REPAIRING VINTAGE GEAR

/November 26, 2013

When is a vintage classic not a vintage classic?

When it’s a poorly maintained Bakelite basket case.

Don’t kid yourself or your clients; when a piece of gear – no matter how spectacular or rare it might be – is faulty, it’s time to pull it out of service and call your tech. You know, your tech: the guy who repairs and maintains your gear…

I spent more money than I earned last week repairing gear: mics, the Neve console, headphones, leads, stands… you name it. If I ever write a book it’s going to be called: Money In, Money Out – The Dubious Life of a Penniless Producer. (Later I’ll write the sequel: Maintenance: The Gift That Keeps On Taking).

But hang on, now that I think about it, I also bought Audio-Technica’s new AT5050 condenser microphone last week. Clearly I only have myself to blame for my financial plight.

Another thing I’ve had to face up to this week is that my beloved Neumann U67 needs a new capsule, so next week it’s off to Gunter Wagner (of wagner-microphones.com) – the king of Neumann repairs in Australia – for the royal treatment. The U67 is just about my favourite mic on planet earth; an amazing microphone that I plan on taking with me when I die. Ironically, it’s mostly been sitting idle these last few months because every time I’ve tried to use it it’s popped, spluttered and emitted sounds of rolling thunder. Not a good look when you’re trying to record a sensitive vocal. Now is the time to bite the bullet.

 

RP&M

Repairs and maintenance are a fact of life in the studio, and yet paying good money to maintain the gear we own isn’t something many of us necessarily embrace from the get-go. Most of us only face up to it over time.

I know when I was younger the very thought of spending five grand on console maintenance when I’d already spent 20 purchasing it seemed completely crazy.

“Man, that means I’ve effectively paid 25 for it!”

That’s how my brain rationalised maintenance costs back then; I just added them to the purchase price.

I was always much more concerned about buying something else with my money – not necessarily something that worked perfectly either – than repairing and improving the gear I already owned.

I didn’t mind spending money per sé; I just liked having something new to show for it. I had gear lust… a disease that makes you great at acquiring stuff, but hopeless and repairing it.

 

YOU’VE GOT PAVS

But all that changes pretty quickly when this malady – let’s call it ‘Pro Audio Vanity Syndrome’ – leads to an embarrassing equipment failure right in the middle of an important session. At that point all the great looking vintage gear you’ve set up around you in your fancy digs only serves to make you look like a tool. ‘Head in the Sand’ maintenance is a schedule you only get away with for so long before one day it bites you ferociously on the arse. I know, I have the scars to prove it.

The best studio to work in, whether it’s your own, or someone else’s, is the one where repairs and maintenance are an accepted cost of doing good business. I don’t care how many Neumann mics or Neve channel strips a studio might possess; if they’re dodgy, crackly, intermittent or noisy, they’re worse than an Alto preamp driving a Behringer mic. If the latter chain is new and working flawlessly, that’s the setup I’d rather use. If a recording chain is snap, crackle and popping like breakfast cereal, what bloody use is it to anyone?

Poorly maintained or dysfunctional gear frustrates engineers and musicians alike even though, if you’re the studio owner, they may never air their grievances directly to you. The sobering bottom line however is this: your clients will always tell someone, so it’s preferable they confide in you. Otherwise the problem is manifestly worse, and for two reasons. Not only does it reinforce the delusion that you’re getting away with this bad practise, it conceals the urgency of the maintenance problem you have, and spreads the rumour far and wide that your place doesn’t work properly.

If there’s equipment in your rack that’s faulty, I’d strongly urge you to remove and repair it… today! Don’t just leave it there because its Bakelite knobs and VU meters look cool. If a piece of audio gear is only going to disappoint a client after they finally give up in disgust after fiddling with it for an hour, it’s a dead-set liability.

 

ONLY 5K? I’LL TAKE IT!

The craziest thing about most studio owners, especially those who typically work alone, is that they just keep buying stuff, most of which they’ll never need, and half of which they’ll probably never turn on. EBay, the pro audio forums and various other second-hand trading posts are all awash with pro audio gear that looks amazing – and in some cases is amazing – but which isn’t necessarily relevant to your circumstances.

If you’re not careful, your aim as an audio professional can quickly morph from a desire to make and record great sounds into an unhealthy pursuit of fancy gear for its own sake, whether it be in good working order or not. Perhaps it’s just a rite of passage we all have to navigate our way through – to buy a pile of ‘vintage’ (read broken or irreparable) gear, and then spend 5, 10 or 20 years sifting through it.

 

THE ORIGINAL AIM WAS?

Don’t get me wrong, buying great audio gear is something I’ve spent the bulk of my life doing, so I’m hardly going to bag other people out for such behaviour.

As long as you come through the ‘PAVS’ with a healthy sense of what sounds great and what doesn’t, and a more objective sense of what gear is important to get the job done professionally, you’ll always be closer to your original ambition: which was to make and record great sounds – a healthy and admirable pursuit.

PS: I have an old compressor for sale – looks great; doesn’t work so well… interested?