Reviving a Sony WM-FX28 Walkman

I had been looking for a small restoration project, something with electronic and mechanical components that could be completed in less than a day, when I stumbled upon some YouTubers who still use audio cassettes.

It reminded me how much I obsessed over audio equipment as a child. Every time a family member upgraded their stereo systems I would beg for the old components, and by the time I was a teenager in the late 90’s I had built an absurdly mismatched setup in my media tower.

Part of that system included an old wood-panel tape deck complete with needle meters. I never had many commercially produced cassettes, but I had stacks I’d recorded myself. I loved recording video game music to listen to on my walkman, or dictating story ideas through the set of “professional” microphones I’d scrounged.

So, watching these YouTube videos, I started to get a better understanding how cassettes and cassette decks work. I enjoyed seeing that, if you knew what you were doing, you could actually make pretty high quality recordings on cassette.

Which, by the way, taught me that I was doing everything 100% wrong as a child. Oops.

Now, I don’t have any old cassettes to play, nor do I have a pressing need to set up a full deck for recording, but after some deliberation, I decided that I wanted to try my hand at fixing and restoring a walkman. Nothing fancy, not the golden-grail best player desired by current cassette collectors – just take a regular broken walkman and get it up and running again.

I searched eBay for options and finally settled on this Sony WM-FX28:

The listing said the radio worked but the tape didn’t, and it was only $10 before shipping. I looked around online and was able to find PDFs of both the Sony WM-FX28 User Manual and the Sony WM-FX28 Service Manual. So I went ahead and bought it.

The number one reason a cassette player stops working is that the rubber belt inside has worn out, stretched, or just straight up broken. It’s a simple repair – if you can get the right sized belt. Thankfully I was able to find a Sony WM-FX28 replacement belt online for cheap. The other thing you need to do (especially after replacing a belt) is to calibrate the speed of the motor, so I just added a speed calibration test tape to my order.

Now the site I bought these from, Fix Your Audio, is one of the few (if only) places left in the world where you can reliably get these kinds of replacement parts for cassette equipment. It’s located in Slovakia, but I was pleasantly surprised that it only took a week for the package to get to me in the USA.

The last tool I ordered was a Cassette Head Demagnetizer. As tapes play, the magnetic material in the tape can slowly magnetize the cassette head (the part which rubs against the tape to read the signal). This will affect the quality of the sound, but more importantly, a magnetized head can potentially erase a tape as it’s playing. So it’s important (especially when getting a used player) to demagnetize the head so it won’t ruin your tapes.

Speaking of, even if I got the walkman working, I didn’t have any cassettes to actually play on it. So I started hitting up eBay and Discogs looking for Hawaiian cassettes. I was able to get a (still sealed) copy of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Masters along with a copy of my all-time favorite album: Mākaha Bash 3: Live At The Shell.

With all my orders in place, it was time to clear some desk space for the project. The first things to arrive were the walkman itself, the replacement belt and calibration tape, and the copy of Mākaha Bash 3:

As listed, the radio functioned just fine, but nothing moved when pressing the tape controls. So, following the service manual, the first step was to pop off the back shell:

Oops! As you can see, I got the shell off, but at the expense of a few of the plastic tabs that attached it. I probably should have been a little more gentle with the old plastic, but I also think the service manual deserves some blame here. I exaggerate, but step 1 is like “insert screwdriver here to separate the shell”, step 2 is “open the tape door and release this tab” then step 3 is like “in step 1 you should have removed the shell in this exact order”.

Anyway, there’s still plenty of tabs left, so next I took a look at the mechanism itself. Looking closely at the motor on the right, you can see where the belt is tangled around the shaft, rather than looped nicely around the brass pulley:

Adding batteries and pressing play, you could see the motor trying to run but the belt was just getting caught tighter underneath. Removing the belt allowed the motor to run quite freely:

Disregarding that growing pile of broken plastic bits from my bad shell removal, you can see how much the old belt stretched by comparing it to the replacement side by side:

With the belt out I took a moment to clean things with some compressed air along with good ol’ cotton swabs and isopropyl alcohol. Then I installed the new belt:

With the new belt in, I reinserted the batteries and tried the controls. Play would run the gears but that little white arrow in the center kept snapping back and forth with an awful clicking noise. Fast-forward would only run for a second before stopping, while rewind caused the the whole thing to lock up while the motor spun away, rubbing on the belt but not getting any traction.

I couldn’t see anything that looked straight up broken: no missing teeth on the gears and no stray bits of plastic that I wasn’t responsible for. I continued my search (and cleaning) by popping out the entire board and checking everything underneath:

Finally I decided my best bet was to try lubricating all of the gears. I used the plastic on plastic grease I’d bought for when I eventually tune-up the floppy drives in the macs I’m still restoring:

I made sure to get the grease onto the shaft of every rotating part in the mechanism. After I was satisfied that I’d gotten it everywhere it needed to be, I popped in the batteries and tried the controls again:

Sony Walkman WM-FX28 with new belt and greased gears

It worked! Play, fast-forward, and rewind all ran perfectly with no clicks or hang-ups. I really wish I’d had the presence of mind to record how it ran like before the repair, but c’est la vie. With the mechanism working again, I put the whole thing back together, thankful enough plastic tabs remained for it to stay together.

The next step was to demagnetize the head. According to the instructions (and people online) you want do this far away from any kind of magnetic media, as the demagnetizing wand is basically a wall-powered electromagnet. In the age of solid state drives that might not be a risk in most modern offices, but with my other retro restorations I’ve actually amassed a small assortment of floppy disks and hard drives in my workspace. So it’s off to the dining room table:

To use the wand you have to plug it in several yards away from the target, approach it very slowly, touch the items to demagnetize for roughly five seconds each, then back away slowly and unplug it back where you started. If you go too fast, or touch the wand on the head for too long, or cut the power while you’re still too close, you risk doing the exact opposite of what you want and magnetizing the head even more.

So I propped open the cassette door and dutifully snuck up on my unsuspecting walkman like I was pranking it while it slept. Who said electronics restoration wasn’t exciting?

With that finally out of the way, the last step was to calibrate the speed of the motor. The idea is to play the calibration tape, which has a 3 kHz tone recorded onto it, and verify that the pitch isn’t too high or too low. You use a tool called a “frequency counter” to see the exact frequency being played, and adjust the speed of the player’s motor until the tone is exactly 3 kHz.

I don’t have a physical frequency counter, but thankfully there’s plenty of free smartphone apps that work just fine for the job. Also this particular walkman exposes the speed adjustment potentiometer through a tiny hole in the back of the case, making it easy to adjust the speed without having to take everything apart.

So I inserted the calibration tape, connected headphones, cranked the volume, and installed Audio Frequency Counter onto my phone. The app picked up the signal at a few hundred kHz too fast, so I adjusted it down with a tiny screwdriver until I was as close as possible to 3 kHz:

Finally, after all that work, I put in my Mākaha Bash 3 cassette, took a deep breath, and pressed play:

It worked perfectly! I listened through the whole album, both sides, without any issues. I made lunch while listening through my very anachronistic modern earbuds, since I don’t have any old over-ear style headphones.

After that first playthrough I did redo the speed calibration just in case things had loosened up, but otherwise, I think it’s safe to call this repair is complete. Despite some missing bits of plastic, I’m happy with the results.

Now the only question is: do I stop here, or do I need to take the next step and get a cassette recorder up and running? We’ll see.


September in the Rain on Ukulele

While at the Port Townsend Ukulele Festival last weekend, I took a wonderful class by Danielle Ate The Sandwich on tips for recording for YouTube.

All of her advice was good and straight-forward and just what I needed. The process I’d developed for recording myself was certainly quite an affair and at sometimes a slog that would leave me exhausted and frustrated at the end. Seeing how easy it was to make decent video with even just a phone inspired me to find an open spot on the Fort Worden campus and make a video.

It’s the first piece I ever learned, over a decade ago. I’m pretty pleased with the result, and I look forward to making some more impromptu videos.


For those who’ve asked for it, here’s the tab: September in the Rain (Ukulele Tab). It’s not my arrangement – it’s based on the intro to the full song that I played in a group a long time ago that I reconstructed from memory.

Recording some slack key ukulele videos

For a while now I’ve wanted to record some videos of myself playing ukulele, both to keep tabs on my progress and to introduce some more slack key uke videos online. Now it’s true I’ve recorded some videos in the past, but I was never impressed with the video quality of my regular webcams. So this past week I finally found a HD camcorder I liked (the awesomely cheap Zoom Q2HD) and on Saturday I sat down to record.

These were all recorded on my Black Bear baritone ukulele, which I talk about in the first video. Enjoy!


The Port Townsend Ukulele Festival 2014

Class photo after the first session of the Baritone Ukulele Support Group
The first session of the Baritone Ukulele Support Group

Last year I attended the first annual Port Townsend Ukulele Festival, and had so much fun that I jumped at the opportunity to preregister for this year. Yesterday marked the end of this year’s festival, and I thought I’d take a moment to review some of the wonderful things I’ve learned in the past few days.

The festival consisted of four sessions of ukulele workshops a day for three days, along with ad-hoc non-ukulele classes, daily open-mics, jam sessions, and two live concerts featuring the instructors. The classes were held in the various buildings at Fort Worden, and included one-day drop-in sessions for shorter topics, along with three-day classes let you really dig into particular subjects.

Besides all of the wonderful opportunities to just sit down and jam with other ukulele players (there were some 160 participants this year), I also came away with a bunch of new techniques to practice, songs to learn, and a greater appreciation for all of the music that these little instruments can make.

Of particular note this year was the acceptance and accommodation of baritone ukuleles. In fact, one of the biggest highlights for me was the positive reception to my playing of Hawaiian slack-key on my baritone uke by both the staff and other participants. (I really need to make some videos, at the very least so I can get on Humble Baritonics again.)

The other highlight was showing off Chordious, which also elicited a positive response from some of the instructors, especially those with upcoming books.

It would be impossible to list everything that happened this weekend, but here are some of my notes (grouped by class and not in any particular order):

Baritone Ukulele Support Group (Aaron Keim)

  • Embrace the wound string. Enjoy the color it adds to the music. Only you will hear the squeaks.
  • There are only so many string factories, so pick the material and gauges you like and feel free to make your own sets. For baritones (tuned dgbe’), Mya-Moe uses D’Addario silver-wound classical guitar strings (0.033w and 0.028w) for the basses, and Worth clear fluorocarbons (0.0319 and 0.0260) for the trebles. (Mya-Moe sells their strings here if you’re not interested in making your own).
  • Keeping your thumb behind wherever your 2nd (middle) finger is will make chording easier.
  • Barre with the bony side of your finger, not the fleshy part, for a cleaner sound.
  • Hang your hand at your side, then raise your elbow – that loose grip, straight wrist, is how your hand should be shaped when fretting.
  • If you play smaller ukes too, use your knowledge of those chord shapes by jumping down and barring at the fifth fret on your bari to play them.
  • When you’re the only bari player in a  group, look at chord names, not grids, and not other people’s hands.
  • Play around with chord fingerings to try to get the root note on your bass string, ie. the 2130 E7 with the root note on the bass sounds better than the 0100 E7 with the 7th note on the bass.
  • Don’t worry about transposing or being in the same key as the paper when you’re playing by yourself.
  • Swapping out that low-d for a high-d will give you a nice, more “ukulele” sound, and isn’t a new idea – jazz ukulele master Lyle Ritz has been playing that tuning on the tenor uke for decades.
  • There is no “official strumming pattern” for songs. Some strums just sound better than others, depending on the feel you want the song to have.
  • It’s not hard to make up your own strumming patterns – just think of it as reductive rather than additive – start with your basic down-up, down-up, down-up, down-up and then remove strokes, replace one with maybe a thumb on the bass, change which fingers you use, etc.
  • In a 4/4 strum, put emphasis on the back-beats (2 and 4). Say chat-ta-noo-ga chat-ta-noo-ga as you strum.
  • If you want to capo, do it. Arron uses Kyser banjo/mandolin capos on his bari.
  • For that dreaded key of F, capo at the first fret and play the shapes for the key of E.
  • For picking like Maybelle Carter, almost everything is lead and played with the thumb.
  • Start by learning the melody, then the chords, then play just melody, using chord strums to fill gaps in the melody

Baritone Chord Magic 3 (Ginger Johnson)

  • When you see scary jazz chords (9ths, 13ths, etc) you can substitute a 7th. Note it doesn’t always work the other way, using a 9th for a 7th might sound good, but might clash with a non-jazzy song.
  • Baritone ukulele can sound deep, sexy, and sultry – don’t get caught up trying to play it like a smaller uke, use its strengths.

Fretboard Roadmaps (Fred Sokolow)

  • Learn your minor pentatonic scale to solo over bluesy songs by just playing in the key of the song (no need to worry about chord changes, just key changes).
  • If the song isn’t bluesy, slide down (toward the head) 3 frets and play the minor pentatonic there.
  • Learning your chord shapes mean playing those I, IV, V chords anywhere on the neck, wherever it’s convenient for the chord changes or melody notes.
  • Learn that circle of fifths. There’s no substitute for just sitting down and committing it to memory.
  • Learn the common progressions in multiple keys so that they become second nature.
  • Learn where major scales are relative to the chord shapes so you can stay in the shape and solo easily

My Three Strums (Casey MacGill)

  • Swing strum is alternating between using your thumb and finger at the same volume, which gives a off-beat natural accent when the nail hits the strings.
  • Keep your hand near the uke, you don’t want to waste energy.
  • You’re pulling your wrist out perpendicular away from the strings and “pinching” it with your thumb like you’re picking apart a cotton-ball.
  • Then flick down with your finger and mute with your palm for the 2nd beat, leading with your wrist.
  • Shuffle strum is using the fleshy part of your finger, again keeping your hand near (or even on the uke) the whole time, and muting between strokes.
  • Rumba strum is down, roll, down-up, down-down-up. Ups are hit with your thumb nail, and there’s no muting.

Hawaiian and Hapa-Haole Songs (Francis Doo)

  • Hawaiian music doesn’t have to be fast, fancy and complicated – simple chord progressions with simple strums give you room to express yourself in the song.
  • The Hawaiian vamp is II7, V7, I, I, then repeated.

Unobtrusive Percussion (JoJo Mascorella)

  • If he could only have one thing, it would be wire brushes. Wire brushes on a sheet of paper on a chair and you have enough sounds to have a good time.
  • Play thinking as if you’re whipping down from your shoulder, to get the right attack, but don’t actually do it as you’ll get tired too fast.
  • Lots of warmups go a long way.
  • Practice slower and speed will come naturally
  • Practice with a metronome to test (and humble) yourself

The biggest refrain was about practice. It’s a dirty word to some, but it really is the only way you get better. Period.

I could fill up post after post with highlights from the festival, but writing about it just isn’t the same as having been there. This year there were some 160 participants with another 180 or so on the waiting-list, so rumor is that next year they’re going to try and meet the demand with two separate festivals back-to-back.

I can’t wait to register.

Happy strumming,