Bring out your dead then buy some more

/October 7, 2014
Sometimes the studio environment has about as much romantic attachment as a cold sore; so what do you do when your gear is looking old and tired? Chuck it out, sell it on eBay or just put in the back room and forget about it?

I cracked the shits with some of my old gear the other day, as one occasionally does in the studio. My romantic attachment to a couple of old spring reverbs had suddenly soured like milk on a total fire ban day, and my favourite digital delay had transformed from an Aston Martin DB5 into a Datsun Stanza. Maybe it was just a trick of the light… or swamp gas.
I’m not sure what caused it. Some of the gear hasn’t been pressed into action on a recording or mix session for some months; maybe that was it. Other bits and pieces were just getting in my way, gathering dust, and contributing to nought but the power bill. Then there were the two old busted Studer tape machines – actually, there are three here that currently don’t work, now that I think about it. They’re great for hernias and bad backs if anyone’s looking to develop one of those – boat anchors the lot of them. One machine has good Sifam VU meters on it. Maybe I’ll take them off then hurl the rest of the bits in the metal recycling at the tip… if they’ll let me.
There are several old Digidesign HD cards, two Mac Pros – one of which is actually rusty (never seen that before), while the other copped 400V+ one day in a wiring mishap courtesy of my local electrician. It sparked, then flashed… haven’t turned it on since.
There are old Farfisa keyboards, boxes of old software, thousands of CDs, piles of dysfunctional looms, mics that I’d forgotten I owned… even paint tins that are undoubtedly dry and crusty.
All of this stuff takes up precious room in the studio, or the maintenance room (otherwise known as the transfer station between here and the tip). Periodically this leads me to hit the wall whereupon I have to make room… for new stuff basically.
But it’s hard to chuck out. I have a personal attachment to almost every one of these items (apart from the paint tins), and sometimes the gear has a second history that predates me. This gear is my family. I can’t just give it the heave-ho over the railing at the scrap yard, can I? Who does that to family members?

But then there are the days when I get deeply rational and officious, whereupon most of equipment is suddenly for the chop. On these occasions, each and every piece of gear connected to the patchbay or taking up shelf space has to write me a 500-word job description to convince me of its current worth or value. Sometimes several hours go by while I scour the room looking for things to sell or turf.
But then something happens. My Class-A vintage pro audio conscience kicks in and tries to save the gear on my behalf: “Well surely someone would get use out of it… maybe someone is desperate for the parts on that old Studer/AKG/Quad Eight? Or maybe you could fix it? It’s a great bit of gear, that.”
This chatter stops me in my tracks every time, sows the seeds of doubt and before I realise what’s happened I’m off doing something else. The gear survives to see another day and the place just gets more and more crammed with stuff.
“Good stuff,” my conscience would add…
So then the gear mostly gets left for another six months until either I have to move it again, the outboard racks start to overflow or it breaks down. Then I quickly rediscover the problem and think, “I must just see if anyone wants that 50kg loom (with bantam connectors on one end and that useless EDAC on the other), or those Tandberg mono-block heads.” I have a box of those, believe it or not – brand new. I must literally have half the world’s new old stock of them… can’t chuck ’em out even though almost no-one has ever heard of a Tandberg tape machine, let alone uses one.

The reason I’m banging on about this, by the way, is because this all happened to me only a few days ago. However, on this particular occasion I just happened to mention my (potential) hit-list to a friend of mine, who also just happens to have a forum on his website. Next thing I know this friend of mine has gone and posted the hit-list on his site, and now there are people texting me about one particular item on the list, and a string of posts on the forum about how amazing it is! Let’s call it a spring reverb for the sake of this discussion… because that’s what it was.

“I might jump, I love springs,” one poster suggested…

“The most delicious vocal reverb; drive it gently and it’s the ultimate chamber,” said another.

It was even described as “Motown Gold.”

“Motown Gold is it?” I thought to myself, as I continued through the thread. That’s funny because another engineering friend of mine who’s used it regularly describes it as, “that unusably stupid thing in the corner that goes boing!”

Then an incredible situation arose that I never imagined was possible. The words on the thread convinced me so utterly of this unit’s worth, I simply had to have it. There was no way I could do another mix until I owned that bit of gear… especially since it apparently, “sounds like a natural space – not a spring reverb.”
But hang on, it’s already in my rack… and dusty to boot! Wasn’t I excited about selling it only half an hour ago? What the hell has happened?
Such was the power of the online post that no matter how many people subsequently waved hundreds of dollars in cash under my nose, I wasn’t selling it. Not this week anyway. I must be soft in the head I reckon. I mean, I’ve heard about grass being greener on the other side before, but on my side?
There was no denying it: of all the fellow audio nutcases on that forum I was without doubt the sickest.

I don’t really know if there’s a moral to be gleaned from this tale or not. But one thing is definitely true: there’s so much good gear out there, old and new, that if you don’t watch out, you’ll end up spending more time and money acquiring gear than you do using it. Worse still, you may spend half your evenings talking to people on forums about it, even though some of the classic outboard units you’ve acquired are still on the shelf waiting to be repaired or restored.
Instead, what we should all be doing is acquiring less crap and improving our skills. Or maybe not… maybe I should simply be using my spring reverb more than I recently have been? Maybe I should be buying more gear – surrounding myself with 50 more power-hungry devices that were emulated beautifully buy Universal Audio nearly a decade ago.
In hindsight, I think the moral of the story is only this: I’m a hypocrite… go buy whatever the hell you like and talk about it to whomever you like!
Let’s face it; I buy busted old crap all the time because I love it. Some of it sounds incredible, crazy, nutty… and the less frequently used gear is often perfect on those odd occasions. And that’s the point here really isn’t it; we’re all striving to have just the right sound for every occasion, and have fun doing it.
In the end it’s a case of each to their own…
Now please excuse me, I must go and investigate whether they used Quad Eight spring reverbs on Motown records…