March 21st, 2007
In today’s confusing, fast-paced world of ipods and mp3s and cds, there’s simply no time for the bronze age audio artifacts that are cassette tape players. Well, your piles of Journey tapes might be useless and obselete, but there’s no reason your walkman has to be – with some simple tinkering and soldering you can turn your portable tape player into a distortion effect for your guitar or whatever. It’s fun and easy, so come on, join me on this funventure into the exciting world of turning a portable tape player into a distortion effect for your guitar or whatever.
You will need:
- two 1/4″ audio jacks
- some wire
- soldering iron
- an spdt switch maybe
Ok, here’s my walkman. It’s a Sharp, and it has an am/fm radio and a crappy volume meter on the front, but whatever, it was 99 cents at the thrift store. Actually, older, crappier ones might even be desired since they would distort more/better (maybe?).
Unscrew the back cover – make sure to hang on to the screws so you can reassemble this thing later – to expose the player’s innards. The two walkmen I’ve done so far were both pretty much the same, with the circuit board on top, and you can see all the little resistors on this side of it. There will be a few little screws holding the board to the front cover and the tape holder part, which you can go ahead and remove.
If you’re lucky you can then unfold the board from the case without the wires getting in your way, but if you need to cut some wires to make things easier, it’s ok – just try to remember what connects where, and if possible desolder the ends of the wire rather than snipping in the middle. Here you can see the tape holder part sitting on top of the board, now with all of the caps and chips and the radio tuner revealed. The board is connected to the case by the red and black battery wires.
Here’s the tape head, the part that reads the audio info off the magnetic tape. It’s attached by two screws and has some wires running out the back, so unscrew it from the tape holder and leave it dangling.
Detatch the mechanical tape holder part – the thing that spins the reels – from the circuit board. At this point it will probably have two pairs of wires running to it: two to the motor and two that run together to a little switch that is connected when the play button is pushed. Remove the motor – if possible desolder the wires from the circuit board – and save it for another project. The play switch is fairly useless, so you can either connect the wires to your own switch or just wire them together. Once the wires are gone the bulky tape holder can be discarded or set aside.
(At this point, you should probably decide if you’re going to install a switch so you can choose between having your signal go through one channel or both. If you are, it’s a good idea to figure out where the switch is going to go and making room for it before all the wiring starts to get in the way. I forgot to do this until after I had wired it partially together and it was kind of a pain.)
Now that all the junky moving parts are out of the picture, flip the circuit board back over to the resistor side.
Find the place where the wires from the tape head meet the board. There should be three wires: red, white, and black.
left white tip right red ring ground black sleeve
Go ahead and remove the tape head, remembering where the wires connect to the board, and be sure to save the head for some future crazy multiple-tape head device.
Hook up wires to one of your jacks, then figure out where the jack’s going to be and where the wires are going to run – I made mine so the jacks come out where the cassette would normally sit. Solder the line in to the left channel in and the grounds together. There’s not going to be a lot of room once you put the cover back on, so keep your wires tight agaisnt the board.
Find the headphone jack and determine which contact points on this side of the circuit board run to which part of the jack. Remember, left is tip, right is ring, and ground is sleeve.
Run a wire from the left headphone out to the right line in. This way the signal’s going to go through the circuit twice: first through the left then through the right.
Connect the output jack’s ground to the headphone jack ground. Now you can just wire the headphone’s right channel to the line out, or you can wire each channel to opposite throws of a SPDT so you can switch between a more and less distortion. The center pole gets wired to the output. I don’t have one at the moment but I think this way would work.
Anyway, once you’ve got everything hooked up and the jacks soldered, screw the cover back on and pop the batteries in and hopefully it turned out ok. You’re not going to replicate an overdriven tube amp by any means, but this is cheap and novel, and you can get some really interesting sounds out of it. In a feedback loop it’s really bizarre, it just sputters away by itself and sounds pretty gross.
Steve Schaberg – brokenpants.com – 2007