5 Things You Should Be Doing To Keep Your Old Synths Looking Brand-New

Editor's note: This is a companion piece to Adam Douglas' "5 Things You Should Be Doing to Keep Old Synths Running Like New," which focuses on basic maintenance you can do without the need for a professional synth tech. This article, meanwhile, tells you what you can do to keep your synth clean and in good health. For other similar writing, check out Douglas' site, Boy Meets Synth.

Let's face it: We're all guilty of occasionally ignoring the needs of our loved ones. This being Reverb, by loved ones I'm of course referring to old gear—synthesizers, specifically. Sure, the occasional pass with a duster is all well and good, but what about that grime that's been collecting in between the ridges of the volume knob? Or how about that Nine Inch Nails sticker you slapped on your Minimoog back in college? Or perhaps there's a smoker in the house and you've noticed a persistent smell lingering in the studio?

The good news is, things don't have to stay that way. There are plenty of easy and low-cost ways to keep your old synths looking brand-new. There's really no excuse for your best friends to look like they were just pulled from a dumpster. (And if, in fact, were just pulled from a dumpster, then congratulations, and you definitely need to read this carefully.)

As always, when attempting to clean or maintain your own gear, follow common sense. Always try a little of any product on the underside of the gear or on other area that isn't readily visible just in case there's an adverse reaction. If in doubt, err on the side of caution. If something seems too harsh, it probably is.

Dry Cloth, Damp Cloth

All Photos from Boy Meets Synth

Your first step when doing any cleaning of old gear should be a wipe down with a dry cloth. The next step is a microfiber cloth and warm water. Wring out the excess water and wipe gently across the surface of your synth. The microfibers should do a great job or grabbing any tiny pieces of dirt. This works well even on surfaces with texture.

A drop of dishwashing detergent mixed into the water could help as well. Make sure that you have wrung out the excess water though. You don't want that slopping into the interior of your synth. To get a better clean, remove any knobs or slider caps before wiping. Be sure to take a picture first so you remember what goes where.

The microfiber cloth and warm water can also be used on your key tops, but for stubborn spots and dirt, a little rubbing alcohol or denatured alcohol on a cotton swab should do the trick. Be careful using alcohol on other surfaces, though—it could damage the surface or possibly remove the silk screen lettering or other detailing.

Run a Bath

Over time, grime can build up in places that we often touch. The oils from our skin combined with dirt can leave a grimy residue, enough so that our once pearly white keys have become mottled with dirt, and our colorful buttons and knobs now look dingy and old. Or perhaps you've just scored at the thrift store but your new prize looks like it's been sitting in a shed for 20 years. The solution? Bath time.

Yamaha SK20 Knobs, slider caps and buttons after soaking

Fill your sink with warm water and squirt in a little gentle dishwashing detergent to get some bubbles going. Carefully remove the knobs, slider caps and buttons from your synth and plop them in the bath. There are different kinds of knobs and buttons, so your situation may be unique, but generally slider caps should pull right off. Pull upwards with gentle, even pressure, and try not to wiggle the stem of the slider or it could snap. Knobs may require some kind of flat implement to help wedge them up. Don't use a screwdriver or anything sharp that could scratch the surface of your gear. A credit card or other flat item should work.

Lastly, buttons are likely secured to the control board from the inside and will require opening the machine and removing PCBs and other things to get at them. If you're not comfortable with this, a cotton swab or soft toothbrush (make sure all the old toothpaste has been rinsed off!) should do the trick.

This goes for the keys too, both white and black. Removing the keys from your synthesizer isn't as simple as pulling off a slider cap, so approach with caution. Sometimes getting the keybed apart and the keys out is tantamount to solving a Rubik's Cube. If your synth is really dirty, it may be worth it though. Again, proceed with caution, and make sure you have a finger on top of any springs that may go flying across the room when removing keys.

After letting the plastic items soak for a good while, use a soft sponge to gently scrub off any dirt or grime clinging to the surface. A soft toothbrush is good for getting into narrow crevices on knobs and slider caps. Be sure and clean under the items too, as you don't want grime building up there either.

Lastly, when putting keys back, be sure you check the key's note position. It should be printed on the top of the key, or somewhere on the bottom. Some keys may work for more than one note, for example, C and F. Black keys often need to be inserted before white keys. And make sure the key contacts (the part that connects to the board so the note can sound) aren't being impeded in any way.

Don't Stick Around

Stickers and other blemishes can ruin the appearance of an otherwise clean machine, but the good news is it doesn't have to stay that way. With a little careful cleaning you can get the area looking new again.

Yamaha CS-5 front panel

For stickers, the key is to stay calm and never resort to rushing or overdoing it. There's a tendency to scrub hard to get that horrible stuff off, but this will just make things worse (trust me, I'm speaking from experience here). Slow and steady wins the race.

First, use our good friends warm water and dishwashing detergent to loosen the sticker paper. You'll need to get the big pieces off, and it will take a long time, but I've found a fingernail to be the safest way to do this. There will be sticker gunk left on the surface, so the next step is WD-40. Spray some onto a paper towel and set it over the area for a few minutes.

The oil will react with the glue and it should wipe right up. You may need to try a couple of times to get it all up. I've had good luck with WD-40, even loosening ancient sticker gunk that had hardened to a crystalline crust. If you're worried about using WD-40 on your gear, olive oil works too, although it may take more applications. (Be wary of sticker remover sprays though. They will remove the sticker but the paint as well. It's strong stuff.)

What's That Smell?

Smells are a fact of life but they don't have to ruin your old synths. As with the other things we've talked about here, a little work will have your gear smelling like new again.

If your synth has a persistent smell even after a good cleaning, it's likely the inside that is the culprit. Open it up carefully, vacuum out any dust bunnies, and wipe down the inside with a little isopropyl or denatured alcohol. Be sure to wear gloves and a mask, and make sure you're working in a well-ventilated area. Then, set your synth outside to dry in the sun.

Roland RS-101 sitting in the sunlight

Sunlight is excellent for removing tough odors. Make sure you set it outside with the case open so the sunlight can work its magic on the internal components as well. If you're worried about leaving it outside, you can set it on a window sill or inside an open door. Just make sure it gets lots of direct sunlight. You might need a couple sessions to get it back to normal.

If you happen to live in a moist climate, mold can be an issue, especially with older synths that have wooden bodies. Mold loves to live in the cracks and joins between pieces of wood. Unfortunately, a little alcohol and a sunbath won't be enough to get at the mold down in these cracks, so you may need to get some bleach involved. Use a mixture of one part mild detergent, 10 parts bleach and 20 parts water. Use a sponge to wipe down the affected parts, letting the cleaning solution drip into the cracks to kill any mold hiding inside. Then set it out in the sun to dry and air out. Remember to wear protective clothing and work in a ventilated area.

Final Detailing

We've covered most of the ways you can get your old synths looking new again, but there are a few small things left worth covering.

Have you noticed that the white plastic buttons on your synth have slightly yellowed? This can happen over time through exposure to sunlight or other things. While buying replacement parts might be the best way, you could always try to whiten them using a technique called retrobrite, which uses chemicals and sunlight to return the plastic to its original, white hue.

Korg M-500 opened for cleaning

The internet is full of variations on the process, but the one that has worked the best for me is simple hydrogen peroxide and sunlight. Submerge the item in liquid hydrogen peroxide, cover the container with plastic wrap, and leave it in direct sunlight for four or five hours. I recommend checking it every hour or so to make sure it's working, and that you haven't overdone it. You may need a couple sessions of this to get the desired whiteness, depending on the amount of sunlight and how yellowed it is.

You may see sites recommending other recipes, like hair bleaching cream and Oxiclean. I have had mixed results with this, including mottling, so proceed with caution. No matter what technique or recipe you use, this is a potentially destructive process so proceed with caution. In fact, I recommend trying it on something you don't mind wrecking, like an old plastic toy or something, first.

The last detail I'd like to mention is screws. The metal in synthesizers has been treated and painted to prevent corrosion, but this is not always true for screws and other metal parts like jack nuts. The appearance of an otherwise pristine synth could be marred by the presence of rusted or corroded screws. What I like to do is buy some new screws and spray paint the tops black. You don't need to do the whole screw as the only part that is visible from the outside is the top. Punch some small holes in a strip of cardboard, insert the screws, and spray paint the top. It's a simple thing, but it makes a big different in the appearance of the synthesizer.

I hope you've found some things here that you consider to be useful. With a little care (and elbow grease), your beloved synthesizers don't have to look vintage, even though they may be prized for their vintage sound.

About the Author: Adam Douglas is a musician and synthesizer fan based in Tokyo, Japan. He writes about synths on his blog, Boy Meets Synth.

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