CREDIT DOT

Mapping pinball trends for the casual enthusiast…


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REVIEW: Pinitech’s Retrofit Conversion LED Display Kit

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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. Given the sheer number of games originally produced during the 1977 to 1984 run by Bally and Stern, the survival rate is very high and there is a great demand for reproduction parts to keep these games running properly.  This is the second 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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If you are a collector of Bally /Stern games from the 80s, chances are you’ve encountered some displays with “bad glass”, wherein the digits or segments of the digits inside the glass tube no longer function properly. Perhaps a portion of the digit won’t fully light up. Perhaps it won’t light at all. Such issues could be attributed to bad components on the display’s circuit board, but if you are suffering from bad glass/out-gassing, you’ll know it. Short of finding replacement glass, it renders the entire display, including its accompanying circuit board, useless. More often than not, you’d need to track down a single working display, or just give in and replace the whole set with an LED aftermarket solution costing upwards of $200USD.

Collect enough Bally/Stern games and you’re bound to end up with a handful of non-functioning displays with burnt out glass. Now, thanks to Pinitech’s Retrofit Conversion LED Display Kit, you can use these out-gassed displays to manufacture a set of fully functioning, lower-voltage LED displays. The Retrofit kit contains a new display circuit board and LED digits to replace the glass tube, and a variety of electrical components that need to be substituted for components on the original Bally/Stern circuit board. This kit is a DIY solution, and does require some skill at soldering and de-soldering circuit board components.

If you haven’t already figured it out, this isn’t a solution for everyone. First, you need to have a set of out-gassed donor displays on hand.  A novice collector probably won’t have an entire set kicking around, so there would be the extra expense (and bother) of finding and buying a set of dead displays to use in conjunction with the Retrofit kit. And second, you’re going to need the time, skill and proper tools to perform the conversion. Those looking for a plug and play solution need to look elsewhere. There are plenty of aftermarket plug and play options available (both Rottendog and XPin have 6- and 7-digit display sets available). For those looking to recycle their electronic waste and don’t mind getting their hands dirty performing the conversion, the Retrofit results in a great looking display at a price that can’t be beat.

The Retrofit Conversion LED Display Kit was originally introduced about a year ago by Pinitech, LLC. The project was rolled out for beta testing in late-July 2016, followed by a general release a month or so later. Wayne Eggert is the proprietor of Pinitech, and the rise of his company as an aftermarket pinball solution brand is best described in his own words:

“Pinitech has been around since 2014. I started selling NVram using generic boards back in 2012, but began doing custom boards in 2013 for a more professional look. After learning the ropes some with PCB design, I moved on to creating some diagnostic tools I wanted for my own personal use. I funded the projects by selling extra boards that I had created. Through 2016, I’ve mostly just offered diagnostic tools and NVram, but I’m now branching out into other products like the Bally/Stern Retrofit Conversion Kits.”

Not only does Pinitech help the pinball community by offering products designed to keep our games running efficiently, Mr. Eggert is also a Pinside mainstay, posting as “acebathound”, and can frequently be found patrolling the tech help threads, offering solutions and suggestions to collectors with malfunctioning machines.

RETROFIT PRICING & OPTIONS

Pinitech offers three base display colours in both 6- and 7-digit Retrofit kits—blue, white and amber. The latter closely resembles the original colour of the Bally/Stern displays, while the white can be used in conjunction with about a dozen colour filter options to customize the display to your tastes. The pricing for one kit, for a standard game with four score displays and one credit display, as of July 2017, is as follows:

  • 6-Digit Displays in BLUE – $89.95USD/set
  • 7-Digit Displays in BLUE – $94.95USD/set
  • 6-Digit Displays in AMBER – $84.95USD/set
  • 7-Digit Displays in AMBER – $89.95USD/set
  • 6-Digit Displays in WHITE (includes 1 colour filter) – $94.95USD/set
  • 7-Digit Displays in WHITE (includes 1 colour filter) – $99.95USD/set
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The contents of a 7-Digit Retrofit LED Display Kit

For those games with an odd-number of displays, like Six Million Dollar Man with six score displays or Elektra with an extra bonus units display, Pinitech will sell individual display kits to supplement the above complete packages. As you can see from the pricing structure, using the existing display PCB from an out-gassed display, and building the kit on your own results in quite the savings compared to other options on the market.

Other display options check in at about twice the price. Rottendog offers 6- and 7-digit amber display sets, which come fully assembled and are plug and play, and are $199USD, while XPin’s sells their amber displays individually, also plug and play, and are $54.95USD each (that’s $274.75USD for an entire set). Wolffpac Technologies offers a similar DIY display kit, requiring no donor display, and will set you back $144.95USD for a 6-digit amber set that you will have to assemble yourself.

If you have a set of dead displays lying around, the Retrofit solution is a no-brainer. Not only is it the most affordable option on the market, you can customize the colour of the displays to suit your game without breaking the bank. A colour upgrade isn’t available for the Rottendog set.  You’ll pay $20USD more per display (or, $100 more per set) to get the XPin colour option, which ships with red, green and blue gels to add colour to the base white display.

BUILDING THE RETROFIT DISPLAY

The displays come with a set of detailed instructions–and it is my opinion, that even the most novice of PCB tinkerers won’t have a problem making the conversion. The first thing I did when setting into the conversion process is to remove pin #1 on the header pins of each individual displays. This step is so important, it is mentioned about a dozen times throughout the written instructions. Pin #1 sends high voltage to the display, which is no longer needed with the low voltage LED conversion. I didn’t chance cutting the pin off, I de-soldered the pin and pulled it out completely on the entire set of displays before I even began.

You have a couple of ways of replacing some of the PCB components for the conversion: removing them completely and installing the new component, or installing them in parallel, which will basically piggyback the new component onto the old component on the solder side of the board.  I would recommend the former of the two options, as it gives the project a much cleaner look overall and allows less margin for error.  I used a Hakko 808 desoldering tool (now being sold as the Hakko FR-300 Desoldering Tool) to completely remove old components from the board, and then soldered in the new with a temperature controlled soldering iron.  The de-soldering tool isn’t a must, but it nearly guarantees a clean pull of all the old solder, freeing up the old components and preventing the chance of pulling or breaking traces.  You’ll be removing more than sixty points of solder for just one display, so having a de-soldering tool in your toolbox is a sound $200USD investment if you don’t have one already.  In total, for each board, you are replacing 7 or 8 transistors, and four sets of 6, 7 or 8 resistors, depending on if the display is six- or seven-digits.  I was methodical in my approach, and removed one set of resistors from my board, and installed the new components before moving onto another set.  Otherwise, I thought it would get pretty confusing keeping track of a bunch of empty resistor holes and following the Pinitech cheat sheet of what goes where.  The placement of the resistors on the board is somewhat logical, but in some cases, like in any PCB board design, the component is placed where it fits to minimize space, and not where it should logically be placed.

To make things even more interesting, Bally and Stern had many revisions of the display board throughout the ten year run of their classic games, so depending on which version of display you have, the parts that need to be replaced will be in different positions on the board.  The community has accounted for this, and the Pinside thread dedicated to the Retrofit displays has identified the majority of the different board revisions, giving the DIY-er a visual cheat sheet to identify which components need to be replaced.

The points of contact for the old glass need to be removed from the component board completely, or need to be cut close to the old glass so the old metal tab connectors can be affixed to the new upright display board. To the new upright display board that will replace the glass, you’ll need to attach the LED digits, which have eight contact points per digit that need to be soldered.

Once the two boards are affixed together using the provided brackets, you can solder the metal tab connectors to the display board or use the new angle connectors provided if your original tabs were manged or missing.  The angle connectors provide a cleaner look overall, but it requires a bit more effort to install. To finish up, you’ll need to choose a way to jumper the 5V line to the high voltage line. Again there are a number of ways to do this, but each involves a jumper wire from one point of contact to another on the solder side of the display PCB. This step is the only time in the whole process that the conversion would appear to be “hackish”.  None of the points of contact are near each other, so the user will just have to pick one that they think looks the least invasive.

The instructions outline how to test the display on the bench using a 5V power supply, or, if you are feeling brave, and have triple checked your work, you can install it into your machine and watch the cool lights of the LED display its segmented numbers.  If for some reason segments don’t light, the guide will help you troubleshoot the problem.  I had two digits that refused to light on one display, which ended up being a couple of bad digit drivers.  Luckily, Pinitech has accounted for these bad components (they are ones that are not replaced in the conversion) and includes a small number of extra 2N5401 transistors as backup.

AN INTERVIEW WITH PINITECH

I was one of the beta testers for the Retrofit kit when it was first introduced, and since that time, I’ve known Mr. Eggert from Pinitech to be helpful and very personable when it came to his products and the hobby in general.  I thought I would give him a forum here to explain the nuances of the project in his own words.  The questions I posed to him appear in bold below:

Credit Dot: When did you first discover that the Retrofit kit would be something that could be successful in the market?

Wayne Eggert: “I created a Pinside thread to judge interest on the idea and decided that I’d use the thread to seal the fate of the project.  There was a reasonable amount of interest right off the bat, especially considering it was such a niche project.  The excitement in that thread was indication that at least a dozen or two of the conversion kits would sell.”

CD: How long did the research and development portion of the Retrofit project take?

WE: “R&D was most of the first quarter of 2016 and then another couple of months later in the year.  A couple of weeks alone were dedicated to figuring out how to do load testing and to get a baseline for what to expect for current usage with and without LED displays on Classic Bally/Stern machines.  A prototype was cooked up and the next major step was figuring out if there was a way to create an efficient conversion design. If that couldn’t happen, there was no reason to pursue the project further.”

CD: The circuit boards attached to the display glass on the original Bally/Stern displays came to market with many different designs over the years.  Was there difficulty accounting for all of the different configurations of boards out there?

WE: “Definitely.  Working within the parameters of the old boards made it a huge challenge–and part of that was due to quite a few different display revisions over the years.  Whatever I came up with had to work with all the revisions.  Not only that, but it had to allow people to mix-and-match displays of various revisions without any noticeable differences in brightness or functionality.  Many hours were spent gathering schematics and actual display boards for each revision, and many more looking at everything as a whole and creating a conversion circuit that would work for all of them.”

CD: What unique elements of the original Bally/Stern design allowed the conversion to be possible?

WE: “Since the old display driver circuits used many resistors and transistors, it made it easy to swap those components out for different values.  For instance, if I couldn’t swap transistors for mosfets, the 4543 would have been over-driven on its outputs.  Had the drivers been dedicated ICs unique to plasma displays, the conversion may not have been possible at all.

There were quite a few things along the way that could have derailed the project completely.  I could easily list over a dozen snags I hit in the design, but somehow for every one of those snags I was able to find a solution.  Even just the screw hole locations for the plasma glass display bracket on the component board couldn’t have worked out any better.  The new LED display panel had to sit at pretty much an exact location and I lucked out and found a right angle 90 degree threaded bracket that worked.  Too far forward and it would have caused the digits to hit the backglass, too far back and there would have been clearance issues with the digit drivers on 7-digit Bally displays.  It amazed me that the entire project went this way.  There was lots of nail-biting and thoughts of canceling the project, but in the end, a solution for everything materialized.  Maybe that happens when you REALLY want a solution, and you find a way get there!”

CD: The converted displays tap into the 5V power supply, bypassing the high voltage needed to power the original displays.  Do the converted Retrofit displays tax the 5V line in any manner significant enough to impede the machine’s performance?

WE: “I definitely didn’t want to create something that would cause a lot of extra load to be added to the 5v regulator.  If I couldn’t get the conversion displays to match the efficiency of a normal aftermarket LED display set, there was no sense in doing them.  I’m proud to say the conversion displays match or beat efficiency of most of the other LED displays on the market.  Not bad for old-school technology!”

CD: What advantages does the Retrofit kit offer over the other aftermarket display systems available on the market?

WE: “The single largest draw is price-point.  But I think the idea of using existing boards is also a major advantage.  Lots of people had old boards sitting around “for parts” that were collecting dust.  This is a way to turn them into something useful again, gain space, save money and create some great looking LED displays!  At the time, these conversion kits were also the only budget way of getting WHITE LED displays that could be used with color filters for unlimited color choices–at about one-third the cost of the other option on the market.

There are other advantages that people see once they assemble a set.  The displays look professional.  Everything lines up nicely and everything from the instructions, to the PCB design, to the circuits themselves, were looked at in detail and has professional polish.  I’ve been told by several people that the aesthetics are better than anything else on the market.  It’s cool hearing that, considering people are comparing these conversion kits to plug-and-play aftermarket displays.”

Many of the products on your site are available in DIY form, where the end user assembles the product themselves. Have you seen an increase in hobbyists wanting DIY kits?  As the hobby grows, are you seeing the skill set of the common hobbyist mature?

“I think the interest is growing in DIY kits.  It’ll never be on-par with plug-and-play, but having kits available like this with clear instructions that allow someone to assemble without frustration the first time helps grow the demand for DIY options.  When things are frustrating or unclear it becomes a major deterrent. These conversion kits are definitely on the more difficult end of DIY, but even so, I tried to make them as user-friendly as possible.

Pinball these days is an expensive hobby and DIY is a way to save a few bucks.  Pair that with the accomplishment you feel successfully building something.  It’s built into us, especially guys, I think–we like to build.  But the advantages are far greater: the skills learned in a Pinitech DIY project are transferable to other aspects of the hobby.  Improved soldering techniques, desoldering techniques, troubleshooting–it all helps create confidence and knowledge that could come in handy down the road.”

Your main pinball interest seems to lie in the early solid-state games of Bally and Stern.  The majority of your products at Pinitech cater to that era.  Does your interest in pinball span all eras of machines?  What are some of your favorite Bally/Stern titles?

“Funny you say that.  I often think about how anyone that is checking out products I sell, at least up until this point, is definitely going to think I’m only into Classic Bally/Stern machines.  I actually enjoy most games from the early 80’s to present day releases.  Anything with better sound and more complicated rule sets, than the very early solid state games, I enjoy.  I’m definitely a big fan of Data East, Williams System 11 & WPC.  I’ve done more with diagnostic tools for Bally/Stern because I started out with those machines early-on in the hobby.  They’ve always been more affordable, and there’s a lot of neat titles and artwork in that era of games.  They’re very approachable from an electronics standpoint, too.

Two of my current favorites for Bally titles are Xenon and Mr. & Mrs. Pac-Man.  I think it’s mostly nostalgia that does it for me on Mr. & Mrs. Pac-Man, but it helps it’s also a later Bally with more going on and better sound.  I’m itching to get LED displays installed in that machine.  It’s been sitting folded up for five years and I think it’ll look really cool with blue, red or yellow displays.  Or maybe a mix of all three colors!”

THE RETROFIT BOTTOM LINE

I’ve performed the conversion on two sets of displays with dead glass–a six-digit conversion for a Stern Stars and a seven-digit conversion for a Stern Star Gazer. If focused, and I kept to the task, I could have one display converted in about thirty minutes.  Overall, I am very happy with how the displays look in the games.  The numbers are nice and robust, and are crisp and bright without being blinding and looking out of place.  I went with blue displays for both Stars and Star Gazer–they were the most affordable, and fit the overall colour scheme of both titles.  The Stars came with four dead displays out of the five, while the Star Gazer came with no displays at all, but I was able to find someone to sell me a set of dead 7-digit displays for $20.  Would I convert a set of displays for the sake of converting to low-voltage LED if the displays worked properly?  Absolutely not, but it is a nice option to have when a set of displays with bad glass presents itself. The final product is robust and professional looking, especially considering it is a DIY project that uses original parts from the 1980s. This project is extremely affordable, compared to the other options on the market, and further, it feels good to take something that would otherwise be junk and put it back into service.

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FURTHER READING

Pinitech – Classic Bally/Stern Conversion LED Display Kit
Pinitech – Retrofit Photo Gallery
Pinside – RETROFIT Classic Bally/Stern DIY Plasma-to-LED Conversion Display Kits


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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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PEOPLE: Art from Comet Pinball

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If you are going to change your incandescent bulbs to the brighter, more versatile, and more efficient light emitting diode bulbs (LEDs), you’ve got lots of options out there–in both LED style and the vendors who offer them.  The choice can be absolutely overwhelming.  And there is pressure to get it done right the first time…to completely LED a pingame with a pre-made kit through most LED vendors, it is going to cost you upwards of $200USD.  In most cases, it is worth it, providing a fresh facelift to an otherwise tired-looking game.  I subscribe to the LED philosophy “LESS IS MORE”, choosing to dot my general illumination, controlled inserts and backbox sparingly with LED bulbs, holding back on the use of excessive colour and blinding brightness.  To date, all my LED needs have been filled by Arthur Haber at Comet Pinball.  I placed my first order with Mr. Haber shortly after he opened for business, and I immediately got that warm and fuzzy feeling that I had ordered from the right place.  Mr. Haber called (yes, on a telephone landline) to personally thank me for my order, which completely blew my mind…to think that kind of personal service still existed.  Days later the LEDs were at my door complete with a few free extras, which included a small sampler pack of Comet products to try out in different areas of my games.  Comet Pinball, in my opinion, is the leader in online LED sales, offering a quality product, a wide range of options to fit your modding needs and absolutely unbeatable pricing.  Comet Pinball does not offer $200 cookie-cutter kits.  Rather, the site promotes experimentation and lighting the game to your own personal tastes, and in doing so will hit a price point that is much less than the cost of a pre-made kit.  Mr. Haber is no stranger to me, we e-mail often, so it was only natural I ask him a few questions about his business and the state of the pinball LED union.

Credit Dot: How long has Comet LED been in operation?

Arthur Haber: The official website launch was September 2013, so we just celebrated our official “one year” anniversary.

CD: How did you get into the LED business?

AH: I had started experimenting with LEDs and Pinballs as far back as 1976.  I started tinkering with LEDs and adding lights to pachinko and pinball machines.  I was 16; they kept me entertained.  Much later, maybe six years ago, I became more involved with lighting up machines, but mostly for my own needs. I felt there was a need for certain bulbs and lighting that were not available in the market.

CD: Do you have a background in electronics?

AH: None whatsoever, but I am learning fast. My background is in manufacturing, product development, and inventory management.

CD: Putting lighting aside for a minute, how did you become interested in the pinball hobby?

AH: I spent my childhood by the Rockaway Boardwalk. There were pictures of me playing Bingo Pinball, at about the age of three.  I must have been eight years old, back in 1968, when I dropped my first nickel in a pinball machine.  I’ve been pretty much hooked for 46 years now.

CD: Does the “Comet” name derive from the colourful 80s Williams machine of the same name?

AH: In part, yes…but I also collect meteorites so a lot of the meaning derives from that.

CD: Where are your LEDs manufactured?

AH: The majority of the product line is assembled in China; many components are from Singapore, Taiwan, and a few pieces from Malaysia.

CD: What is communication like with a factory on the other side of the world?

AH: Communication can be difficult sometimes–it reminds me when I ordered “red” and received “orange”, they thought they nailed it, but it was an unacceptable error to pass it on to my customers…many emails ensued.  Mostly, it’s the time difference that is problematic…it means I am working until 4 AM.  However, it is rewarding to learn about other cultures.

CD: What factors do you take into consideration when developing new products?

AH: I suppose it starts with looking at specific games, and finding that a different lighting solution is needed than is currently offered in the marketplace.  In most cases, those solutions boil down to brightness and direction of throw.  Many ideas for new products spring from the minds of fellow pinheads, and I’m grateful for all their help and suggestions.

CD: So customer opinion and feedback greatly influence the development of new products?

AH: Quite significantly. It has taken me a while to realize that any product will ride the full bell curve of opinion, but finding compromise is what I shoot for in many circumstances.

CD: What is the development process like for you? Do you just dream it up and have the factory build it, or is there more to it on your end?

AH: There really isn’t any set way.  Sometimes, it starts with a sketch and then countless emails with the manufacturer to prototype the idea.  Other times it’s an adaption of an existing product. I have sampled anything and everything unique in the world of LEDs I could find to see if they would have a viable use in pinball.  From LEDs in sneakers, to military surplus–LEDs are now everywhere.  I have toyed with everything from bicycle motion LEDs to Chinese military flashlight bulbs.

CD: Competition is stiff in the LED world with lots of companies offering lighting solutions. What sets Comet apart?

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A Comet Pinball exclusive: the extremely versatile SMD light strips, available in both 3SMD and 7SMD versions in a variety of colours.

AH: First, I hope people see our website uses a more efficient way of ordering.  In entering a 3 page bulb order, there will be a massive amount of time saving compared to our competitors ordering systems.  Our choice of product also sets us apart.  Most vendors have offered three brightness levels, whereas we boast a dozen levels of brightness.  We have a vast selection of exclusive products found nowhere else: our Op-Max double patented bulb throwing over 300 degrees of light, our 6.3V Colored LED Strips, and our Superflux line just to name a few.  We also simply strive to have the lowest price we can and offer low shipping of $3.95, and free shipping with orders over $99.  Finally, we have a different approach to lighting.  The standard method has been the same size bulb everywhere in a game. By working with light brightness and throw, our philosophy is to control the lighting to one’s taste and work with different bulbs and brightness to create depth of field.

CD: How can you achieve true depth of field with LEDs?

AH: Put brighter bulbs in the back of a game, it is amazing what 2-4 Op-Max can do in the back of a playfield in newer games with plastic layers.

CD: You have a fierce commitment to keeping prices low.  How do you keep your prices so competitive?

AH: To toot my own horn a bit, it starts with being a good buyer. I already have factory production in four countries in the East; sourcing was done with the help of workers living in production centers. Business references were already tenured. Having a detailed Inventory Control system here keeps us efficient and prices low.

CD: A few hours after placing my first order, my telephone rang, and it was you, calling to say thank you for my order…and we then proceeded to shoot the breeze about pinball games for a half-an-hour!  Can you describe your unique approach to customer service?

AH: That is likely best described as “getting old”!  In my business and personal life, the Golden Rule (“Treat others how you’d like to be treated”) was what I was taught by my father, and taught to him by his father. I love pinball, and while this is a business, I still wish to keep it a hobby and a joy.  In that regard, I see every order that comes through, and will e-mail, or call, based on something I see.  We check each order to ensure customers received all possible discounts, and follow up if we see any anomalies.  Also, I’m hoping this to be a “retirement business”.  When I retire, I’ll be able to travel the country in an RV, and visit all my new pinhead friends I’ve gained through the business!

CD: You are an active member on Pinside.  Does this play a big part in promoting the business? Are there any challenges to being the owner of the company AND being a member of a public forum in such a small, tight-knit community?

AH: Pinside is a great community of pinheads!  Sharing my products with others like me makes me feel great, and indeed, is invaluable to the business side of things.  While I was advised not to do it this way, I had to go with my gut, which was to approach it honestly. With many other great vendors out there, only through mutual success can we best serve the hobby.  I describe my Pinside persona as “open”: my ears and eyes are open to the community to hear and observe their needs and respond to their feedback.  Certainly there are business bumps such as differences of opinion. 

CD: You said to me once that LED use (and degree of LED use) is a very personal preference and a highly customizable experience. Is this the reason why you do not offer stock kits of LEDs for popular games?

AH: That is one very good reason. Personal preferences start with the player…their age, their eyes, and their tastes are all factors.  Next, you have to consider ambient lighting: are you playing with the lights on or off?   A kit addresses only one view and that is fine in many cases.  It is not hard to learn what brightness and lighting effects please an individual. The joy of doing this, and the unique result, is as personal as decorating a Christmas tree.  I would like to think that most people would enjoy tweaking the look of their game immensely and having a completely unique result!  However, it is also about cost.  While you can save money purchasing a kit, if you purchase in bulk, you can save so much more–sometimes up to 50% less.

CD: Since you do not offer kits, what advice can you give or sampler packages can you recommend to potential customers who want to explore the LEDs you have to offer?

AH: We are working on some additional information for the site, which we hope will serve as a good guide.  Basically, it starts all with experimentation, and ends with having a few different types of each bulb handy to see what works best.

CD: The LED detractors’ biggest complaint about LED use is “ghosting”. I’m under the understanding that this is a general term that is used to describe multiple phenomena–ghost, strobe, flicker. Can you briefly describe the difference between them, and what products you have available to combat these annoyances.

AH: The technical difference for all these issues is pretty robust.  But ghosting specifically is low residual current, still in the “line” that causes a few insert lights to faintly light when using LEDs.  Bulbs deemed “non-ghosting” exist with several different methods of restricting this leftover voltage, keeping the bulb and insert truly “OFF” when they are supposed to be.  Games, on average, can have from 2-8 bulbs that ghost.  We carry two types of non-ghosting bulbs: Optix Super Flux, which is a no-ghost/no-flicker/reduced strobing bulb specifically for inserts, and a high quality non-ghosting product in three, and soon four, different types and brightness.

CD: What is your best-selling bulb?

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LED (light emitting diode) bulbs on the left which have the light source encapsulated in a plastic lens versus the SMD (surface mounted diode) on the right which have their light source mounted directly on the face.

AH: In single LEDs, it is the dome or bullet shape.  Despite this, my personal favorite is still the flat-top bulb.  In SMD, a standard 5050 frosted sells the best–it is the same bulb used in most “kits”.  However, this is quickly being replaced by the twin 2835 SMD, the bulb used in Star Trek and the Walking Dead which is much, much brighter than standard bulbs!  This allows inserts in yellow and orange to finally use yellow and orange bulbs and achieve a richer color rather than using 5050 Warm whites.  Our Sunlight color, an exclusive, is the Kelvin between warm and natural white has been flying off the shelves as it is the perfect color for every game–just soft enough to reduce harshness, but still provides plenty of pop.

CD: Can you offer any general tips or rules of thumb when experimenting with LEDs?

AH: Set your baseline brightness for your general illumination first.  Some pinball themes lend themselves to be bright, others to be naturally dark.  Do you wish to play in the dark?  Are your eyes sensitive to LEDs?  These answers will allow you to choose the best brightness for general illumination.  The inserts, as a general rule of thumb, should always be color matched, and we recommend brighter bulbs for larger inserts: a two SMD Faceted or 4 SMD to fill the whole insert with light.  Backboxes are fun. For some backglass art you can use just one brightness, others have certain graphics that you’ll want to create a 3-D depth of field lighting by mixing several brightness levels to control light and shadow.   LED and SMD lighting can really make the backbox art POP!

CD: Can you give us a sneak peak at what is on the horizon for Comet?

AH: We are always playing with new stuff. We have launched some twenty new products in one month!  We are currently trying to solve an issue with our 6.3V RGB strips.  We are also testing LEDs designed specifically for older Stern and Bally games that require a board addition.  And a few secret things I can’t tell you about, too.  As for promotions, stay tuned for a wild a crazy Black Friday Sale…

CD: Any closing words of advice for the pinball community?

AH: I think  following my personal motto goes a long way: “It’s Pinball! Have fun! Don’t take the hobby so seriously!”

Please visit Comet Pinball at http://www.cometpinball.com.  Mr. Haber can be reached at admin@cometpinball.com or can be found posting on Pinside under the handle “OLDPINGUY”.