Thursday, 27 June 2013

To Crimp or Not to Crimp....

When building a mixer, there is a need for many audio connections to be made between the active modules of the mixer and other components. For example, all the mic and line inputs need to be connected from rear panel mounted XLR connectors to their individual channel modules which in turn need to be connected to and from channel faders. The current design of the EZTubeMixer uses a motherboard into which the channel modules are plugged. This motherboard provides all the common connections between channel modules such as power and audio buses which saves a lot of tedious error prone wiring. However, connections like mic and line inputs, faders and direct out still have to be hand wired on a per channel basis to the back of the motherboard.

There are two major problems with this. The first is that access to the motherboard is not always  easy so wiring to the motherboard in-situ is not always possible. To overcome this the motherboard can be loomed before it is fitted, with the free end of the loom being wired to XLRs and faders once the motherboard is in place. That's fine but often the XLRs and faders are not in a place that is easily accessible for soldering. The second problem, is that once all this wiring is complete, it is now very hard to access it to make modifications or correct errors.

The answer, of course, is to use connectors for these signals on the rear of the motherboard. XLRs can then be wired to flying leads with connectors attached . The whole seemly than then be offered up and plugged into the motherboard. Similarly a complete fader assembly can be built with flying leads that simply plug into the motherboard. Soldering can be done of the bench where access is not a problem and the assemblies can easily be disconnected for fault finding or to make modifications.

The only question remaining is what connectors to use to fit on the rear of the motherboard and on the ends of the flying leads? We need a PCB connector to fit onto the motherboard and a mating half that can take a screened lead. It looks like the only viable solution is to use 0.1 inch pitch crimp connectors. The Molex KK range is typical. It has two and three pin headers that can be soldered directly to the motherboard and crimp contact free receptacles (sockets) that plug into them. They can be polarised and they are not expensive. The only problem is the free sockets use crimp contacts and I have never quite got on with crimp connections. It would be nice if there were solder connection versions of the free sockets but I have not been able to find any.

As crimps can potentially solve so many mixer construction problems I thought I ought to give them a another chance. So I bought myself a proper hand crimp tool, some two and three way Molex KK range housings and a packet of crimp contacts. I sat down and tried to come up with a reliable way of connecting a twin screened mic cable to a three way 0.1 inch pitch free crimp socket. Crimping screened cables had been a problem in the past for me because the screen ended up being a much greater diameter than the two signal wires. Fortunately Van Damme does the 'Install' range of twin screened cables that has a foil sheath and a multi-strand drain wire that is little bigger than the two signal wires. The picture below shows the results of my initial efforts in crimping this cable to a three way Molex.

The unsheathed connection was my third attempt. As it has no insulation, it is hard to judge the correct depth to insert the drain wire into the crimp and it is all too easy to push it in too far. This not only leads to a bent connection because one wire is shorter than the others (as you can see in the picture) but sometimes can prevent the crimp contact engaging properly in the plastic housing. I was also unsure how much insulation to strip off the signal leads. Too much and you get the same problem as with the drain wire, too little and you get no electrical connection. That's why it took three goes to get it to work. The green sheathed one was my fourth attempt. It is still bent because I have not got the drain wire length right yet, but signal leads went in fine now knew how much insulation to strip off.

The two brown sheathed connections were my final two attempts. By now I have just about got the hang of it. The connections are straight because the drain wire length is right.

The thing with the blue handles is the crimp tool. It works well but working with crimps is fiddly and you never seem to have enough hands. I found the best way was to put the crimp contact in the tool and start the ratchet action. This holds the crimp in the tool so you can now hold the tool in one hand and with the other offer up the wire (which in the meantime I was holding in my teeth).

It is still a bit of a clumsy process. Holding the fairly heavy crimp tool in one hand and offering up the wire with the other is not easy. I think I might try clamping one handle of the crimp tool in a vice to hold it steady. The I only have one wobbling hand to worry about.

Overall I think with a bit more practice I could become competent enough to make reliable connections with it. Thanks to Holger  ( )  whose motherboard design using Molex KK connectors got me thinking about this again. His two module motherboard is a really neat idea. I might just have to do my own version.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Power Supply Assembly

In my larger mixer designs I use an external power supply as it avoids any possible interference of mains transformers with sensitive microphone input circuits and their transformers.  For this smaller mixer I wanted to try building the power supply inside the mixer as much as anything to see if it could be done without compromising performance. From past experience I generally avoid steel enclosures because they can easily conduct interference magnetically from mains transformers to input transformers. Unfortunately the Rackz enclosure is entirely steel so magnetically conducted interference remains a possibility. The best way to minimise it is to increase the distance between mains and input transformers.

The microphone transformers are towards the rear of the case as are the input connectors and the output transformers so mounting the power supply at the back of the case seems like a bad idea. It turns out there is not really enough room there anyway. The only other space with sufficient volume is right at the front of the case.  This would be directly below the channel and master faders but these will be connected using screened cable so they should not be susceptible to interference. So I decided to fit the power supply at the front. Since the SMPSU heater experiments were inconclusive I have decided to use the big old International Power linear 12V 5.1A PSU for the heater supply. This has a rather large transformer so I decided this had better be fitted on the right hand side at the front, as far away as possible from the microphone transformers. Initially I tried fixing it directly to the floor of the Rackz case but this proved very awkward as access to mark drilling points is restricted by both the case and the power supply itself. Even if it could be done that way, access for wiring would also be limited. All in all not an easy solution. What I really needed was a neat way to build the entire power supply as a separate assembly.

After some thought it occurred to me that the 3U panel at the bottom front of the mixer is unused (see Sub-Rack Build post). The entire power supply, heaters, HT and phantom, could be built and wired together as a complete and fully functional assembly on this panel. I could even fit a mains on/off switch there too. After laying the components on the panel it became clear they would just fit so I drilled the holes and fitted the parts I have to hand:

The International Power heater supply is on the right and just below it will fit the mains on/off switch (this will be at the top of the panel when it is fitted to the Rackz case). In the centre is the HT350 PCB for the HT supply and on the far left is the phantom power supply PCB. Between these two PCBs will fit the custom toroid transformer for the HT and phantom supplies. Mains will entier via a fused IEC connector at the rear and be routed along the right hand side of the case to the mains switch from where it will be wired to the two transformers. Heater, HT and phantom supplies will all exit to the left and be routed to the rear of the backplane. The picture below shows the power supply panel fitted into the case. You can see it is quite close to the bottom of the sub-rack:

You might think having these two large transformers would make the mixer front heavy. However, there are six quite large output transformers to be mounted on the rear input/output panel which I expect will largely balance them out.