Spy Hunter Pinball Machine, Bally (1984)

Location: Lone Tree, Colorado

The owner had done some previous work on the sound board because it was blowing fuses.

When replacing capacitors, diodes, and ROMs, always double check the polarity.

When replacing capacitors, diodes, and ROMs, always double check the polarity.

Backwards ROMs.  The notch in end edge of the ROM chip should align with the notch in the socket and silkscreen image on the board.

Backwards ROMs. The notch in end edge of the ROM chip should align with the notch in the socket and silkscreen image on the board.

I determined that the 6803 controller was bad, as well as one of the ROMs.

Diodes across coils on solid state pinball machines

I read so much false information on pinball related sites when it comes to technical electronic information.  Even on sites such as Pinwiki and Pinside there is usually about 50% to 70% misinformation.  These people state these false facts with such authority.  I worry about the people who believe it. (But hey, this is the internet.  You have to take everything you read with a grain of salt.)

I should start a regular feature here called False Facts.

Today’s false fact: Diodes are connected to flipper coils to help them release faster.

Actually, it’s just the opposite.  The flippers would release faster if the diodes were removed.  I’ll explain why in a second.  But first, don’t even think about removing your diodes to improve flipper response.

The diodes are there to suppress the voltage that is generated when the magnetic field of the coil collapses, after the power is removed from the coil.  This applies to coils that are powered by a DC voltage, which would be all solid state machines and a few of the later EM machines.

OK. So here is the slow motion version of what’s happening.  You press the flipper button and power is applied to the coil. Actually there are two windings in the coil, one strong one for “pull-in”, and a weaker one for “hold”, but just pretend for this discussion there is only one.  In most machines, the flipper button is in the ground circuit of the coil. The power supply voltage passes through the coil, through the switch, to ground. The magnetic field builds up and pulls in the plunger.  This takes a little bit of time, maybe 20-50 milliseconds (I’ve never measured it on a flipper coil).

(This is simplified.  Usually there is also a relay involved to keep the flippers off when the machine isn’t playing a game.  And the Williams Fliptronic system adds quite a bit more complexity to the scenario.  I’m going to omit the phase relationships between voltage and current. I’m also going to refer to current flow from positive to negative.)

A regular diode allows the current to flow in only one direction, like a one-way check valve. When the coil is energized, there is no current flow through the diode because the current is going in the opposite direction for which the diode is installed.  If you were to turn the diode around, all of the current would flow through the diode and not the coil, causing a short and likely burning up the diode. So at this point the diode is invisible to the coil.

As long as current is flowing though the coil, a magnetic field is maintained.  When you release the flipper button, power is removed from the coil.  But due to a variety of factors, including the plunger being inside the coil, it takes a little bit of time for that magnetic field to collapse. As the magnetic field collapses, it generates a current in the coil in the opposite direction that was used to create the magnetic field.  So for a brief time, the current starts running backwards.  Since it’s now going in the opposite direction, it goes though the diode to the other side of the coil causing a momentary short across the coil.  This short dissipates the power until the magnetic field is gone and the plunger is released.  But the point is, for a brief time, there is still current flowing in the circuit, through the diode, after the button is released and a magnetic field is still holding the plunger.

If the diode was removed, the magnetic field collapses, but there is no current flow because there is open circuit and no place for the electrons to go. Instead the voltage keeps rising and rising across the coil until it arcs across the switch contacts or sends a big voltage spike into the rest of the pinball machine. (This is basically how sparks are created across spark plugs in your automobile engine.)

But since there is no current flow (very little anyway) the magnetic field goes away faster and the plunger releases faster.  But as mentioned, the downside is a voltage spike, which can cause havoc in a solid state machine.

So that is why the diodes are installed across every coil in the pinball machine, to reduce the voltage spikes.

There are no diodes in EM machines because they are running on AC instead of DC.  The voltage is lower to begin with and the coils not as strong, there isn’t much of a spike.  But it could be suppressed with a resistor and capacitor across every coil (called a snubber).

Now… there is a way to decrease the release time of flippers, but I’ve not tried it.  And I’m not sure how noticeable it would be and don’t recommend it. Replace each regular diode with two zener diodes in series, back to back (opposite polarity).  The diodes would need to be rated at the maximum voltage seen by the flipper coils (about 70V for a 50V system) and a current rating of 2-3 amps. A voltage spike will still be generated, but it will be a bit more controlled and may still cause havoc with a solid state machine.  This is how fuel injectors in an engine are handled (essentially a coil and a plunger, just like a flipper) and those are switching on and off at a very rapid rate.

Medusa Pinball Machine (Bally, 1981), LED upgrade

Most pinball LED’s that I’ve come across are not compatible with the early Bally solid state pinball machines from 1979 to 1985.  These machines use a lamp driver board, where each controlled lamp is driven by a silicon control rectifier (SCR), which is also known as a thyristor. Bally’s Medusa falls into this category.

An LED installed into a Bally of this vintage will flicker or not work at all.  The problem can be overcome with a 1000 ohm (1K) resistor in parallel with the LED.  The reason for the flicker is somewhat technical and is explained below.

Some people opt to solder a resistor across every lamp socket.  This isn’t too much of a problem if the number of lights is not high.  Medusa has over 80 controlled lights and that would be a lot of work, especially on the hard to get at sockets.

Since one side of each lamp is common to all of the others, a pull-up type resistor network can be used.  Also, since the connector pin spacing on the lamp driver board is 0.100″, this is a perfect match for using though-hole resistor networks because the pin spacing is the same.

Rear of Lamp Driver board showing resistor networks (pullups) installed.

Rear of Lamp Driver board showing resistor networks (pullups) installed.  Click for larger.

The resistor networks were laid horizontally next to the lamp output pins on the reverse side of the board (the view from the front of the board is unchanged and you’d never know the resistor networks are there).  The common pin from each network was bent up vertically where a wire connected all of them together (blue wire in the above photo).  The blue wire was routed through a single pin connector to the lamp common on the backboard. The single pin connector allows the driver board to be removed from the backbox.

Another nice thing about doing it this way, as opposed to putting a resistor on every socket, is if the machine is ever sold and the new owner (a purist) wants to switch back to regular #47 incandescent lamps, the resistor networks can easily be removed from the back of the circuit board (though incandescent lamps will work perfectly if the resistor networks remain in place).

On Medusa, there is a light bar at the top of the playfield.  It was decided to leave those as incandescent lamps. A LED can turn off and on faster than an incandescent bulb, and I think with today’s bright LED’s and the fact they are aimed right at the player, the flashing would be a bit too much.  Aside from that, all controlled lamps and general illumination on the playfield and backbox were replaced with LED’s.

Playfield with all LED lighting (except for row of red lights at the very top).  Click for larger.

Playfield with all LED lighting (except for row of red lights at the very top). Warm white LEDs were used for under playfield plastics. New translucent polyurethane flipper rubbers were used on the illuminated flippers. Click for larger.

Backgox LED lighting, with a mixture of warm white, cool white, and red LEDs for the eyes.

Backgox LED lighting, with a mixture of warm white, cool white, and red LEDs for the eyes.

Side LED's from Cointaker.com were used in places like the Gorgon rollover switches.

Side LED’s from Cointaker.com were used in places like the Gorgon rollover switches.

 

I’m not totally sold on the idea of upgrading older machines with LEDs, but all in all, I think it’s an improvement for Medusa.

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Hurricane Pinball Machine (Williams, 1991)

Location: Littleton, CO
Symptoms: Sound problems, ferris wheel getting stuck, backboard spinner not working, backboard and playfield G.I. lights not working.

One of the ferris wheels was binding causing the belt to slip. I loosened the belt from below and spun both wheels.  One turned freely, the other did not.  I removed the e-clip, a washer and cleaned the shaft of sticky lubrication. The problem seemed to be the washer, which was too thick and causing to much friction when the e-clip was on.  I also noticed that the other wheel didn’t have washer, so I left it off.

The sound kept cutting in and out after the machine warmed up.  It would be on for a half-second, off for a half-second, repeat.  I pulled out my oscilloscope and checked the inputs to the amplifier. The input signal looked fine.  I disconnected the speaker and bypassed the digital volume control just to make sure the problem was with the amp IC. It seemed it was definitely the amplifier IC.

The backboard spinner wasn’t working.  It seemed like it was jammed.  I took the motor off of the back and shot some lubricant into the gear box.  That seemed to get it working again.  For how long, I don’t know.  The owner declined to replace the motor and gearbox assembly.

The playfield lighting problems were related to a burnt connector, which I see all of the time.  I replaced both the PCB connector and the wire connector and the lighting is now working great.

I took the sound board back with me since I didn’t have an amplifier IC with me.  A few days later, I shipped the repaired board back to the owner, who installed it and said it’s working perfectly!

 

AC/DC Pinball Machine (Stern, 2012)

Location: Denver, Colorado.
Symptoms: Ball getting stuck at ball flap.

From talking to people who buy brand new machines, it’s not uncommon to spend some time getting it to work right.  This was my second visit to this machine.

The first visit, which I don’t think I posted, involved replacing the canon motor, filing the bushings on the bell, and getting the lock-down bar to lock.  I guess there is not any quality assurance inspection after the pinball machine leaves the production line.  The things I fixed were very obvious problems.

This visit was for a problem that wasn’t very obvious.  The ball would occasionally get stuck at the ball flap in the upper right of the playfield. After unsuccessfully trying to get the ball stuck, I resorted to just using my fingers to discover there was an electrical wire hanging down that was catching on the ball. I couldn’t see the wire, but I could feel it.

I bent the wire out of the way and the everything seemed to work fine.

acdc-0480

Black Knight Pinball Machine (Williams, 1980)

Location: Fairplay, Colorado (home of South Park).
Symptoms: Speech only, but no background sound; Multi-player bonus round not working; Some drop targets not resetting.

I tackled the sound problem first.  When I started the game the speech was working fine, but the background sound effects were not there.  I checked the connections to the speech board.  On this era of Williams machine, the analog sounds leave the main sound board and go to the adjacent speech board, where the analog sound and speech are mixed together.  Then the sound travels back to the main sound board for amplification and then to the speaker.

The connections were all good.  I disconnected the speech board and jumpered W1.  This will send the analog sounds directly to the amplifier, bypassing the speech board.  Still nothing.

With my oscilloscope, I could see the sound coming out of the digital to analog converter (IC13). From there it goes to a transistor (Q2) which acts as a current to voltage converter.  The transistor was acting like it wasn’t connected. I pulled it from the circuit and tested it with my meter and determined the transistor was bad (normally they short when failed, but this one was open).

D/A converter with Q2 transistor.

D/A converter with Q2 transistor.

I replaced the transistor, and for the first time in 5 years it made sound!

Next, I decided to check the drop targets.  A couple of the drop targets in the middle bank would pop up during reset, but would not stay there. This turned out to be a missing screw that held part of the assembly together.  I found the screw in the coin box and reinstalled it.

Next, I noticed problems with other switches in the matrix.  I removed the balls from the machine and ran the switch diagnostics.  It showed that switches 5, 13, 21, 29, 37, and 45 were all closed. They all share the same row (White/Green Row 5). so it looked like they were shorted to ground someplace.  To isolate whether the problem was in the machine wiring or with the driver board circuit, I unplugged 2J3.  The diagnostic still showed the switch row shorted to ground.  IC16 was bad.

The shorted switch row was the reason the multi-player bonus round was not working.  One of the switches in that row is the shooter lane, so the machine always thought there was already a ball there and wouldn’t deliver another to the shooter lane.

The switches all worked once IC16 was replaced.  Next I solved some minor connection issues with the flippers and G.I. lighting.  The Black Knight was ready for battle again!

 

Fairplay, CO, aka South Park. Cartman's face is missing.

Fairplay, CO, aka South Park. Cartman’s face is missing.

 

Flash Pinball Machine (Williams, 1979)

Location: Erie, CO
Symptoms: Pinball machine “goes crazy” during play.

I played the machine and the “goes crazy” aspect seemed to be something related to the switch matrix.  I put the machine in Diagnostic Mode and checked the switch status. It seemed to be a row of switches was grounding out intermittently.  The switches would work fine then suddenly there were 4 or 5 stuck switches.

I found the problem at the coin door, with one of the coin switches shorting out against the coin mechanism.  The coin switch was looking pretty beat-up because the owner, or the previous owners, didn’t know how to put Flash into freeplay mode.

With these early solid state machines from Williams, you can put the game into freeplay mode by following these steps:

  1. In game over mode, open the coin door and switch the Up/Down switch to UP.
  2. Press the Advance button.  The Credit/Ball display should show “04 00”.
  3. Keep pressing Advance until the display shows “04 18”. This is the Maximum Credits setting.
  4. In the player 1 display you should see a current value of 20 (default).
  5. Switch the Up/Down switch to Down.
  6. Press the Game Start button (not the Advance button) until the number in the player 1 display is “00”
  7. Press the Advance button, then turn off the power.  When you switch the power back on, it will be in Freeplay mode.

After fixing the short, a few switches needed cleaning and adjusting.  The machine was working fine at this point.

About 2 weeks later, I was called back because the machine was skipping balls, for example going from Ball 1 to Ball 3.  I determined that there was a really sensitive switch on the playfield causing scoring without even shooting the ball.  That, combined with a mis-adjusted ball trough switch, was causing the problem.  The trough solenoid would fire the ball to the shooter lane, and the vibration would cause the sensitive playfield switch to close causing it to score, and the ball trough switch would still be closed because the ball hadn’t left the trough yet.  The machine “thought” the ball had been shot, scored and drained all in a split second, giving the appearance that the ball was skipped.

Once the switches were adjusted, the game was working fine again.

Superman Pinball Machine (Atari, 1979)

Location: Westminster, CO
Symptoms: Wouldn’t boot, flipper not working, drop target reset short, + more

Atari made a hand full of pinball machines before they closed that division to focus solely on video games. Superman is one of two games made with the 2nd generation pinball system.

This machine had not worked for a long while while it sat in a basement.  The RAM batteries had leaked. The owner thought they probably hadn’t been replaced since the 1980’s. So the first task was to get that cleaned up and locate a remote battery pack off of the board.  (Unfortunately, the AnyPin NVRAM module will not work with Atari machines.)

Once I got it to boot, I discovered the left flipper didn’t work.  The flipper coil was badly damaged by something hitting it. A new coil was ordered.

The Atari system has a coil protection circuit that is supposed to shut down the coil power if it detects a shorted coil, in order to protect the drive transistors.  In this case there was a shorted transistor driving the drop target reset coil.  So basically every time another playfield coil was activated, the center drop targets would reset. I replaced the transistor it the coils started acting normally.  It was a bit confusing at first because unlike other pinball machines which use NPN transistors to drive the solenoids, these drive transistors are PNP.

Needless to say, with the lack of service on this machine, all of the rubber pieces were dry, cracking and brittle.  So I replaced all of the rubbers, about 20 burned out lamps, and cleaned the playfield.  The ball was also rusting, so I replaced that, too.

The target switches are hexagonal white, which nobody sells anymore. One of them is broken (and remains that way for now).  Perhaps I’ll run across one at some point, or maybe I’ll take a rectangular target and cut the corners off.

Aside from the target switch, it’s working great.  It’s the first time I played Superman and it seems like a fun game.

The owner let me borrow the complete set of schematics of this machine for scanning and will be available on the Internet Pinball Database (has not been approved as of this date).

Whirlwind Pinball Machine (Williams, 1990)

Location: Highlands Ranch, CO.
Symptoms: Ramps tries to lower even though it’s already down; delivers two balls into shooter lane.

After checking the mechanical operation of the ramp and running switch tests, I concluded (or guessed) that the microswitches on the ramp and ball trough were acting intermittently.

Sometimes when a machine acts weird like this, you have to think about what the firmware is attempting to do.  In the case of the ramp, it tries to lower the ramp because it hasn’t sensed that it has been lowered.  So it would keep trying 4 or 5 times before giving up.

The reason the computer was delivering two balls to the shooter lane is that it wasn’t sensing the first ball had actually made it to the shooter lane, so it would try again.

Both of these problems weren’t consistent which led me to the intermittent switch idea. The microswitches were probably dirty and worn inside.  Unfortunately, since they are totally enclosed they can’t be easily cleaned.  Sometimes I can flush the switches out with contact cleaner, and get them working again.  In this case, it worked!

Gold Ball Pinball Machine (Bally, 1983)

Location: Highlands Ranch, CO.
Symptoms: Wouldn’t boot, rubber rings crumbling.

This machine sat neglected prior to the current owner purchasing it.  Although the NiCad battery looked ok and looked like it had been replaced relatively recently, there was a lot of corrosion on the CPU board.  It was even affecting the RAM sockets, where I could see blue-green corrosion in the socket holes.  During the boot process, the LED would only flash a couple of times, indicating a RAM failure.

Normally I would try to fix something like this.  In this case, since there was an aftermarket CPU board available, I recommended the owner purchase the new board.  With the old board, I could fix one thing, only to learn something else was damaged by the corrosion.  It turned out I was correct, except the corrosion had spread to the sound board, which sits right below the battery.  It had damaged the sockets there as well.

I was able to get the sound board working with some cleaning.

The rubber rings and burned out bulbs were replaced, and the playfield cleaned as well.