Tinkering with electronics & mechanics: getting started
October 2, 2015 5:36 PM   Subscribe

I want to start tinkering with electronics/mechanics/appliances, specifically stereo equipment (preferably vintage/obsolete). I have little experience and I've never thought of myself as one with a good sense of "electronics" or even "mechanics" nor do I have any kind of STEM background. What baby steps do I take to get started?

The goal is to build a sound, if basic, understanding of how electronic devices function.

I'm focusing on stereo equipment because 1) it is intriguing to me, which will help keep me interested in the face of any frustration while learning and 2) I know I will put it to use in my daily life, which will keep me in practice.

I am very much a kinesthetic learner. For this reason, I'm not at all averse to heading to the thrift store and picking up random broken electronic stuff for a few bucks so that I can play around without worrying too much about the consequences of breaking things in the process.

Obviously, I still need some good visual/written guides to get me started. Where do I start? What are the most accessible books, guides and online videos (all preferably free)? Seriously - the more accessible, visual and clear cut, the better. I have a humanities background and am coming at this with nary a clue.

Note that I am especially interested in learning about vintage and even obsolete electronics/technology... in addition to stereo/audio equipment, I'd also be interested in film/camera equipment of all types.

Also of note:
1) I realize it would be ideal to learn this with the help of another person showing me, and my partner is knowledgeable with vintage stereo stuff, but he works long hours and I'd like to work on this independently in my free time - obviously, I can still talk with him about what I learn and get some feedback, but the majority of my learning will have to be on my own.
2) We own a couple of Raspberry Pi's but they are mostly my partner's toys and already have designated uses; I'm considering getting my own Raspberry Pi or Arduino to play with, but I'm not sure if this would limit me or handicap me in some way. I'm still open to them as one of many ways to learn (or the main way to learn, if it's warranted in my case).

Remember, I'm clueless... so any advice will be appreciated on how to best go about this.
posted by nightrecordings to Technology (10 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
The Art of Electronics is one of the best books to learn electronics. But it's basically a textbook. A really well written one, but yeah.

There isn't as much advanced math in designing and building practical electronic circuits as one might think. Yeah, you can get knee deep into calculus and, I dunno, complex analysis for some things, but most design is about reading data sheets and doing some algebra. Learn to love data sheets and app notes, and apply Ohm's law, and you'll go far.

You might enjoy the technician side of electronics, which doesn't get a lot of glamour and respect in industry, but I find it's fun. Actually assembling PCBs, soldering tiny surface mount components and such. There are a lot of interesting kits and sensors and things that you can buy that will hook up to the Raspberry Pi you have (Arduinos are probably even better).

If you want to start ripping apart broken equipment, first get yourself a multimeter and a scope, and maybe an adjustable bench power supply. Because without basic measurement tools to see what's going on, a broken piece of equipment is a dishearteningly opaque device.

Learn what devices you shouldn't go poking around in (CRT TVs and monitors, microwave ovens, x-ray machines should you happen across one, possibly tube stuff?). Plus just about every device that plugs into the wall will have a couple 400V capacitors that can seriously injure you (more likely by eye injuries from exploding screwdriver tips than electrocution, but the electrocution isn't fun either; wear safety glasses). In well-designed devices these caps will be discharged if you leave the item unplugged (not just off) for 30 minutes or so, but poorly designed power supplies (cough, apple time capsule) will carry a dangerous charge for days. Anything that uses an external wall wart power supply should be mostly safe.

If starting from scratch, I'd look for kits to assemble, then modify to do different things. I guess that's pretty vague advice though. But with kits you'll be starting with a much simpler, and hopefully working and well-documented design, whereas broken equipment will be a lot less tractable.
posted by ryanrs at 6:29 PM on October 2, 2015 [4 favorites]

What's your skill level? Do you understand the basic flow of electricity through a circuit? Can you solder? Do you own tools--screwdrivers, Allen wrenches, wire cutters, needlenose pliers? Do you own or have access to test equipment--oscilloscope, multimeter, signal generator?
posted by Slinga at 6:35 PM on October 2, 2015

Response by poster: @Slinga: Yes, on the bright side, I do own my own tools and I do have access to test equipment (my partner is a mechanic). Otherwise, I'd say my skill level is... none. I know not to stick a fork in an electrical socket, and I know what an oscilloscope is without having to Google it. Otherwise, I got nothin'.
posted by nightrecordings at 6:41 PM on October 2, 2015

Get a Magnavox 9302 or 9304 console amplifier and rebuild it. It's fairly easy, fairly affordable, fun, straightforward, and there are many discussion threads online. If you get stuck, the friendly folks at Audiokarma.org will help you.
posted by Slinga at 7:16 PM on October 2, 2015

You could do worse than to start reading things like MAKE: and Hackaday, and following up when you find interesting projects. In general, Makezine tends to be a bit more beginner-focused and Hackaday tends to assume a bit higher level of skill, but I think both are probably approachable.

There's also a lot of Youtube content these days -- I'm a particular fan of an anonymous Canadian dude who goes by "AvE" or "Arduino vs. Evil." He does a lot of "here's how I tore down and fixed this thing in my shop" content that might interest you, though often more industrial/manufacturing focused rather than audio things.
posted by Alterscape at 7:23 PM on October 2, 2015

Getting started in electronics by Forrest Mims...used to be available at radio shack, but Google it and there's a free pdf out there. Lots of illustrations, starts with electrons and silicon and how they work, moves into individual components (resistors, transistors, etc), and finishes up with a bunch of circuit diagrams and beginner projects. Definitely the best place to start.
posted by sexyrobot at 11:12 PM on October 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Almost everything I know about electronics was gained while fiddling with electric guitars. Effects boxes are easy to build and modify. There's a reverence for vintage items. Point-to-point wiring is held in high regard. There's a genuine reason to use vacuum tubes. All-in-all, it's pretty straightforward to build almost anything from scratch, and there's no shortage of howto on the net.
posted by rlk at 9:56 AM on October 3, 2015

I would start by building a couple kits with good instructions. That would definitely jump start your knowledge. There are kits for preamps, headphone amps and stereo amps.

Most, if not all vintage stereo stuff and tube stuff works on very high AC voltages. You'll definitely want to study precautionary measures and consider safety before you begin to work on equipment like that.

So, if you play guitar little battery powered effects in kit form make excellent starter projects, they are simpler, designed for beginners, with less potential hazards.
posted by tremspeed at 1:15 PM on October 3, 2015

And don't underestimate the satisfaction for building basic blinky lights and other stuff. You can actually have a ton of fun with blinky lights, noise generators, and things like passive infrared motion sensors.

Seriously, Halloween is just a few weeks away. Imagine a setup with 3 infrared motion sensors, each with progressively closer visibility, triggering in order, blinky lights, spooky noises, and a water pump, ha ha.
posted by ryanrs at 8:45 PM on October 4, 2015

So I can't help you with learning the theoretical underpinnings, but I'm trying to develop my own facility with electronics and I've decided I need to learn how to solder together some basic simple kits. Velleman has some really basic ones for less than $5. I picked up the Voice Changer for ~$10 at a Fry's. It looks like they have more advanced, useful audio kits if you spend a bit more.
posted by benito.strauss at 4:38 PM on November 27, 2015

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