  • Level 3. Installing the development tools and compiling the firmware of an open-source DIY project. Making a simple code modification.
  • Level 4. C language. Understanding the various peripherals in a microcontroller (UART, PWM, SPI, timers…).
  • Level 5. Specializations such as DSP for audio applications; or more advanced system stuff (DMA, RTOS, audio codecs, USB, networking, displays, mass-storage).

Analog electronics:

  • Level 0. Identifying components, reading their values.
  • Level 1. Knowing what components do.
  • Level 2. Understanding circuit blocks and breaking down schematics into high-level functions.
  • Level 3. Cobbling together circuits by reusing existing bits of schematics.
  • Level 4. Basic circuit calculations - voltage dividers, op-amp circuits, RC filters.
  • Level 5. Synth-specific bits: expo converter, classic transistor circuits and cells, LM13700, V2164, comparators, waveshaping…
  • Level 6. Mathematical approach to circuit design - calculating transfer functions, running simulations.

Synth-specific knowledge:

  • Level 0. Functional blocks (VCO, VCF, VCA…).
  • Level 1. Implementation specifics (eg: what is a “tri-core” VCO? ; filter topologies…).
  • Level 2. Practical tricks to get circuits to work, stability, parts variability, reliability.
  • Level 3. Knowing how things were done in specific vintage machines. Having repaired/cloned/analyzed or simulated their circuits.


  • Level 0. Complaining on a forum that it doesn’t work.
  • Level 1. Intelligently using a multimeter to measure resistance, voltage, current. Accurately describing the state of “brokenness” of a system.
  • Level 2. Breaking down the “search space” - working step by step to identify which part of a system is broken. Roughly predicting how a damaged/incorrect part value would impact circuit behavior.
  • Level 3. Using an oscilloscope to view waveforms, measure frequencies/duty cycles, Vpp.
  • Level 4. Understanding service manuals and performing the calibration/troubleshooting procedures recommended by the manufacturer.
  • Level 5. Reading schematics and making predictions as to what would be the expected waveforms/measurements.
  • Level 6. Years of experience repairing stuff…

Misc / getting things done:

  • Wiring…
  • Using services like Ponoko for custom plexiglas or MDF parts…
  • Using front panel design tools and services…
  • Cabinet and case construction, woodworking, paint…
  • Metal etching, transfer techniques…
  • Breadboarding / prototyping…


Thank you very much for the lovely reply. I certainly feel like I am entering level 2 in most areas (except the digital/microcontroller side).

If this where scouts, I think I would definitely like my sourcing level 2 and analog level 2 badges.

I think I may actually print this out as a checklist. I don’t think I’ll ever be aiming for level 5 or 6 but I’d certainly like to be able order PCB’s from places like OSH park and know what goes where and how to build and test it myself without all the hand holding.

It’s a good thing this forum doesn’t support signatures…

@Nedavine: you should read this before attempt a DIY Braids. I did, but I ploughed on regardless, with the expectation of failure. So far, no failures, although a few stuff-ups with PCBs requiring work-arounds (such as flying leads to jacks on a separate panel) or troubleshooting with jumper wires (when the PCB fab plant deletes about 2mm from the edge of a ground plane, leaving several components effectively disconnected). However, every MI SMD module I attempt, I do so in the expectation that it will not work and will be virtually impossible to troubleshoot myself, and that I am absolutely not going to seek help from Olivier, or seek help on this forum (because it belongs, ultimately, to Olivier). That’s the “social contract” with Olivier regarding DIY versions of the MI modules that I think we should all adhere to.

@pichenettes: I can now locate myself in n-dimensional DIY hyperspace. After collecting enough data on successful and unsuccessful attempts at building DIY versions of MI modules, it should be possible to use a SVM to enable predictions of success for would-be builders (although publication bias is a problem - most people don’t announce their failures).

And yes, schrab's ability to DIY etch PCBs which accommodate 0.5mm pitch QFP48 chips, and to harvest parts from discarded mobile phones, andnicoo’s ability to add nixie tube displays to a Braids, is a whole new dimension.

@BennelongBicyclist thanks for the reply. By braids (which I bought and own along with a ton of other MI modules) I just meant as an example of something that doesn’t come in a kit but with a bit of knowledge and skill could be DIYed. I guess it was a bad example (just read that thread).

Ah, OK. There are heaps of through-hole DIY designs where PCBs can be purchased but parts need to be self-source and the documentation is sparse or incomplete or in some cases, just plain wrong, and thus much head-scratching and question-asking on forums is required. But there doesn’t seem to be a lot of middle ground between through-hole DIY designs and fully-fledged tiny component SMD designs (like the MI modules). However, the L-1 designs use some larger SMD parts (and are really nice designs in their own right), and this looks like an ideal, very simple SMD starting point.

That L-1 mutant vactrol filter looks interesting. Thanks for that. I think before I start building more I need some more studying under my belt though. Being able to find replacement parts myself is already proving to be a valuable pursuit.

I think the lack of easy DIY SMD projects has to do with the mindset that DIY=Thru hole. There’s plenty of stuff out there that’s available as not so fine-pitch stuff and it can save lots of PCB real estate.

There’s a somewhat clandestine DIY movement that provides PCBs for cloning a certain west coast modular where the DIY PCBs come with lots of SMD components pre-stuffed. It turns out that it doesn’t cost all that much more to get the dirty stuff out of the way and provide partially stuffed PCBs than blank ones.

However, if you want something that’s a bigger challenge you might want to get your hands dirty with some Thomas Henry DIY projects, fab some Jürgen Haible boards or just get some DIY projects from people at Muff’s, or Synthcube. Or, build yourself the excellent MIDIbox Seq v4 with options. The current STM32F4 core ought to yield some interesting developments ahead.

I like your instinct - anything containing Vactrols will yield something worthwhile. The Korg PS-3100 resonator is fantastic, then you have the Buchla 258J with a Vactrol waveshaper…

Good thread! Thanks for the detailed info, pichenettes.


There’s also MFOS, not entirely beginner friendly but lots of interesting stuff.

I need to bookmark this thread, just so I can access the DIY achievement ladder from time to time. I think I’m a 1.5 average. I recently have started into level 2 of Sourcing, and it definitely adds to the sense of accomplishment when a project gets completed. Mostly in the “Wow, I didn’t F this up!” sense. I’m about to hit the switch on a couple Barton modules (VCA/Mix and 2LFOSH) where I worked some sourcing magic. Hoping for the best, but then again, if they don’t work, I get to level up on my troubleshooting!

This should be some sort of app. Farmville the mutable instruments edition.

Congrats on the Barton modules. I don’t have much space left in my rack for much at the moment. Only missing 12hp. Peaks and a disting maybe? But now dobt I’ll end up adding rows. It always happens.

@Jojjelito that midibox looks very nice as does the ps-3100. I think they will both be future projects.

@piscione I saw MFOS quite some time ago and totally forgot about it. Seems to be mostl level 2 / 3 stuff so might be great for the future.

If you want a Braids buy one. If you love a challenge and are a wiz at electronics diagnostics then try to build one.

Look here