Avoiding Equipment Battery Failure

Tips & Tricks

Published in SOS May 1999
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Technique : Theory + Technical

It seems everybody is talking about the millennium bug, but a far greater threat to the operation of our studios is already ticking away inside our effects units and synthesizers. Paul White gives a battery health warning.

Very few, if any, pieces of project studio equipment (with the exception of some PC computers) should be affected by the millennium bug, but virtually every programmable synth, effects unit and writable patch card relies on a battery to keep its memory intact. The amount of current required is extremely low, which is why the batteries last so long, but as soon as this power source is removed, the data is lost -- a situation that you may be unaware of.

In most cases, memory backup batteries are small lithium cells with a life span of around five years. Only a few pieces of equipment warn of low battery conditions -- so you could find that one day everything is working perfectly, then the next time you try to use the device some or all of the patches have evaporated, become corrupted or reverted to their factory presets. If you haven't saved your patches by doing a SysEx dump to your sequencer or to a librarian program, or copying them to a data card, you'll find they're gone for good.

Averting Disaster

Most synth or effects unit battery replacements involve sending the device to a service centre, as the batteries are often soldered to the unit's main circuit board. Unless you're adept with a soldering iron and know exactly what you're doing, don't attempt to do this job yourself, as short-circuiting, reversing or overheating lithium batteries can cause them to explode, or at least to become very hot. Though service centres will do their best to avoid losing your patches, they don't usually offer any kind of guarantee, so it's important to back up your patches before you send the unit away.

Memory cards are a little easier to deal with, as they are designed to allow their batteries to be changed by the user, but you still have to take care to insert the new battery the correct way around. Various types of battery are used, but most are part of the 'CR' series of cells (similar to those used in calculators and organisers) and replacements are available from stores such as Boots and Tandy, and camera shops. The part number of the battery is engraved on the battery itself, just in case you've lost the data sheet for the memory card. As with synths and effects units, you'll need to back up the data from the cards before changing the battery if you want to be certain you won't lose any data. Note that ROM memory cards, the type that can't be overwritten, don't require a battery.

What A Save

Whether you've experienced battery problems or not, it's obviously very sensible to back up custom patch data regularly. Probably the easiest way of doing this is as follows:

  • Connect the MIDI Out of the device in question to the MIDI In of a sequencer.
  • Put the sequencer into record mode.
  • Initiate a SysEx dump of all user patches (and global setup data, where applicable).
  • Store the resulting few seconds of data as a song file, then replay it back into the instrument when you need to restore the sounds.

Most sequencers will allow you to do this with no problems, but it's just as well to test the procedure first using a device that either contains only factory patches or patches that are already backed up by some other means. On most devices, the front-panel display will change to indicate that a SysEx dump is being received.

Alternatively, there are several freeware or shareware programs available on the Internet that can send and receive SysEx dumps -- I've used Bulk SysEx Utility with my Macintosh, and providing the dumps aren't too large, it works faultlessly. The only thing I've found that defeats it is a complete Wavestation dump, because the total amount of data exceeds the capacity of the program. However, there's usually a way to get around difficulties such as this: for example, it's possible to arrange to dump individual banks rather than an instrument's entire memory contents.

If you're backing up data from a card, and the device doesn't allow direct data dumping from the card, you may need to do some juggling. You could back up the internal user patches from your synth or effects unit first, then transfer the card data to the unit's internal memory, before dumping it to a sequencer, MIDI data filer or librarian software. Once this is done, restore the internal patches from the backup. As an additional precaution, you should also duplicate your backups to floppy disk and stash the copy somewhere safe. Also, you can often pick up second-hand data cards for older instruments at bargain prices, and it's reassuring to have one or two spares to hold backup patches when you're moving data around.

DAW Techniques


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