Thursday, December 10, 2015

Polysix OTA Overdrive

I still chase my dream -- to get a decent electric piano feeling from my Korg Polysix.  Adding velocity sensitivity got me a long way there, but the sound itself needs to be dirtier, with more compression, more grit.  I tried adding diodes to the signal path to generate some distortion, but it sounded bad.  Too fizzy.  Now, I've modified my Polysix to overdrive one of its OTA circuits.  Having a soft onset that eventually leads to a deep, warm saturation, I think that it worked out pretty well!

OTA Overdrive:  After the failure of my experiment with diodes, I looked for other places in the Polysix circuit where I could generate distortion in other ways.  I noticed that the Polysix has a number of LM13600 chips, which are operational transconductance amplifiers, or OTAs.  Seeing them there reminded that a number of newer synths (e.g. Moog Sub Phatty) say that they offer "OTA Overdrive" as a means of user-controllable distortion.   I don't know how these synths overdrive their OTAs, but I was certainly game to figure out how to overdrive mine.

Pre-OTA Attenuation:  A key requirement of the LM13600 is that the input signals have to be very small.  If the inputs are too strong, the out signal will become distorted.  Since I want distortion, this looks like a good place to make my modifications.  Looking at the Polysix schematic, I see voltage dividers in front of every LM13600 to cut the signal down.  One example is shown below, which shows the elements around IC20.  The signal comes in on the right and exits on the left.  The voltage divider in front of IC20 is formed by R155 (10 kOhm) and R163 (100 ohm).  This cuts the input signal voltage by a factor of 100.  That's 40 dB of pre-OTA attenuation!

Adding a resistor in parallel to R155 reduces the attenuation prior to IC20 enabling the LM13600 OTA to be overdriven

Reducting the Pre-OTA Attenuation:  If I modify the circuit to have less pre-OTA attenuation (ie, to allow the signal to be stronger), I will likely overdrive this OTA.  I can easily reduce the attenuation by adding a resistor in parallel with R155, which will reduce the effect of the voltage divider.  For example, putting a 1 kOhm resistor in parallel to R155 will result in the signal being cut down by only a factor of 10, instead of the factor of 100.  This means that the signal is attenuated by only 20 dB instead of the 40 dB.  In effect, I'm slamming the OTA with a 20 dB stronger signal.  This seems like an easy path to overdriving IC20.  That's what I want.

Connecting the Resistor:  Looking inside the synth, I first looked for IC20 on the KLM-368 PCB.  I found R155 nearby.  To easily try different resistors in parallel to R155, I attached clip leads on either side of R155.  See the pics below.  I also attached my oscilloscope to C75 so that I could visualize the output as well as hear it.

Clipping in on either side of R155.
Adding a resistor, via the clip leads, to be in parallel with R155.

Trying a Range of Resistors:  As you saw in the video at the top of the post, I tried a range of different resistor values.  For gritty electric piano sounds, I liked the 3.3K and 1.1K values the best because the effect was simply warmed up the signal and only added some grit when I played hard.  At the other end of the spectrum of resistor values (ie, when I shorted across R155), I unexpectedly enjoyed the unpredictable chaos of the heavily saturated distortion.  It was really fun!

Seeing the Effect:  The video demonstrated what this modification sounds like.  The figure below shows what it *looked* like.  The figure shows the output of IC20 for different resistor values across R155.  As you can see, with no resistor (which is the same as a very large resistor), the output signal is a nice sawtooth, but it is relatively small.  Then, as I add a large resistor (3.3 kOhm) the signal gets quite a bit stronger due to the extra gain.  As I make the resistor smaller (1.1 kOhm), the signal gets stronger.  Continuing to make the resistor stronger (500 ohm and on), the shape of the waveform starts to deviate from a sawtooth -- the top and bottom are becoming rounded.  This is signature of the OTA being overdriven.  It's a softer, more rounded, distortion than seen in my diode mod from my last post.  Finally, when I short across R155, the distortion becomes so heavy that the signal is a square wave.  Under certain contditions, as seen in the video, that can be cool in its own way.

Output of IC20 recorded for different resistors placed in parallel with R155. Note that decreasing resistance results in increased gain, which eventually leads to overdriving IC20, causing the sawtooth to become distorted.  Note that, for these images, I played two notes at the same pitch and waited for the two voices to naturally phase into alignment.

More Than Just Gain:  Clearly, the main effect of changing the resistor is to boost the level of the signal going into the OTA, which then overloads the OTA and causes the output signal to be distorted,  But, gain and distortion is not the resistor's only effect.  Looking back at the Polysix schematic, I see that R156 and C80 are also in parallel with R155.  This resistor and capacitor act to boost the treble frequencies.  By adding my own resistor around R155, I will also be reducing the effect of this treble boost.  So, maybe the "warmth" that I felt was actually a result of changing the frequency response, and not necessarily due to overdriving the OTA.  To confirm this theory, let's analyze the circuit for different resistor values and see what happens.

Circuit Simulation:  To simulate this part of the circuit, I used 5Spice Analysis, which is a SPICE-based circuit simulation program with a nice graphical interface for Windows.  Like most graphical versions of SPICE, you start by drawing the schematic of the circuit that you want to simulate.  The screenshot below shows the schematic that I made to represent the elements leading into the IC20 OTA.  For this simulation, the input signal is generated by "SigIn" on the right.  "TPv1" on the left represents the output signal, which would normally go to IC20.  In between the elements of the Polysix's voltage divider, the R-C treble boost, and my added overdrive-inducing resistor.  Now I can run the simulation and see the expected frequency response.

Using "5Spice Analysis" to model the frequency response of the pre-OTA voltage divider network.

Expected Response, Unmodified Polysix:  The graph below shows the modeled response of the circuit.  On the bottom (in blue) is the the circuit response with no added resistor around R155.  As expected, the signal is 40 dB down, which is what we expect based on the 10 kOhm / 100 Ohm voltage divider.  Also note, however, that the treble frequencies are boosted due to the effect of R156 and C80.  At 5 kHz, the signal is boosted by about 5 dB.  While not a huge boost, this would definitely sharpen the sound.

Expected Response of the pre-OTA voltage divider network.  The different lines show the effect of different values for the resistor that I placed in parallel to R155.
Expected Response, Modified Polysix:  When the parallel resistor is added, I get the black traces shown in the figure above.  The primary effect is that the signal level goes up.  The 1.1 kOhm case, for example, shows that the signal is at -20 dB instead of at -40 dB.  This is the 20 dB gain that I mentioned earlier.  A secondary effect of adding the parallel resistor, however, is that the boost to treble frequencies becomes much less.  Perhaps this is the increased "warmth" that I perceived.  Hmm.  I think that this requires a little more exploration.  Maybe there are additional modifications that I can make to shape the frequency response to make the OTA overdrive sound even better!

Next Step:  I liked the sound and feel of this OTA overdrive much more than the diode distortion.  I think that, if I can figure out how to make this OTA overdrive controllable from the Polysix's front panel, I'll enjoy having this modification.  So, that's my next step: figure out how to have a controllable amount of overdrive for IC20.  Stay tuned!

Follow-Up:  How to make this mod controllable without clipping in new resistors?  In this follow-up post, I start designing this mod to use an Arduino and a digipot.  


  1. No shame in adding an external patch point, as they do on preamps and such, to allow the external effect path - might be good for down the road in case you want to plug in other effects or try other distortions etc, including commercial devices....

  2. This looks like a really cool mod! What about replacing the 10k resistor with a 10K pot?