Visual Cortex front panel preservation

Hey y’all! I super lucked out and managed to grab a Visual Cortex from a friend and I’ve been having a ton of fun playing with it. I’ve started noticing though that parts of the front panel are fading, and that makes me super sad! Check out the “SUM” label on the composite input, and the diamond and circle in the ramp generator switches.

Can I do anything to make sure these don’t get worse? I know it’s a well-loved module and I’m personally familiar enough with the functionality to not be messed up if the labels go, but ofc I’d love to preserve the thing’s resale value and its factory-beauty :3

Yeah I sadly noticed this with my VC too even though i handled it with care.
The panel even got some yellowish hue too it when i compare it to picture of a brand new one or other white/silver modules in my audio rack :frowning:
Maybe somebody could make a replacement panel for it?

I think it would be quite productive and community enhancing if some of the discontinued modules front panel files were shared. When buying modules that were used in performance instruments, it can be a bit visually unsettling to rack a discolored or marred face plate.

In the instance that they cannot be shared by LZX, perhaps we could start a community initiative to scan and produce the necessary files for reproduction face plates.

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I don’t have a problem with releasing the art files for reproduction purposes and existing users – I just wouldn’t want anyone to be selling reproduction panels or alternate front panels. It’s a hard thing to control, other than just not releasing the source, so that’s the current stance. Let me think about it. The simplest answer may be that we invest in and stock some replacements for legacy support.

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I completely agree with this. While I have seen some of the same issues in the Expedition series it’s fairly minimal on my modules (first and only owner). However I am more concerned with the Orion series due to the powder coating. I’m already starting to see some chips in the coating which I’ve had to touch up with Sally Hard as Nails black nail polish (also great for tying flies for fishing!). I use my gear very lightly and have yet to gig with it so I could imagine with heavy use it’s more of an issue. Once that stuff starts peeling, it’s only a matter of time before it’s a bare metal panel.

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I can supply some information on fabrication, at least!

Our typical vendor (like most of the USA based EuroRack world) has been Metalphoto of Cincinnati. This vendor uses a proprietary process for printing under the anodization layer (or something like that) that makes the prints very scratch resistant and permanent. Also they have been a big trouble to work with – long delays that have held up production, QA issues, and very expensive ($15-$25 per panel, and much more if your order size is less than 100 pcs.) Last year they announced prices going up +60% due to the rising costs of aluminum.

All of Visionary series, all of Expedition series except the very first print run of Visual Cortex, use Metalphoto frontpanels. With the first run of Cortex, it is a metalphoto BLACK print, but the RGB colors were silkscreened by a local company here in Portland. This run of panels is the one that has poor adhesion issues and does not hold up well in the long term.

With Vidiot, we were growing in size and decided to handle our silkscreening in house. The first 100 units with enamel inks looked okay, but this really improved once switching to epoxy inks (Nazdar ADE series.) Epoxy inks like these are used for industrial and appliance printing, like the markings on your fridge or a car.

But that was more work than we wanted to keep doing here, so we had HLH Prototypes in Shenzhen start handling the printing – they had been doing our sheet metal work for the Vessel and Vidiot enclosures, and they did a great job of printing the rest of the Vidiot and Vessel units we made. They also moved on to handling all the sheet metal and screen printing for the Orion frontpanels. These prints, while not as resilient as the Epoxy inks were using in house, look great. And none of these have the same adhesion issues as the initial run of Cortex faceplates.

One of the big challenges for us, with panels and silkscreening, is color. There are many cases where we want RGB colors as part of the print, for legending reasons. With silkscreen that can get very expensive, and be challenging (4 prints have to be perfect before 1 part is done.)

Moving into Chromagnon/Gen3, we completely re-optimized our supply chain and BOM for all of our products – everything from a grounds up redesign of the circuitry using discrete components to new processes for fabricating parts. We made the switch to FR4 frontpanels – these are silkscreened white on matte black, but we use an in house UV printer to print a translucent overlay over some of the white areas when we want alternate colors. This works great – we get the sharpness and texture of a highly resilient silkscreen, and get to “colorize” that however we like with a UV cured overprint. Being a process designed for PCB fabrication, the FR4 panels are also extremely accurate when it comes to printing tolerances/alignment, and any milled slots are spot on.

Furthermore, with the FR4 panels they are so much less expensive than any of our previous solutions (our out of pocket cost is $2-$3 dollars per panel, rather than $20-$30 in some cases.) And they always show up in the mail on time, in a week (compared to minimum 6-8+ weeks with all the other options mentioned.)

Now naturally, FR4 doesn’t offer the same kind of aesthetic permanence as anodized aluminum. But it is much more accessible for being able to offer things like replacement parts and also, there’s not a $1500-$2500 hit on our cashflow, multiplied across all our modules, when everything needs panels, and an indeterminable wait that has often held up our production schedule. So one of the big things I like about it is that it’s much easier to offer variants, and it lowers the threshold of “trying out a design” even if it’s not something that has to be allocated a big segment of our resources.

So, FR4 replacement panels, that is a much easier proposition for us. We have most of the Expedition panels converted to ready-to-order design variants, so we could stock some replacements and offer them affordably to you.

I would also like to offer some “deluxe” front panels for Gen3 and beyond. For that we can go straight to the optimal solution, which is CNC engraved anodized panels with color infill. But that’s going to cost $40-$80/panel easily, so I can’t build that in as the default option for everything we make. If that is something some people want and can justify affording, those could be offered as a bespoke option direct from us at some point in the future.

I know DIY art and so on is important to folks too… customizing can be part of building any kind of system, after all! I guess in that sense, I feel like part of DIY is learning. Learning to use calipers, learning to make dimensional drawings, learning to use scanners, learning to use Adobe Illustrator, how to format print files, etc. To give away the source files would rob you of the opportunity to learn these skills, and put your own energy into your project. So I’ll gladly help you learn, but I’m reluctant to give the source away. Because your DIY knowledge is what’s in it for me. :slight_smile:

Customization or alternate art projects are not quite the same as needing a replacement part for a piece of gear you bought, though, of course. And I suppose that’s the question of the moment.

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This is awesome and super interesting, thank you so much for the breakdown! I’d love if replacement panels with a better process were offered for sale, I’d 100% order one the day I see it pop up. If I had the time and energy to learn how to DIY one I’d do that as well, but I’ve been spending my time elsewhere lately and don’t wanna get myself distracted yet again with another side-project :sweat_smile:

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Hell, I hope to wear all my face plates beyond recognition. That cortex version is def most susceptible - now I understand why.

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Lars, thank you so much for the super interesting story.
I love to hear your product design background and philosophy. :blush:
I’ve seen Metalphoto’s booth at Knobcon, they seemed to do a great job.
But I understand that it is a big problem for you that more than 10% of the retail value is the cost of the front panel.

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Yes, and of course costs can be built into the margins – it is the lead time factor which effects our current supply chain decisions the most. If we are to sustain a catalog of different unique products and offer them at prices friendly to the artists who wish to use them we have to share investment purchases across the product series. In other words, if 100 frontpanels is a large out of pocket expense + 8 week lead time, it makes it hard to pay attention to things like stocking replacement parts or keeping all modules in stock (something important for a modular system!)

LZX does not operate like most product development startups, where some large amount of investment capital is budgeted out across an R&D period and then a product launched with an initial manufacturing quantity of 1000s or 10000s of items. In these cases, long lead times and overages can be forecast in advance by months or years – and products within the same company are not competing with each other for the same timelines and resources. We approach our work more like an arts collective performing the service of designing and building the tools required by the larger arts collective that is the community of our customers. Is it the best way to do business? Probably not, but I believe it results in unique products that would not be the same products otherwise; the integrity of the design concepts are never compromised, at least. We are fighting to get to a point at which we’ve got a basic modular system and an advanced standalone instrument in perpetual stock at all times, and enter a period of product support activities taking center stage. So FR4 frontpanels are part of the plan that gets us there.

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Is the front panel of TBC2 and Chromagnon also FR4?

Chromagnon, yes. TBC2 no, it matches Memory Palace. Eventually we will change the design to use FR4, but for now it is frozen until after we’ve shipped all orders.

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Just let them fade folks - this is the patina of age that all great instruments acquire when they’re used!

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To each their own, of course. It is quite common for heavily used and great instruments to be reconditioned. In the case of musical instruments, the playing surface is often replaced. Even good ol’ Willie Nelson has had Trigger reconditioned over the course of its colorful life.

The analogy would be that the the knobs and jacks on a cortex would get reconditioned/replaced. Replace the soundboard on Trigger and Trigger ceases to be. Designing panels is pretty easy and can be affordable (EG paperface Serge). It’s everyones individual choice as you point out, but I think it’s more fun to be patching than designing and installing faceplates.

To elaborate on my original point: Patch your modules until you wear the graphics off, until you know every knob and slider so well you can operate it without the legends. Patch that cortex until you wear a hole in it!

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LZX paperface that you lick to colourise your patch :crazy_face:

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The soundboard contributes to tone. I’ve not thought of the front panel as a timbre characterizing aspect of my work. If anything the visual signature of the instrument, notably when available for display in exhibit or performance, feels like a quite revealing statement about the tools and their maintenance.

Maybe front panels are like an artist’s drafting table. The table is a context in which the art is made but not the means by which that art is achieved.

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I agree with you about the soundboard, but that begs the question: why has it not been replaced as it has a hole worn in it? Because it adds a depth of character that says: “I’m traveled, I’m storied, I’m beloved as I am”. A dirty paint brush reveals nothing of a painter but that they’ve used their paintbrushes. IMO wether the artist’s drafting table is messy or clean, new or ancient, has little bearing on the work itself. The video synth in performance may be seen by others, true. I posit that If the art moves them, it would be as unlikely to change their appreciation of that art as it would be for me to say “I’m never going to hear Willy perform again until he replaces that guitar!”

But now we’re far away from OP’s ask, so I’ll shut up about that now :upside_down_face: That said, I’d welcome an FR4 Cortex panel, with gerbers available it would be a simple matter to tweak and order to an individual’s liking.

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One of the beauties of paper face is that you already have a template (your original panel). I just did this serge panel (with a punk rock spin). It’s got a matte film coating though so licking will be less effective, unfortunately!

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I’ve had a lot of experience with gear repair/restoration as well as instrument design as well as 1-off frontpanels and personal DIY projects. And I enjoy it all.

Historical restoration of an instrument to a “museum showroom” level is awesome.
Designing your own frontpanel for an existing instrument is awesome.
Worn out / well loved instruments are awesome. Some of my gear is too full of memories to touch.

For me, the approach would depend on the project.

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