I spend a lot of time thinking about, and experimenting with different ways to make the front panels for the synth. I wanted to find a way to make panels that was cheap, but reasonably good looking. This is not as easy as it might sound.
You can have professionel front panels made by companies like front panel express and many others, they are extreamly good looking and just as expencive. This option is way out of reach for my budget, so i had to find other ways to do it.
For front panels you need:
A well defined design, that can be used for a wide selection of modules.
A base material that is stiff enough for the size panel you are using
Tools to cut and drill the panels.
A way to design the graphics on the panel, like text, scales and so on.
A way to put the graphics on the base panel.
I spend a lot of time with pen and paper trying to come up with a design that was generic enough to be used for all the modules i was planning and still reasonably good looking, and ergonomic / practical too. I looked at allmost all the comercially available modules. In the end i setteld for a design that is very close to the MOTM modules, with alle the knobs and switches at the top and all the jacks at the bottom. (see below for a long list of errors i made). I just made it fit in to the metric world that we have over here.
It seems that almost everybody is using 2 or 3 mm aluminium sheets for therir front panels, i chose 2 mm, mostly because that was what the local junk yard had available in the scrap heep.
I allready had a (cheap) drillpress, that proved to be ok for the drilling. I just used an ordinary hack saw for cutting the panels to size. (see below for some tips).
For designing the panels i tried to use different standard computer graphichs tools, but i am artistically challenged, and the results was looking like something out of a kindergarten. Especially potentiometer scales are difficult to design this way.
Then one day while searching the net for something compleatly different i stumbeled over the solution a special purpose program for designing front panels. It's called FrontDesigner and is made by a German company called Abacom. It should not be confused with the program called Front Panel Designer which is used to design panels made by Front Panels Express and schaeffer. FrontDesigner is realtively cheap i paid 40 Euros including shipping from Germany to Denmark (short distance). This is cheaper than one professionally made panel in the size i use. This program is VERY VERY good. except for a few problems with the way you work with text it's a brilliant program. The scale assistent used for designing potentiometer scales, is worth the price alone. The program can do a lot of different things that i do not use yet, including exporting panel designs as HPGL files for engraving machines. A limited demo version is available for download.
So now i had a design, the tool to implement the design, and the tools to make the base aluminium panels. I still needed a way to put the design on the base panels. I tried various ways. First i printed the design mirrored on overhead transperancies an glued it to the panels. This kind of worked but it was fraigle and the overlays was too shiny and it was difficult to glue them on safely without smearing the print. Next thing i tried was gluing the paper on the base panle and covering it in self adhesive clear vinyl, this was better but some of the problems was the same. Then i discovered a hot laminating machine at work. You put your paper in a laminating pouch run i through the machine and it's covered on both sides with athin layer of plastic. This worked. so i made a whole bunch of panel overlays this way, and was quite happy with them. (see below for more errors i made).
Here's a picture of the "process" with a raw panel just cut to size, a drilled panel, and the laminated overlay for the panel.
When making a panel i print two copies of the overlay and use one of them as a drilling guide. When the other one is laminated i use different diameter hole punches to cut the holes for the potentiometers, switches LED's and jacks. This works very well and the holes are perfectly round and with "clean edges".
Ok so here is the long list of errors i made :
First i forgot to think about the difference in size a potentiometer have on the front of the panel and on the back, bad thing. my first panel + the entie design was wasted this way. it's a very good idea to actually meassure the pots and the knobs you are going to use and design your panels so theres enough space on the rear side of the panel for the pots and enough space on the front for the knos AND YOUR FINGERS.
The second mistake was to put the lower row of jacks too close to the bottom of tha panel. So close that they could be shorted by the rails in the cabinet they are mounted on. Stupid, absolutely, but i did it.
Thirdly i did not have any idea about how many different types of aluminium is out there. Aluminium sheet is not just aluminium sheet. From the junk yard scarp heep i appereantly got serveral different types. Some of the pieces i got are very very difficult to drill. It semes to be a soft kind of sheet and when you drill it it's like a lot of the material that should dissapear is just pressed out like a tube on the rear side. Very annoying and time consuming to clean up. I have yet to find out how to find the good pieces. Some of the good people on the synth DIY mailing list know what the good stuff is called, it's just difficult to ask for at the junk yard :-)
My fourth mistake was to use standard drills. I would start with a small (2 mm) drill and work my way up to 10 mm drills for the potentiometer holes, in small increments. This involves a whole lot of changing drill bits. And a lot of deburring. I learned, again from the synth DIY mailing list, that it is a lot smarter, and much faster to use a so called step drill. This is a drill that can make your hole and deburr it in one go. GET ONE NOW, you will never regrett it it looks like this:
They come in various sizes, i bought a set with three different sizes, for small, medium and large holes. Not cheap, but it will save you so much time an trouble.
The fifth mistake, that i did not discover until i mounted the first VCO to the first front panel, was to design the potentiometer scales with a 270 degree angel of rotation, but my potentiometers have 300 degrees of rotation. So when the pot was turned fully clockwise the indicator line on the knob would point to 11 not 10 :-)
Lastly i found that the laminating sheets i used was too shiny. There was a lot of light reflecting from them, and even the slightest of a greasy fingerprint would show like a neon sign. After a lot of looking around i fianlly found some that are not shiny. They do make the panels look more greyish than the shiny ones but i actually like that.
The only problem i have left is the fact the the laminating sheets tend to seperate from the paper if the edges of the panels are scarped against each other. Especially around the corners of the panels, i am still working on a solution for that problem.
It's difficult to cut the panels to the exact right size with a hack saw, so after a few mistakes i chose to simply cut them sligthly too large and then file and sand them to the right size, not very smart but it works. I found out that a friend of mine has some special sheet cutting tools that can probably do this much better, so the next batch will be easier i hope.