Making a synthesiser front panel

making a synthesiser front panel

When it comes to making a synthesiser front panel there are a few options that you can take for a professional finish. Let’s face it that’s what we all want to achieve. There’s nothing worse than spending time and money to build a fantastic new project only to end up with it looking like a homemade contraption.

Custom front panel

There are companies that can make custom front panels. You supply the artwork of the design and they produce the panel for you but for me these seem prohibitively expensive.

DIY front panel

Years ago you were left with spray painting an aluminium sheet and using Letraset transfers. Not ideal as even if you managed to get a decent finish spray painting, lining up the transfers and aligning then was difficult and not to mention very time consuming. At was almost impossible to get anything like a dial to look any good and considering the synthesiser projects I always built, dials and control knobs were aplenty. You then needed to put a sealing varnish on to protect the transfers, hoping it didn’t smudge the paint and the whole thing was prone to getting scratched. You couldn’t easily reproduce an identical panel without going through the process again. Looking back it makes me wonder how I had the enthusiasm to do it again. I guess in those days being younger helped.

Front panel design

I decided that I was going to use my printer to make a synthesiser front panel. I decided that as it was going to be a new design and standalone I could make it any size I liked so I decided as my printer was A4 I would do that.

Getting all the knobs and sockets together I figured out I could fit four voltage controlled oscillators on a single sheet of A4 paper. So this was my idea, an A4 printout for the front panel on a sheet of aluminium (I’ve still not given up on the aluminium) with a Perspex sheet on the top.

So I decided to get the materials and give it a try. I found a supplier of 2mm thick aluminium sheet at A4 size on Amazon and a supplier of 2mm Perspex sheet also on Amazon.

These were reasonable priced at just under £5 for the pair including postage and packaging so along with the print out this would be less than £5 for a synthesiser front panel for 4 VCO’s if it all worked out.

Front panel design software

The first thing was going to be how to design the front panel. There are various software packages to do this. You could even use an art packaged but as I’m familiar with Adobe illustrator that was what I decided to use. It’s not cheap but it is amazingly versatile as I guess it should be as it’s used professionally by all sorts of designers. You can be as elaborate as you like with Adobe Illustrator even incorporating pictures if you like. You can easily implement dials and control knobs and even drilling guides can be integrated. Once you have a dial you can copy it to another place on the panel. Resizing is easy and text of other sizes and fonts can be moved to your hearts content. Once you have a finished design you can use it as a basis of other panels so you can keep the styling the same.

Making a front panel

The initial idea was to print out a few identical sheets, the first one was tapped to the aluminium sheet and a .8mm drill was used to drill through the sheet of paper and through the aluminium. I tried to centre punch the aluminium at first but that wasn’t a success, maybe the punch was too blunt, I’m not sure but I was hoping for a better start. In the end I found using the drill in a stand was more accurate. If you’re interested I wrote an article about the stand here. Using a stand has certainly helped with my projects and the overall accuracy of hole positioning.

Once I had the aluminium panel with .8mm pilot holes drilled I tapped the Perspex sheet to the back of aluminium and used it as a template to drill the perspex.

Once this was done I went back to the aluminium panel and went through the process of enlarging them to the desired size by using the traditional method of drilling 3mm then 5mm then 7mm. it was after doing this that I heard of stepper drills so considering the fact that I was planning more panels and more holes I decided to invest in one from the internet and I’ll be writing about that soon.

After enlarging the holes they needed deburring. A standard metal work practice.

Having now got a sheet of Perspex with .8mm pilot holes I then went through the same enlarging process as with the aluminium. You can get specific drills meant for plastic however I seemed to get on ok with standard HSS drills and just went steady with the drill, action wise and speed wise. I kept the protective covering on the Perspex while I drilled it.

synthesiser front panel perspex

The A4 perspex sheet drilled with 7mm holes, keep the protective layer on until everything is finished.

The print out that was going to be the final one for the panel was then placed on top of the aluminium sheet and while holding it in place I used a sharp craft knife to cut out a hole near the centre of the panel. This happened to be where a variable resistor was positioned and once the hole was cut I put the component through the aluminium sheet and put the paper sheet on top and then loosely screwed the nut on holding the aluminium and paper sheet in place. You could then loosen the nut to accurately line up the paper and aluminium; it’s quite easy to do if you’ve printed a dial as you can see by putting a control knob on the variable resistor how central it is. Once you’ve accurately aligned the two you can cut more holes in the paper with the craft knife and insert a couple more variable resistors to hold everything together while you cut the rest of the holes in the paper with the craft knife.

Once all the holes were cut I unscrewed the variable resistors and took them off while I placed the Perspex sheet on top of the paper and aluminium. The Perspex does a good job of holding the paper print out flat against the aluminium panel as well as providing a gloss protective sheet over the print out.

Overall the panel was very impressive and I would have been able to produce another using more print outs that I could easily print off. The only problem was the thickness of the panels. Using 2mm each for the aluminium and Perspex meant that I had a 4mm thick synthesiser front panel. The variable resistors were just able to be mounted with just enough thread to get the nut on but the 3.5mm sockets weren’t long enough to be used. I could have used banana sockets which I had as they had a longer body and screw thread but this method would mean that in future I would have to be careful to check the front panel mounted components first of maybe use 1mm aluminium and Perspex. The problem with that was I wasn’t sure if I could get that off the shelf in an A4 size as I had with the 2mm varieties.

This is when I came up with method number 2.

Front panel overlay

Keep the 2mm aluminium sheet as it was already drilled and instead of the Perspex sheet use the thin transparent plastic or acetate A4 sheets for overhead projectors. You can easily pick up a packet of these from the stationers quite cheaply; they work out a lot cheaper than a Perspex sheet.

From experience I found after doing several holes with a craft knife now having to go through paper and plastic was being quite time consuming so I had to find something else.

By browsing the internet I found that “something else” to be a punch from Amazon or a set of punches to be more accurate. Toolzone 12Pc Hollow Hole Punches 3-19mm. From 3mm upwards and costing less than £10 they proved to be a fantastic buy but only if you sharpened them first. This was accomplished using the Apollo multipurpose tool, which I recently bought and reviewed here, the first job I used it for in fact.

I placed the material to be punched, in this case card on a large piece of scrap chipboard. Place the punch in the correct place and tap it slightly to get it to grab the card surface and then tap it firmly to cut the hole. I found this more accurate as by just positioning the punch and then hitting it firmly produced some sort of bounce effect that sometimes double cut in a slightly different place. I also found placing the scrap chipboard sheet on a surface that gives was even better, in the end I put it on the bed and did the punching there.

I also found the punch worked a lot better if you cleaned all the debris out from the middle. After a while the offcuts that get pushed into the barrel stop the punch from cutting cleanly.

You’re left with a clean hole in a fraction of the time of the craft knife method. Now putting the paper and OHP sheet onto the aluminium gives you a much thinner overall thickness without any problems for front panel mounted components.

Online document printing

One of the things to be weary of though is when printing sheets off don’t put them too close to the edges as most printers won’t print close to the edge. Also using my laser printer meant that I was only able to print in black and white. However I have found an alternative solution. Having created a PDF in Adobe Illustrator I found a service on the internet that would print documents for you so I decided to give it a try. The company was, the price was very reasonable, it cost me just £2 for 4 A4 printouts on 300 gram card. The base material was a god quality white and the printing was better than my laser. It took four days from emailing the file to it dropping through the door and not only does it look better, it’s on card and gives me the option to incorporate colours at no extra cost. Something that I’m more than likely to do in future designs looking at what some modular synthesiser designers are coming up with front panel wise.

The printed sheets on card.

So to sum it up the method I’m using now is to design the panel in colour using Adobe Illustrator and send it to get print outs. Use one for the drilling template for the aluminium and then tape an OHP sheet onto another and punch it. The front panel components hold the OHP sheet and card print to the aluminium panel and the finished results look far better that anything I’ve ever produced. Not only that but when you take into consideration the saving of spray paint and Letraset transfers it’s also the cheapest way I’ve produced synthesiser front panels. Then there’s the considerable saving in time as well.

Whilst researching document printing service online I stumbled across some services that will print pictures directly onto aluminium. Whilst this is meant as turning your photographs into wall art it may be another way of producing synthesiser front panels. It something I’ll be looking at in the future but for now I’m more than happy with the quality, price and time with the above method that I’m using.