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REVIEW: Pinball Electronics’ Bally/Stern LED Lamp Driver Board

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The games produced by Bally and Stern between the years of 1977 and 1984 were enormously popular with players when they first graced the arcades, and remain popular to this day.  Soaring prices of New-In-Box games and classic 90’s era Williams titles have driven collectors, who may not have enjoyed these games when they were first on route in arcades, to discover and enjoy them in their own game rooms.  Perhaps collectors are finding that the Value:Fun ratio is more balanced in a Bally/Stern game than it is in more contemporary offerings.  The continued popularity of the Bally/Stern subset of games also points towards the acceptance of a more “no frills”-type of pinball: no deep rule sets, no complicated mechanisms or toys, no ramps or multi-level playfields.  The games offer the player a wild dash to the finish, rather than the long exhausting marathon sometimes offered by the more modern pinball machine.  Given the sheer number of games originally produced during the 1977 to 1984 run, the survival rate is very high and there is a great demand for reproduction parts to keep these games running properly.  This is a first review in a continuing series where Credit Dot will examine some of the reproduction parts being manufactured and how technological innovation is making Bally/Stern games look and play better than ever.

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I’ll state at the outset that I’m not a huge fan of LEDs in games made prior to 1986.  It’s an arbitrary date I’ve set for myself that coincides with Williams offering its first game powered by the System 11 operating system (High Speed in January of 1986).  For all Electromechanical and early Solid State games, I’m a firm believer that the warm glow of incandescent bulbs is the only way to go.  There’s no accounting for taste, however, and modifying a game in your collection to your personal tastes is half the fun of ownership.  As you may or may not know, Bally and Stern games between 1977 and 1984 cannot properly accommodate LED bulbs: the controlled inserts will offer a seizure inducing flicker if LEDs are added to a game without first making suitable modifications.  The LED bulbs draw so little current that the controlled lamps (any lamp that is turned on and off by the MPU) fail to “latch on”, resulting in the game attempting to turn on the lamp every fraction of a second until the signal is turned off.  Resistance must be added to the game in order for the LEDs to function properly, and allow the lamps to latch on.  There’s a few ways to go about doing this.

The first option is to solder a resistor to each MPU-controlled bulb socket.  It’s the cheapest way to go about the process, as a single resistor will only cost you $0.05, however, there’s a lot of soldering involved and it’s a pretty invasive process–having to permanently solder a 470 ohm resistor to each socket.  Another option is to buy an adapter kit from Siegecraft Electronics to add to your game.  The kit retails for $45.00USD, and can be found at the Siegecraft webstore or Pinball Life (both sites are out of stock at time of writing).  Essentially, the kit gives you three small circuit boards with resistors mounted on them that plug into your original lamp driver board in the backbox.  Instead of the resistors being mounted to the sockets themselves (as in our first example), multiple resistors are mounted onto the three daughter boards.

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The contents of a Siegecraft LED Adapter Kit.

The final option is to obtain an entirely new lamp driver board with the resistors incorporated in the design of the board itself.  Alltek Systems, makers of fine reproduction circuit board solutions for Bally/Stern games, have incorporated an “LED Flicker Free” feature into their lamp boards that will eliminate the LED flicker completely.  The Alltek board will set you back around $119.00USD.

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Alltek’s Ultimate LED/Lamp Driver Board

However, buying the entire board would be overkill for most people.   The original Bally/Stern lamp board is perhaps the easiest board in all of pinball to troubleshoot and repair.  The layout is straightforward and easy to follow from input signal to output signal, and there aren’t many wild card components to confuse those new to pinball repair.  Most times, it’s going to be a bad transistor component or connector issue that prevents a lamp from working properly.

I had a situation where I had acquired a classic Stern game that was completely missing the lamp board, so I was in the market for a board, whether or not I was going to put LEDs into it.  There are plenty of refurbished boards available for sale on Pinside, for around $50USD, from reputable sellers.  I was going to go this route, however, I found that Pinball Electronics (also known as NVram.weebly.com), a webstore maintained by Pinside user “barakandl”, had made available for purchase his own design of a Bally/Stern lamp driver board.  His board retails for $90USD (including shipping) and includes all the LED capabilities of the Alltek board for $30USD less than the more established brand.  Further to this, Pinball Electronics will sell the bare printed circuit board, with no components soldered to it, for a mere $15USD, and allow you to do the soldering work yourself.

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Pinball Electronics’ $90USD fully assembled LED Lamp Driver Board

I had the opportunity to speak to Andrew from Pinball Electronics about the newly offered lamp board and the reasons behind offering it as a DIY kit.  Andrew’s love of pinball is deeply rooted in Bally and Stern pinball games.  He explains:

“I learned electronics by fixing early Bally and Sterns. I think they are perfect game for a new person looking for their first pinball restoration project. There are lots of reproduction parts available and plenty of online documentation to reference.” 

If you are a Bally/Stern owner experiencing a problem with your game, and ask the pinball community for help on Pinside, there’s a good chance that Andrew’s online alter ego, “barakandl”, will be one of the first to respond, offering troubleshooting techniques or possible solutions.  When asked about the reasons for offering a DIY board as well as a completely assembled board, Andrew responded:

“I think the average skillset of pinball collectors is decreasing with more and more people getting into the hobby. Kits like these help people get their feet wet doing PCB repair. Collectors also love modding their games. Kits like these can be considered a ‘mod’, a project someone can assemble and install themselves, and feel good when the job is done.” 

With an influx of collectors and players entering the pinball hobby, perhaps there are a greater number of people diving into PCB repair feet first, without knowing the basics (or having a practical understanding of what they are doing).  Being able to assemble a relatively simple PCB from scratch not only helps beginners learn the basics of soldering, but it will help build confidence and comfort in working with PCBs when the next repair is needed.  For those with a more advanced skill set, it appears that building the board from scratch, and doing the tedious soldering yourself, will offer a lamp board solution that will be very friendly to your pocketbook.

The board design itself isn’t anything groundbreaking, but it does offer a couple of improvements over the original Bally and Stern designs.  Andrew explains:

“I placed the resistor footprints in a way that the end user has component options. Isolated resistors are in banks of eight, so you can use a DIP-16 resistor array, a Bourns 4116R, or standard discrete resistors. Also, resistors with a common bussed pin can employ a 9-pin bussed resistor network or, again, use discrete resistors.” 

Further, the footprints for the four 4514 chips have been designed to accommodate both the original DIP-24 4514 chips (marked as obsolete but still available), or the more readily available, and cheaper, SO-24 (small outline) 4514 chips.

I ordered the bare lamp board with a few other items from Pinball Electronics, so shipping ended up being free.  The rest of the materials I sourced from Great Plains Electronics.  I could have shopped around at Mouser or Digikey, but I find their sites a bit overwhelming, and further, GPE is a great friend to the pinball hobby so I throw my business their way whenever I can.  The following is my bill of materials for the lamp board:

GRAND TOTAL: $59.44

ALTERNATE COMPONENTS

The SO-24 4514 chips can replace the DIP-24 4514 chips and are available from Digikey for $1.16ea. https://www.digikey.com/products/en?keywords=1727-6338-1-ND%20

The 4116R resistor array can replace the 2K resistors and are available from GPE for $0.35ea. https://www.greatplainselectronics.com/proddetail.asp?prod=4116R-2-222

As you can tell from my bottom line total above, there is value in building the board yourself.  It checks in at nearly half the price of an Alltek lamp board, and is just a few dollars more than the kit offered by Siegecraft, while offering the same functionality and LED support as both options.  If you are willing to shop around for the alternate parts, you may be able to shave a few dollars more from my total above.  I opted to use discrete, individual resistors in my build, rather than using the resistor array packages. No difference in function in the end, just a few more points to solder.

Assembling the board is as straightforward as can be.  Pinball Electronics offers a bare bones data sheet as to where each component needs to be soldered. For those who are not adept at DIY board population, a temperature controlled solder station, like the Hakko FX888, with a fine tip isn’t completely necessary to complete the job here, but it will ensure a clean looking and fully functioning end product.  I had my board fully assembled and installed in my machine in about an hour and fifteen minutes.  The board worked “right out of the box”, as it were, as I had re-pinned all of my connectors as a preventative measure while restoring the game (I implore beginners, please take the time to learn how to use a Molex crimping tool and re-pin your connectors before trying to locate bad components on your boards–I don’t know how many times I’ve read “It ended up being a connector issue” in Bally/Stern repair threads).

To finish the installation, the board needs to be attached to the switched illumination bus (found at one of the controlled lamps sockets on the swing-out wooden back board).  All of the aftermarket replacement solutions discussed above need this modification for proper operation.  The Siegecraft kit needs each of the mini-boards to be connected to the bus, resulting in a three wire menagerie running to the backboard.  The Alltek and the Pinball Electronics boards have built-in terminals ready for the user to tap into.  In the case of the Pinball Electronics board I built, a four-terminal Molex plug can be used to attach the wire to the board, as four 0.1 male pins, in parallel, have been integrated into the design of the board.  This provides an overall cleaner look using parts correct to the period, and appearing less “hack”-like.

Some collectors like the having original boards in their machines for the purposes of keeping it “all original”.  I’m not one of those people.  With the number of reproduction parts available for the Bally/Stern games these days, keeping your game looking flawless AND “all original” is nearly impossible.  If the reproduction works, I’ll use it.  In eighteen short months, Pinball Electronics has offered a handful of reproduction boards such as a universal Bally/Stern MPU, the (n)ever-popular Bally/Stern rectifier board and, of course, this lamp driver.  It seems that Andrew is just getting started, as I asked what new projects were on the horizon:

“Ongoing current projects include the Bally -50 sound board and a Stern High Voltage DMD Power Supply.  And I have just begun working on a reproduction Stern SB-300 sound board. I plan on tackling anything that will make sense to assemble, and has a demand for aftermarket replacements in the community.”

The Pinball Electronics lamp board is a quality product at a fantastic price point given the other options available on the market.  If you want to add LEDs to your Bally/Stern game, the board offers a sleek look with the LED option built right in at a price point that can’t be beat.  If you don’t mind a little manual soldering labour and assemble it yourself, it offers a value that can’t be matched.

FURTHER READING:

Pinball Electronics
http://nvram.weebly.com/

Pinside – New Repro Bally/Stern Lamp Driver Board with LED Support
https://pinside.com/pinball/forum/topic/new-repro-bally-stern-lamp-driver-board-with-led-support

Vid’s Review – Classic Bally/Stern LED Adapter Kit
https://pinside.com/pinball/forum/topic/classic-ballystern-led-adapter-kit-review

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