CREDIT DOT

Mapping pinball trends for the casual enthusiast…


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PEOPLE: Jeff Miller, the Pinball Pimp

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Jeff Miller appears to be living the pinball enthusiast’s dream. The Tampa-based graphic designer-by-day took a life-long passion for pinball and turned it into his own burgeoning restoration business. The self-proclaimed “Pinball Pimp” began turning tricks in 2005, by restoring his own Bally Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy and hasn’t looked back—situating himself as one of the go-to pinball restoration artists in the south-east United States. Further, Mr. Miller has recently expanded his Pimping business (as it were): he now supplies the pinball community with high end cabinet stencils for hobbyists to complete their own restoration work in the comfort of their own workshops. The Pinball Pimp stencil store currently offers twenty complete sets of stencils across two different pinball manufacturers, with the promise of many more to come. Judging by the reception from the community, these stencils are of the highest quality, the easiest to use and the most complete versions available on the market. I had the opportunity to conduct an interview with Mr. Miller concerning the manufacture of his line of stencils, the restoration business and what the future holds for the Pinball Pimp brand.

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Credit Dot: How long have you been a pinball enthusiast?

00-pimp06Jeff Miller: I have been playing pinball since I was 8 years old, dating back to 1974. I used to play the machines in front of the Danners 5 & 10 Store on Saturday mornings as a kid. I started all this as a hobby back in 2005 when I restored my first pin which was a Bally Captain Fantastic.

CD: What lead to you offering decal sets for other enthusiasts to use in their restoration projects?

JM: I have been designing vector art for over 25 years and stencils for the past 10 years. I knew for a fact that the other pinball stencils available to the public just did not have the quality of artwork and the exacting standards that I designed for my own use. I then decided to start designing my own stencils each time I restored a game and ended up with a nice collection over 10 years. After hearing the constant frustration people were having with the other stencil vendors and all the rave comments I received on my restored machines, I decided to start offering my own stencils to collectors and fellow restorers.

CD: What are some of the deciding factors when selecting a game to make stencils for? Do you take requests?

JM: I usually only put my design time into game titles that are considered more “A” list, or classic, titles people want to restore. It also depends on whether or not CPR or someone else has made a reproduction playfield for the game. I do take request and do custom stencils/work for people as long as they pay me for the design time.

CD: Can you walk us through the process of creating a new stencil set?

JM: The first step is to start with a cabinet which has nice artwork that you can get a good scan from. Taking off the stainless steel side rails and removing the entire coin door and shooter are even better so you can get scans all the way to the edges of the wood. The next step is to scan the actual cabinet, using a flatbed scanner. I scan the cabinet in sections, with some overlap on each scan, so I can weld it all back together in Photoshop as one full-size image. Once in Photoshop I may spend several hours just cleaning up edges of the artwork so I can get it good enough to make separation. The artwork is then converted from raster JPEG image to VECTOR line art which a plotter can cut. Once it’s converted to vector art, the fun begins! This is when I go into my vector program and spend between 8 to 20 hours cleaning up all the artwork based on the full-size JPEG image of the original art… smoothing curves, straightening lines, etc. Once I’m satisfied with the art and have made every tweak, I consider it a master stencil ready for cutting.

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The cleaned up colour separation of Bally Playboy side cabinet art on the left, the final pained product using the Pinball Pimp stencil on the right.

CD: How is a stencil set “cut”?

JM: Stencils are cut on an industry standard, low-tack vinyl paint mask using Roland plotters. The master line art file is sent from a computer to the plotter which then cuts the paint mask with a carbide tipped blade. Artwork is then “weeded” or peeled along with a pre-mask material applied on top so all art stays perfectly intact when applying to the cabinet.

CD: How do the Pinball Pimp stencils differ from those of the competitors?

JM: My stencils are designed from actual scans of the actual cabinet with zero distortion, rather than using photographs which can cause perspective issues, lost detail and sizing to be skewed or wrong. My artwork goes through an entire cleanup process to make the artwork for every single title nearly perfect. I also use a unique registration system which guarantees your 2 color stencils lineup perfectly every time.

CD: Your stencils are all approved under license. What is the approval process like?

JM: You have to have a quality product to begin with, otherwise it will have a tough time getting licensed. I had to go through Planetary Pinball to get my stencils licensed by them. To comply with the conditions of the license, I have to purchase holographic decals and each set has its own unique serial number. The serial number and holographic decal are affixed to a Certificate of Authenticity and sent out with every set of stencils I sell. The serial numbers are also recorded and archived.

CD: For those who have never used a stencil kit before, how difficult is the re-stenciling process? Any helpful hints?

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Detail of the side cabinet art of a Bally 6 Million Dollar Man, restored using a Pinball Pimp stencil set.

JM: The stenciling process is actually not that hard at all. I tried to make it as user-friendly as possible for anyone to use. It’s basically just like applying a large decal. With the instructions and the squeegee provided it should be a fairly simple task. It’s sort of like using lettering stencils and spray paint.

[Ed. Note: Each set contains multiple stencil sheets, representing the different colours used on the side cabinet, coin door area and the head. The backside of each stencil holds a mild adhesive, making the stencil sheets good for one-time use only. If for some reason, an enthusiast encounters a problem when using the stencils due to their own “user error”, Mr. Miller is able to cut a partial stencil set and sell only the necessary pieces of the kit rather than forcing the stencilor re-purchase the entire set. This just another perk of buying from the Pinball Pimp, and should bring comfort to novice pinball restorers and old hands alike. Everyone encounters an “oops” sometimes…!]

CD: What type of paint do you recommend using?

JM: The best EASY paint to use would be Rustoleum or Krylon out of the spray cans. You could also use a water-based paint but I would suggest putting a clear coat on after that for durability. I do not suggest using lacquer paint as it tends to soften the adhesive on the paint mask and may leave residue.

CD: What are some of your pro tips for a smooth cabinet in preparation for re-stenciling?

JM: The best way to get a beautifully smooth cabinet is to strip the entire cabinet down. The more you can take off the cabinet, the easier it will be once you get started sanding and filling. I either sand or chemically remove all we old paint from the cabinet down to the bare wood. I usually fill all of my nicks and scratches with Bondo and then sand smooth. I may repeat this process 2 to 3 times in order to get a cabinet baby smooth. Once this is done, I spray the base coat color on the cabinet, which may require 2 to 3 coats, which should result in a very smooth paint job. The smoother the surface the better the stencils will work.

[The following gallery is a selection of cabinet art restored using Pinball Pimp stencils.  An extensive gallery can be viewed by following this link.]

CD: For a typical cabinet, how long will cabinet re-stenciling take, giving curing time for the separate colors?

JM: Once your base coat is dry and you are ready to use your stencils it only takes a few minutes to apply the stencil. It actually takes longer to tape the cabinet up to avoid any over-spray. Depending on which paint you use, and dry times, I usually let the first color dry for a day or 2 before spraying the second color.

CD: Is the sky the limit for Pinball Pimp stencils? Do you foresee an exhaustive line of stencils across all pinball manufacturers?

JM: As long as there are guys out there who want to restore these old classic machines, I will keep trying to design as many classic titles as possible. I’m in the process now of getting the license from Gottlieb to start selling stencils for all of their classic titles as well. I would love to be the curator of all pinball stencils.

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An example of a serial number stamped directly onto the left side of a Bally cabinet. This one from a Nitro Ground Shaker, which resides at the Vintage Flipper World in Brighton, MI.

CD: An ethical question, of sorts. Late-1970s and early-1980s Bally games have the serial numbers stamped directly into the side of the wooden cabinet. Should a restorer fill and sand these numbers when preparing the cabinet for a re-stencil, effectively erasing the unique identification numbers, or should one leave the indentations as they came from the factory?

JM: I think this depends on the individual. When I do high-end restorations, nearly half of the parts are new reproductions anyway, so I usually fill in the stamped numbers. When the final machine is done, everything is beautifully smooth. I also add a pinball pimp certificate inside the machine with a serial number of 00001, since I basically rebuilt the entire machine from scratch. The way I look at it, it is basically born again.

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A Pinball Pimp “Restoration Certificate”, included on the inside of the cabinet of each game that is made whole again by Mr. Miller.

CD: Stencils are just one part of your “Pimp” business. What kind of restoration work do you undertake?

JM: I restore machines from the mid-70s all the way up to complete decal jobs of the newer WPC games. This all includes playfield swaps, playfield touch-ups, powder coating, chrome and nickel plating parts–the COMPLETE start to finish restore process!

CD: What are some of the most memorable, or most difficult, restorations you have ever tackled?

JM: The most memorable was the full restoration of my 1976 Bally Capt. Fantastic machine. This being an EM machine, I disassembled every hardware mechanism in the lower cabinet, rust dipped and polished, and installed all onto new wood which was painted to match the cabinet color. A very daunting task if you know how many parts are in a 4-player Bally EM. Mind boggling!

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Detail of a stunning Gottlieb Target Alpha, after receiving a full Pinball Pimp makeover.

CD: Do you rely on restoration projects brought to you by customers, or are you surfing Craigslist for broken-down restoration candidates to fix and flip?

JM: Back when I first started in 2005 used Craigslist to find all of my pinball machines to restore. Since the pinball “resurgence” has taken over, it becomes harder and harder to find decent machines and deals on Craigslist. At this point I have enough customers across the country to where most people just send me their machines to be restored.

CD: For solid state games, do you perform your own board work as well?

JM: I do some of my own solid-state work if it’s simple, but more difficult tasks I leave to a friend who is an electronics master. Some clients have me replace they are restored machine with all new boards if they are available.

CD: You also maintain a close relationship with Classic Playfield Reproductions. What work have you done for them over the years?

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Detail from Mr. Miller’s work on CPR’s Fireball backglass repro, available now.

JM: I’m not currently working on any projects for CPR at the moment since I have my hands full with my own businesses. I have designed four artwork packages for CPR in the past: the plastic sets for Williams Comet and Bally Bobby Orr’s Power Play, the speaker panel for Bally Creature from the Black Lagoon and the Bally Fireball backglass which is one of CPR’s latest releases.

CD: Is this a full time job for you, or just a part-time hobby? Moreover, do you describe yourself as a businessman or an enthusiast?

JM: What started out as a hobby 10 years ago has basically turned into a full time, second business. I’m still a top level, graphic designer/artist and do freelance work for Samsung and other large companies, but still love the pinball business end of it most.

CD: You are based in Florida—how would you describe the present pinball collector scene in the Sunshine State?

JM: I am based in Tampa, Florida and have been here for 25 years. I’m originally from Columbus, Indiana. I think the collector scene in Florida is probably as good as it is in any other state. Although, I don’t think as many older classic games migrated to Florida—most are still up in the Midwest, in the Pennsylvania and Chicago areas. The migration of games to the California market hasn’t been replicated on this coast, for the most part.

CD: How did you come about the moniker “The Pinball Pimp”?

JM: Around the time I started restoring pinball machines, I remember watching the TV show “Pimp My Ride”. Being in design and marketing my entire life, I thought it was a catchy and easy name to remember. Since my restorations always involved being a little over-the-top with custom accents and exacting detail, I considered my restored machines as being “PIMPED”–hence the name: Pinball Pimp.

CD: What games are currently in the Pinball Pimp collection?

JM: My collection has changed a little over the last 10 years, working towards my ultimate lineup of games—including some buying and selling along the way, obviously. My modern collection contains a Williams Funhouse, Williams Fish Tales, Williams White Water, Bally Creature from the Black Lagoon, Williams No Fear, Williams Tales of the Arabian Nights and Stern AC/DC Luci. My classic collection includes a Bally Capt. Fantastic, Bally Eight Ball, Bally 6 Million Dollar Man, Bally Playboy, Bally Eight Ball Deluxe, Bally KISS and Bally Fathom.

CD: Any closing comments to enthusiasts who may not have the nerve to tackle a re-stenciling project?

JM: Re-stenciling a pinball cabinet is not that hard when using my stencils if the instructions are followed properly. It’s not a weekend warrior project that you’re going to get done in a few hours. The more time you put into the project the better the result. More importantly, it’s about having a passion wanting to restore your cabinet back to its full glory! I guarantee if you take your time and do it right your end result will be a beautiful cabinet that you will be proud of.

Further Reading:

Pinball Pimp Restoration, Sales & Service – Homepage
Pinball Pimp Cabinet Stencils – Homepage
Pinball Pimp – Pinblog
Classic Playfield Reproductions – Creature from the Black Lagoon Backbox Speaker Panel
Pinside – PINBALL PIMP – Bally STRIKES and SPARES – Museum Restoration
Pinside – For sale: PINBALL PIMP CABINET STENCILS – AVAILABLE NOW!
Pinside – Twisted Pins Stencils are Garbage
Tampa Bay Times – In Tampa, Two Pinball Wizards Work to Restore their Hobby, January 7, 2010

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OPINION: Big League Chew

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Perhaps I’ve just been spending too much time within the friendly confines of minor league ballparks this summer, but I think it’s time for the pinball industry to revisit sports themes: baseball in particular. In the current climate, it is going to need a licence attached to it: the participation of Major League Baseball and its players association. I think Stern is up to the task. Games with sports themes have not fared well in the recent past, however I think now is the time to give the theme another trip to the plate, so to speak, despite the built-in trouble areas that exist in getting sports-themed machines off the ground.

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Gottlieb’s 1970 Add-A-Ball Batter Up. Courtesy of pinrepair.com

Sports have a rich history in pinball, with an inordinate amount of woodrails and electromechanical machines carrying sports imagery. Gottlieb’s wedgehead lineup of sports games reads like an ESPN2 weekly broadcast schedule.  However, sport themes released in the DMD era have not fared so well. Take note, I’m talking about competitive sports proper, not recreational activities. As much as White Water and Fish Tales could be a fly in the ointment in my argument, I have considered them more recreational themes, and not sports themes. Taking a brief look at DMD era games and their Pinside Top 100/200/300 rankings (as of September 2, 2014) it reads like one of the worst gameroom lineups in the history of pinball:

Tee’d Off (Gottlieb 1993): Ranked 239
World Cup Soccer (Williams 1994): Ranked 53
Shaq Attaq (Gottlieb 1995): Ranked 278
No Fear: Dangerous Sports (Williams 1995): Ranked 95
Frank Thomas’ Big Hurt (Gottlieb 1995): Ranked 172
Indianapolis 500 (Williams 1995): Ranked 42
Mario Andretti (Gottlieb 1995): Ranked 283
Flipper Football (Capcom, 1996): Ranked 272
Space Jam (Sega, 1997): Ranked 287
No Good Gofers (Williams 1997): Ranked 32
NBA Fastbreak (Bally 1997): Ranked 108
Striker Extreme/NFL (Stern 2000): Ranked 296
NASCAR/Grand Prix (Stern 2005): Ranked 181
NBA (Stern 2009): Ranked 241

(Williams SlugFest, a DMD game that dispensed baseball cards, was extremely successful, but was not included in the above list, because, after all, it is not really a pinball machine in the strictest sense…it was a weird cross between a pitch ‘n’ bat and a redemption game)

There are notable exceptions in that list, and they all seem to be Bally/Williams titles. No Good Gofers is a fantastic comedic take on golf and is the highest ranked game on the above list, and Indy 500 well deserves its top fifty rank as it is a solid game with some unique Nordman-esque features. World Cup Soccer ‘94 is on everyone’s list of fun and affordable DMD games for both fledgling beginners and collectors with extensive lineups. (Plus, it is the cheapest John Popadiuk title available, so that boosts its in-demand status.) Baseball only appears once with Big Hurt, which was licenced through the Frank Thomas and Reebok camp only, and not endorsed whatsoever by Major League Baseball. Past that, it gets really dicey. Exactly half the games on the list fall into the bottom twenty percent of all games rated on Pinside, which is an extremely amazing, albeit pathetic, feat. Perhaps pinball players are not all that keen to have sports mixed in with their pingames, or maybe designers are so handcuffed by trying to stay true to the rules of the featured sport that it ends up skewing the overall flow and play of the game.

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Williams’ NBA Fastbreak.

Stern already had a kick at the can with two sports licences, the National Basketball Association and the National Football League. As I was compiling the above list, I was surprised to see that it was only five years ago that Stern released their NBA title. To me, the game seems much more dated than it actually is, probably due to its licence association with the older Williams NBA Fastbreak release. Why Stern released their own version of an NBA-themed game after Fastbreak appears to be unfathomable, but it was the result of downsizing. The game was originally slated for overseas export only, but once downsizing occurred, a decision was made to produce the completely developed NBA game rather than spend money developing something else. This must be the reason why the design and execution of the game feels wholly incomplete. A few years earlier, Stern’s NFL football-themed machine was an uninspired repackage of Striker Xtreme, their soccer-themed game, whose translite featured a different NFL team, depending on the hometown team of where the game was shipped (or the buyer’s personal preference). Both the NFL and NBA games were met with indifference by the pinball community and exist as lazy attempts at letting the theme make up for lack of unique design elements. Because of this laziness, both games now reside at the bottom of the Pinside Top 100/200/300.

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Stern’s Striker Xtreme: “NFL LE”, with a Pittsburgh Steelers translite.

With Gary Stern’s frequent assertion that his company is “Made in the USA” and with baseball-mad Chicago being his home base, it is curious as to why Stern has not optioned Major League Baseball to partner with. The appeal of baseball is certainly on-par with that of basketball on an international level, with international sales traditionally being a key factor in theme selection. However, there is a fantastic market for such a game here in North America alone. While football relies on tailgating in parking lots, I would argue that much of baseball’s pre-game drinking takes place at sports bars, with Wrigleyville in Chicago being the penultimate example: a row of drinking establishments all vying for pre-game patronage. What better place to put one of these machines than in a sports bar catering to the pre-game crowd?  Especially given the recent resurgence of the bar as a bastion for pinball. I’m sure Major League Baseball could get a few of these machines into the stadiums themselves, as well.

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Jaleco didn’t pay the league, now Ryne Sandberg has to play ball in a generic, cheap lookin’ Cubs uniform.

A Major League Baseball pinball machine would run into the same problem as the NBA machines before it: it would remain “current” only for a season or two before: a) free agency takes over, moving players to the highest bidder, and b) uniform sales falter, forcing teams to consider a change in colour or logo. Whereas themes like AC/DC and X-Men seem to remain timeless, team logos, colours, home cities and player rosters change so quickly in the business of sports today, that it automatically puts a timestamp on a product such as this. One could argue that the DMD player and team appearances could be tweaked, at least somewhat, in code updates…but we all know Stern’s recent track record with that. To erase the team names or star players from the machine, in effect short circuiting the need for a licence, isn’t an option.  A generic baseball theme just wouldn’t cut it. It will always feel cheap and incomplete, like when you see a top athlete in a deodorant commercial playing his sport of choice wearing a generic white uniform and not the uniform of the team he plays for. The deodorant company obviously didn’t have the dough to licence the team logo through the league, and their commercial ends up looking like a top player playing sandlot ball.

Themes of this nature are a hard sell right out of the gate.  What is the crossover of people who REALLY enjoy baseball and REALLY enjoy pinball?  When Stern released Mustang, there was an overwhelming number of people who took the stance: “I’m not a car guy, I’m not buying this machine.” Contrast this with the announcement of AC/DC, Metallica or Star Trek: while pinball collectors/players may not be a fan of that particular genre of music/film, it seemed that they still reserved judgement and played the game before making a final call. You hear far more stories of people stating, “I don’t like ACDC/Metallica music but I bought the game because it plays great”. I think you would have to be prepared for people to dismiss the game right out of the gate with the MLB theme attached.

00-base01With all the problem areas stacking up, it appears that the MLB theme wouldn’t be all that good of an option for Stern. However, I am intrigued by the fact that John Trudeau is now working for Stern, and has a semi-rich history with the theme of baseball. Trudeau designed the Chicago-area favourite Chicago Cubs Triple Play for Premier, a veritable staple in the basements of Cubs fans and in the corners of Wrigleyville bars alike. He also did the stripped-down, “street level” game Silver Slugger, also for Premier. Further, he was commissioned, by Fox Sports, to design a table for the 2005 MLB All-Star game. It looks as if a physical game was never actually built, but instead the design served as a blueprint for a CGI animation backdrop that appeared in both commercials and lead-ins for the annual meeting of baseball’s greatest stars. Even though the table looks to be a mix of old and new pinball elements (heck, it has both numeric 4-player scoring AND a DMD!), it looks as if the table’s physics are correct in its design. Mr. Trudeau recently stated in an interview that he’d like to take another stab at a baseball pintable, which is a good sign. Besides being one of the true workhorses in the industry with a flair for innovation, Mr. Trudeau’s designs tend to be synonymous with Americana–from the drive-in meta-theme of the Creature from the Black Lagoon to the All-American muscle car theme of Mustang–making him the perfect candidate to take a stab at America’s pastime.

00-base06With Trudeau at the helm, here’s my two cents, for free, on how to successfully theme the game. Just as Creature from the Black Lagoon is not actually about the Creature from the Black Lagoon as it is about the overall drive-in experience, I would NOT theme the game around the traditional rules of baseball, instead, I would suggest basing the game around going to the stadium to WATCH a baseball game. Just as you have to complete drive-in features in Creech (such as necking in the back seat of your car of visiting the snack bar), you could do the very same with the stadium experience: buying your ticket, finding your seat, visiting the concessions, catching a foul ball, watching the hotdog or pirogi race in the fifth inning, participating in the seventh inning stretch and so forth. Only in multi-ball, after loading the bases with three locked balls, would you participate in the more traditional rules of a baseball machine by hitting homers and scoring runs. Further, different modes could send you to different stadiums across the major leagues, like Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park or Wrigley Field…kind of like a cross-country baseball tour, exploring the elements that make each stadium unique. With this approach, you could almost get away without the participation of the players association, as specific athletes wouldn’t play as large a role as they would if the rules revolved around the pitching, hitting and fielding aspects of the game.

It seems like a risky move for Stern to return to the killing fields where they were met with underwhelming results in the past, but if anyone can pull it off, they can in the current climate. If there is one thing Stern likes to do, it’s fishing in the same pond: rock ‘n’ roll, comic books, etc. Needless to say, the MLB title would attract more than just pinheads: anyone with a Yankees or Red Sox themed mancave would jump at the chance to add a pinball machine decked out with the logo of their favourite team. Maybe there is something in place that prevents the MLB licence from being acquired? Perhaps the league wants too much control over the final product or maybe it is just too expensive to make the project financially feasible.  More than likely, music, comic book and film licences are easier to execute. However, it seems like an absolute natural fit for both parties, given that baseball and amusement machines have such a rich history together. With all the fanfare of Opening Day, it would be the perfect time to release the machine. So get cracking, Stern…only eight months remain until the first pitch of the 2015 baseball season…


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MODS: Creech Speaker Panel Follow-Up and Installation!

In one of the very first essay-style articles on Credit Dot, I talked up the impending arrival of the Creature from the Black Lagoon speaker panel mod like it was the second coming of Christ himself. The brainchild of Jeff Thompson, the speaker panel added lights to the “Starlight Drive- In” sign, the moon, the UFO and the tail lights of all the classic cars lined up watching the DMD. Supposedly, it was something that was to be included in production games, but the project went over-budget and it was axed from the final version. Mr. Thompson has now begun asking for payment, and the first few batches of the mod are being installed in Creeches across the globe. Unfortunately, as of writing, it has been indicated by Mr. Thompson that all of the mods have been spoken for. However, perhaps if you e-mail him directly or message him on Pinside (username: thompso9, and be patient for a response), you can be put on a stand-by list, as there are bound to be people who will back out.

The mod as it arrived on my doorstep.

The panel arrived at my door this past week, and it took everything I had to not clear my schedule and install the mod upon arrival. However, things like this are best done when interruptions are minimized, and I waited until Saturday afternoon for installation, when I knew I’d have a chunk of spare time to dedicate. The mod was packaged extremely well. Contents of the box, as it arrived, included: the wooden panel backer with embedded PCB light boards, four new screws to mount the DMD, detailed instructions and the optional vinyl mask for the standard speaker plastic. Not being an owner of the Deluxe “chromed” panel from Classic Playfield Reproductions–and it wasn’t without a couple of failed attempts at trying to track one down in the past few months–I paid the extra ten bucks for the vinyl light mask that would have to be affixed to the back of my current speaker panel overlay. My total cost, shipping and optional vinyl mask included, was $180.00USD.

The sticky black mask peeled back to reveal the red taillights.

If you have the CPR speaker overlay, this step that is not needed, as it will already has the proper masking cut-outs for the lights. If you are using the original that is on your machine, like me, you’ll have to prep the overlay for installation of the $10 vinyl mask. Removing the speaker plastic from the wood panel was the first step and it was extremely easy. Twenty years of age had dried out the adhesive that held the plastic to the original wood. The wood side adhesive may have dried out, but the other side, that affixed the original blackout mask to the plastic was still holding strong. This was by far the most difficult and time consuming step of the entire installation. The blackout mask came off in large sticky strips, leaving behind a stickier film on the printed side of the plastic. In some places, the paper would pull off but leave behind a thin layer of black paper fibre. Despite the difficulty, it was cool to see the red tail lights first appear from under the blackout; they were originally left uncovered by the white paint mask which all but proves for certain that John Trudeau and the art department had visions of lighting them at one point.

The final Goo Gone clean-up.

The most frustrating part of this process is that you cannot use any sort of scraper to aid in removal of the blackout mask, as there is a chance you will damage the back-printed artwork. Thank god for my caveman-like, unkempt fingernails, as they were the perfect tool to lift and scrape the adhesive without damaging the plastic. Goo-Gone was also a godsend, batting cleanup, and removing any left behind adhesive and black paper fibre. A final rinse with soap and water and the panel backside was ready for the vinyl mask.

Installing the vinyl light mask on the original speaker panel. No fancy CPR panel for this guy, unfortunately.

The reason the vinyl mask needs to be applied is that it contains cut-outs that will focus the light from the PCB onto one single area, rather than being diffused and muddy. Thus, getting the cut-outs lined up with the taillights, Starlight sign, moon and UFO is extremely important. The instructions tell of both the wet and dry method of getting the vinyl mask onto the panel. The dry method is pretty much peel the vinyl mask so the sticky side is exposed, stick it onto the panel, remove the second backing and pray that you got it right. Some Pinside users who have purchased the mod have shared that cutting the large mask into smaller, more manageable sections has helped make placement more precise. I, however, left it as one piece and went with the wet method. I soaked the backside of the panel with Windex, peeled the backing so the sticky side was exposed, and placed it sticky side down on the panel. The Windex allowed me to shift and move the mask exactly where I wanted it without the adhesive taking permanent hold. Once properly lined up with the art, I squeegeed out the Windex allowing the adhesive to bond, and then peeled off the second paper backing. It took just one attempt, and it turned out pretty well.

Speaker and hardware configuration of the original wood panel.

The replacement wood panel is made of quality materials and is precision cut. All counter-sunk T-nuts are placed accurately with respect to the original. There is a plastic cut-out used to help focus the cascade effect of the Starlight sign, and on my unit, it had come loose and was floating around in the box. Thankfully, it wasn’t trashed with the packaging materials, and two dabs of glue put the plastic back in place. The rest of the installation was a breeze, as it was just a matter of moving over the speakers, DMD, plastic H-Channel and hardware from the old wood panel to the new one. The only hardware items that do not get recycled are four mounting screws that hold the DMD-–they are replaced by the four long screws included in order to accommodate, I assume, a ColorDMD. Two holes need to be drilled to hold the capacitor and wire clip that are in line with the smaller speaker. I found that they needed to be placed a little higher than their original locations, as to not damage the embedded PCB on the front of the panel. The completed masked plastic overlay from above was affixed to the front of the wood panel with the included 3M double-sided tape, and that finished the changeover.

Old (bottom) vs. New (Top)

Speakers and hardware installed on the new panel. Note the placement of the speaker capacitor and wire clip. Small starter holes for these two screws needed to be drilled with care as to not damage the embedded PCB on the other side.

The panel has a jumper located on the back that will allow the taillights to stay on, or perform dynamically, which makes them turn on an off at random intervals. It is a neat touch. It ships dynamic and I left it that way, but simply moving the jumper over one pin will make the taillights static. I plugged the mod’s four pin connector into J116 as indicated in the instructions. The red, yellow and black cable that runs from the panel has both a female connector plug and male pins on it. The mod’s female connector plugs directly onto the board at J116 (or J117, J118 can also be used), and the female connector originally plugged into the board is connected to the male pins on the panel’s wire. I fired the game up and the panel lit with no issues. It looks as if the panel lights need time to warm up: upon start-up, the DMD will be fully into its attract sequence before dynamic light movement of the Starlight sign and taillights begin.

Wiring hookup via J116.

Start to finish, the installation took less than two hours. I like that this mod is shipped with all the hard stuff done for you. Many DIY modders may feel differently, relishing a challenge. I was very happy that this mod wasn’t shipped as a handful of PCBs to affix onto (and embed into) the original wooden panel. Shipping a plug-and-play wooden panel, complete with reproduction speaker grilles, was the way to go. The embedded lights on the PCBs are nice and bright–the blue of the Starlight sign really pops–and the mask does a good job on focussing the light source. However, as I was installing this, I thought to myself: “Did I just spend $180.00USD for a few small lights on a panel I hardly ever look up at?” I also realized that these funds were about half-way to the price of a ColorDMD, which is the ultimate speaker panel upgrade. I’m kind of torn here. Don’t get me wrong, there is definitely $180.00USD worth of craftsmanship in the mod, and the end product is fantastic, but I’m left to wonder what these lights really add to the game, especially in a game that has so many other mods and upgrades to consider. Look at it this way: if you invested in the CPR Deluxe speaker plastic, this mod AND a ColorDMD, you would be the proud owner of a $700.00USD+ speaker panel. That’s about the price I paid for my Williams Fire! at Allentown this year, for crying out loud.

Voila! The final product.

The interest in the mod is definitely there, and the early reviews have people raving about it. Pinside user nudgefree stated, “To me it ranks right up there with the Tron Arcade mod as ‘Best mod ever,’” while user schlockdoc says “It looks awesome with the Color DMD and deluxe panel. Worth the wait.” I don’t regret my decision of buying in at all: I’m spending more time looking up at the Creech DMD now than I ever did! The game is a keeper for me, so I felt compelled. I have a new set of ramps, plastics and hardware to put onto the game in the near future to make it an above average example, so this mod is the icing on the cake. Given the five year ordeal of getting these panels made, it looked to be now or never for this mod. You’ll probably never see a run of these again, and if they are re-ran by another individual or company, they probably won’t be made with such precision or to such a high standard of quality. This is a package that wouldn’t be easily replicated in a basement or garage by a hobbyist modder, either. I’m thankful that Mr.Thompson has accepted the call and released these speaker panels to a community hungry for this particular mod, and I can’t wait to hear of his future projects (rumoured: Twilight Zone lit speaker panels). All that is left now, I guess, is to start saving my pennies for a ColorDMD to REALLY make this Creech speaker panel complete…

Further Reading:
Pinside – Interest / Advice on CFTBL Speaker Panel LED Mod Re-Run
Credit Dot Pinball (that’s me!) – MODS: Startling! Shocking! Creature From the Unlit Speaker Panel!


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MODS: Startling! Shocking! Creature From the Unlit Speaker Panel!

As if Creature from the Black Lagoon owners didn’t have enough to concern them already–fading hologram, retrofitting pop bumper lights, expensive LCD screen mods, general difficultly in regular maintenance due to an overcrowded playfield–they have forever been plagued with the absence of, or difficulty with, a lit speaker panel. No other game lends itself quite like Creech does for a lit speaker panel; the car taillights, the moon, the UFO and the Starlight Drive-In all beg for lighting from third-party ingenuity. Many have tried to get this project off the ground, but there is no definitive “final form” for Creech owners to install. But there is hope…

There was some indication that the panel was going to be lit right out of the Williams factory back in 1992, but having no impact on the gameplay and bill of materials probably already astronomical, the idea was axed. Ever since collectors started putting these machines in our private homes, the chase was on to find a fully thought out and easy to work with solution to spice up the already busy area around the DMD. Options have been available, and some Creech games do exist with this mod in place. Some folks just went ahead and built their own controller board and mounted their own LEDs, while companies like Pinball Decals and Orbit Pinball have attempted to produce their own makeshift versions, which I’m sure work just fine, but are far from a definitive solution. The price of a Pinball Decals Inc. mod is prohibitive at $400USD. One could use that money to obtain a ColorDMD or a new hologram solution. Here is a video to the Pinball Decals Inc mod fully installed:

Price aside, there was hope for an end-all version. Pinbits–a company whose products quickly become the gold standard of mods soon after release due to their impeccable design and quality–promised a Creech panel mod. However, it has been marred in perpetual development for what seems to be ages. One of the hold ups for Pinbits was re-configuration due to the Classic Playfield Reproductions speaker panel they released in 2010. CPR released three versions of the panel; a true reproduction of the original, an enhanced version with lightblock masking that would work with panel illumination, and a deluxe edition that included the masking along with the added feature of chrome accents. The enhanced and deluxe editions are now sold out. The CPR website specifically notes that the panel was created with the Pinbits mod in mind. There is indication on the Pinbits website that the mod had to be adjusted to agree with differences in the CPR speaker panel plastic. That same page has not been updated for some time with the last entry promising “Design in February, Build in March”. Not sure if this was March 2012, 2013 or 2014; in any case the mod can be considered “past due” from the folks at Pinbits.

Any lighting mods that have arrived over the years have the extra annoyance of not being able to fit on the panel with a ColorDMD. The ColorDMD adds a fantastic new dimension to any of their featured games (Creech seems to be one of the best looking in my opinion) but owners were forced to choose between an intricately lit panel or the amazing coloured animations, as there was little room for both. Workarounds, in the form of spacers, do exist, but did not solve the problem outright. Thus, not only did Pinbits have to redesign what they had due to slight variations in the CPR light mask, they must also make sure their product will work for a collector who wants to run a ColorDMD in the panel. Oh, the problems of integrating modern technology with twenty year old pinball technology.

Creech owners were annoyed at the delay, to be sure, but would have been more up in arms if it wasn’t for PinballMikeD’s Creech Hologram mod that removed the under-playfield hologram altogether and replaced it with an interactive LCD screen. I would argue that this soothed the Creech fanbase, as the design was ingenious and added pop to an area that had been ignored for years. Those that were willing to tinker with panel lighting are the same people that would have an interest in replacing the hologram. A temporary massaging of a sore spot by another example of pin community ingenuity. However, the seed of DMD panel lighting had been planted and someone was going to have to step forward and reap the fertile soil.

With the Pinbits mod in infinite delay, and having some prior experience making light mods, Pinside user Jeff Thompson (thompso9) of Pittsburgh, PA saw a need and posted this about a year and a half ago:

So I just got a bunch of PM’s from RGP as a result of a bump of an old thread about the CFTBL speaker panel mods I made about a year ago. For those of you who aren’t aware of the mod, it is designed to work with the CPR repro speaker panel plastics with the light mask. It lights up the taillights of the cars, the moon, UFO, and chases the Starlight sign. I also offered a peel-and-stick vinyl light mask to be used with the original speaker panel plastic if someone didn’t want to spring for the new panel. I have a video of it in action that I’ll post once I find it again.
It seems there could be enough interest to do another run. I have had some people show interest in a version of this mod that had some lighting effects based on game triggers. So I am interested to know: a) are there are more people who want this mod, b) if there is interest, how much interest is there in a rev 2 mod that will have some lighting effects linked to gameplay, and c) if b, then what kind of effects are you interested in seeing?

Some questions about the mod were answered early on in this six page thread:

1) Can I use the original panel?
Yes, I have created a custom-cut vinyl peel-and-stick mask for using the original speaker panel for $15. The original is set up for backlighting but Bally/WMS applied the black adhesive mask on the back of the panel like they do on many games that completely blacked out the entire panel. This needs to be removed with Goo Gone (or similar) and some elbow grease. If you are willing to do this, then the $15 will save you the cost of the CPR repro panel. Mind you, the CPR panels are very nicely done and the premium version includes the mirrored car bumpers which looks really neat. FYI the video I posted is of my original panel with the light mask as I scratched the crap out of my CPR repro during the development process (there are lots of sharp things in my workshop).
2) What is included?
The panel itself is baltic birch plywood (not cheap MDF like the original), painted black and custom routed to contain the PCBs and other hardware from the original panel. You’ll need to transfer over all the metal parts, except t-nuts and display mounting screws, which are already installed, to the new panel. Speaker grilles are also included since the cutting of these is pretty intricate to create openings for the LEDS and i didn’t want people to be cursing as they accidentally cut too much off their originals, or cut them jagged and scratched the artwork on the panel, anyway you get the idea. There is a plug and pass-through connector that plugs onto one of the +5V connectors on the power driver board. That’s basically it. I will post the installation instructions for the kit when I get a chance so you can all see how it will go.

This looked promising. Finally a version of the mod that would take into consideration all the trouble areas that have popped up, work with the existing CPR panels if you were able to get one and also work with the panel currently in your machine if a CPR version eluded your grasp. On top of that, the mod promised a dynamic light show during game play. A version was shipped by Mr. Thompson about six months after the original announcement, and folks seemed genuinely happy with it. There are a slew of people waiting for the next revision of the mod as well–wading through the “I’m in!” posts in the original thread to find actual information about the progress is a frustrating task. An upcoming revised version of the panel mod, which could end up being the ultimate definitive version, is still unshipped at the time of writing, but unlike the Pinbits mod, an end seems to be in sight. An update was given by Mr. Thompson three months back outlining the revisions and price:

I figure this is the best way to get word out that the latest run of CFTBL speaker panel LED kits is going to be available very soon. PCBs are on order now and parts are coming in for the new build.
Here are the changes/improvements in this latest revision:
1) All connectors encapsulated in the panel: ColorDMD and other mods should fit without interference now due to the fact that there is no wire harness connecting the LED boards together externally. Everything is done inside the cavities in the panel now and won’t even be visible from the back anymore (save the power entry connector).
2) Jumper-selectable taillight behavior: A jumper will configure whether the taillights are always on or dynamic.
3) Thinner PCBs: This will move the LED boards back from the bezel a bit and allow the light to spread out more to reduce pinpoint brightness issues.
As before the panel still supports game integration features that I have been dragging my feet on implementing. I have a PCB design that should do the trick and need to get that done after these ship.
Price is $149. I know this is a bit more than last time but costs never seem to go down anymore, everything costs more each time I do this. Shipping is generally via USPS Priority Mail for $15 anywhere in the contiguous US, but I do also ship elsewhere, at various rates.
Shipping will occur in groups as soon as I get the PCBs back from the assembler. This is the biggest unknown right now as this is not a huge job for them and they need to squeeze it in between other stuff. But things are on track and I want to make sure everyone knows that this next batch is definitely going to happen.


That isn’t a typo. $149USD for the painted wood panel with lighting installed, complete with a PCB, speaker grilles and room for a ColorDMD. Another $15 for a light mask if you don’t have the CPR panel. Plus $15 to ship it all. People were practically crawling over each other to give Mr. Thompson their PIN numbers. Joking aside, this looks to be the grand finale of a very long journey at a price and quality that certainly blows any version that currently exists right out of the water. I started writing this post a few days ago, then finally, last night, as if Mr. Thompson knew my essay needed a happy ending:

The wait is over! CFTBL panels are slated to start shipping this month! I’ll be notifying the first shipping group by email (or Pinside mail, whichever I happen to have on file) in the next 2 weeks. The emails will include payment instructions and a serial # to help me match up people with panels.
Here are some pics of a finished panel. You’ll see in the pictures below that there is a new component added to the design, a light block to prevent bleed from letter to letter over the Starlight sign. This, in my opinion, was needed because of the change over to the white circuit boards, and because the boards are now further back from the panel plastic. While this spreads the light out more and fights “hotspots” in the lighting, it does also give the light more opportunity to bleed over to neighboring areas where it doesn’t belong. With the addition of the light block the sign looks much more crisp during animation.
What’s really cool is the view from the inside of the panel – no wires save for the power connector! Everything is wide open for ColorDMD to lay down flat with no interference.
Thanks for your patience, everyone. This has been the biggest batch of panels yet and I’ve brought some other people into the process so we can get LED panels for some other titles out there as well. TZ is a likely next game but others have been discussed. Suggestions are welcome.

As far as I know, as a Creech owner, I’m on the list to get this mod. I’ll be watching my inbox feverishly. I don’t have the CPR Enhanced or Deluxe plastic panel, so I’m going the light mask/tape removal route. I shouldn’t count my chickens before they hatch through, from what I can decipher, I’m pretty far down the list (I hope I don’t get bumped). All signs point to a happy ending for this sordid, four year mod soap opera for everyone involved. However there will still be folks adding Creech machines to their collections in the future, and those people will be out in the cold, mod-less, unless Mr. Thompson decides to run another batch. For owners, was it worth going down this road in the first place? Spending money on inferior light mods that no longer cut the mustard? Buying speaker panels in anticipation of mod production? Belly aching about the various delays? I’ve only owned my Creech machine for five months or so, so I’m not as invested as some owners that have been waiting years…but I’ll make sure to follow up in a few months with an answer if and when I get my hands on one…

Further Reading:
Pinside – Interest/Advice on CFTBL Speaker Panel LED Mod Re-Run
Pinside – Update on CFTBL Light Mod
Classic Playfield Reproductions – Creature Backbox Speaker Panels Photo Gallery
Kansas Pinball – Creature from the Black Lagoon DMD Panel Mod Page
Pinball Decals Inc. – CFTBL Tail Light Mod
Pinbits – CFTBL Tail Light LED Kit
Pinball Mike D – CFTBL Hologram Mod