MKS-70 upgrade to Nebula

I simply love my very vintage Roland MKS-70. Aside of from all of the great things about an analog synth from the 1980;s, the unit I have is very special — it was once owned (and later autographed) by Thomas Dolby, pictured in on page 42 of the January 1992 Keyboard magazine, and possesses a handful of patches that can be heard in a few of his older songs: One of Our Submarines and Budapest by Blimp. While I could keep it under glass, I really love its sound and have made it a centerpiece of many of my compositions.

Because it is a working synth in a modern home studio, I have been torn about wanting to preserve it and yet take advantage of all of the updates the JX10/MKS-70 global community have created. That set into motion an idea — upgrade the synth in non-destructive ways that enable it to be returned to its original state. My first step down this path involved swapping the ROMs with the Vecoven Flash upgrade a while ago, which transformed the functionality of the machine (so many patches now!). True to my preservation intent, I’ve tucked away the old ROMs for safekeeping in case I want to return the MKS-70 to its original state.

When Alexander Bhinder of Plasma Music posted that he’d developed a balanced audio and MIDI replacement board for the MKS-70, I jumped on the opportunity to modernize and clean up the signal path. Why? This machine is in the neighborhood of 35 years old, parts are going to fail and modern hardware can benefit from higher quality. If there’s a way to keep it running without tearing it apart, I’m going to invest in doing that — the sound of the MKS-70 is just too special to lose to the passage of time. Anyhow, I placed an order, sent a few emails and in short order a Nebula board arrived from the UK.

Originally, I wanted to keep the exterior mostly stock, so I opted to purchase the Nebula version that would require the reuse of the three-position slide switch from the MIDI/output old board. After staring at the board for a while, I decided that I didn’t want to change the old board as that would make it impossible to return the synth to its original state. I shot a quick email to Alex, he provided me with a part number for a DIP switch, I placed an order and a short while later an envelope from Digi-Key arrived. After a quick soldering session, I now had a Nebula with a DIP switch for controlling the outputs.

Alex’s design, engineering and assembly are simply superb; the Nebula is a great piece of hardware. His instructions are fantastic, so if you are going to upgrade your MKS-70, I strongly recommend following them as closely as possible. I ran into a little issue with some previous maintenance done inside of the synth before I owned it. Somewhere in its past, the wiring harnesses were tied off and a nylon zip-tie tie-off pad interfered with upper board of the Nebula. Rather than trying to force the board in place, I just opted to remove the nylon pad and voila, no installation issues. I put the machine together, plugged it in and it sounds and works great.

For those who want to see what the board swap entails, I shot about 30 images of the process and posted them below. I highly recommend taking photos for yourself during your install. A visual record comes in handy when you’re putting it all back together.

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