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Bargain Bin Boogie

Cheap Gear

Article from Making Music, May 1987

Doing it well does not necessarily mean doing it expensively, as we endeavour freely to demonstrate

You don't have to spend a fortune to make music. Jon Lewin proposes (and we accept) that invention and intention are just as juicy as Mr Moolah. In other words: doing it on the cheap.

OUR BIT of the music business thrives on new gear. We fill our news pages with it, we review it, and write articles generally encouraging everyone to go out and buy it. And manufacturers fill our pages with their ads for it.

But music isn't that easy for most people. When I was but a humble unemployed musician, the music magazines were like (ahem) girly mags to me — full of nice things to lust after, most of which I stood very little chance of ever getting my sticky fingers on. The day-to-day business of being in a band was far removed from the generally aspirational nature of the papers I read — actually making music is something that most people have to do on the cheap. Which is where we come in (we hope).


Buying new gear doesn't necessarily mean a DX7II, or a Jaydee bass, wonderful though they may be. Remember that new stuff isn't always expensive.

Take the current breed of neo-Oriental guitars, which sell for between £80 and £150: while they don't necessarily sound quite as spiffing as the Fenders and Charvels they copy, they are good workmanlike instruments, on which another £10-£15 worth of setup from your local repairer (dealers can usually recommend one) can work wonders.

And worrabout keyboards? If your resources won't stretch to the lower price pro synths, just think cheaper — what's wrong with 'home' keyboards, you snob? Presets will give you strings, piano noises, buzzy filter sounds, and even sampling in some cases (£99 Casio SK-1 ahoy!). What more do you need?

Remember that being in a band is about good songs and interesting noises — imagination is more important than either equipment or expertise. In last month's issue, Julian Cope was singing the praises of the Casio MT40, which he uses (through an AC30) to write songs; noisemongers The Dave Howard Singers bung their weeny keyboards through loud distorted amplifiers and make an intriguing racket.

The same applies to drum machines: if digital is out of reach, try an old analogue machine, and mess around with it. Try fuzzing it: US indie band Big Black feed their drumbox through a Marshall stack, to ear-bending effect (hear it on their 'Atomizer' LP). You don't have to have expensive equipment to make good music.


If you're inexperienced, buying secondhand privately can sometimes be fraught with problems — at least a shop purchase carries the possibility of some sort of guarantee. Older things aren't necessarily better value, though there is always the possibility of picking up a bargain, particularly if you're prepared to venture away from the safe realms of popular stuff. Good examples at the moment are spring reverbs, bargainous in the wake of Mr Digital.

But secondhand is a big area, too big for this page; previous Making Musics have dealt with the specifics of buying secondhand keyboards (Issues 5 & 13) and guitars (Issue 2), and a drum feature is planned soon.


Do you really need that stack/the second bass drum/three guitars/four different keyboards? Large equipment is all very impressive, but it can create a lot of problems: it's expensive, it's a pain to have around the house, it's awkward to move around, and it can often mean rehearsal room rather than front room when it comes to group practices. Small stuff is not only better for your hernia, but the discipline of having limited resources at your disposal can actually be better for your playing. And it doesn't necessarily mean dodgy sound either — consider the more reasonably priced 1x12 combos currently gracing the Buyer's Bible. However, Paul (Mr Editor) says he once saw someone taking a 4x12 on the bus...


It's very easy to believe in the importance of all the rock 'n' roll trappings — as if you're not really a proper group unless you have a transit with aeroplanes seats, proper keyboard stands, your own PA, flightcases with your name on them, business cards... the list is virtually endless. You don't need these things — none of them will get you any further up the ladder of success. They may make life easier, but they are luxuries, and your time and money will be more usefully spent playing, writing better songs, and accruing contacts in the Music Biz.


Why are you doing it? If you're just doing demos to hear how your songs hang together, using a studio is an expensive indulgence. Any recording cassette machine sensibly positioned at a rehearsal will give a reasonable recording; automatic recording level controls compress the loud bits (which can even make you sound better). This sort of demo is usually good enough to help you get gigs, and if you've not played much before, then recording in a studio will probably be such a daunting experience you won't produce a terribly representative tape.

If you're doing demos to send to record companies, there are two things to bear in mind. Firstly, you're probably wasting your time unless you concentrate on indie labels, and secondly, the A&R person will be interested in your songs and your performance, rather than the standard of the production. You don't need to use 24-track for demoing; 8- and 16-tracks are usually far less intimidating, not to mention cheaper. Look for a good price, a nice engineer (v. important), and reasonable quality outboard gear.

There are ways of getting cheap recording time, like recording overnight. You could always find someone else to pay for it: try music publishers, then look around for less obvious routes, say a local business person with an interest in music. Try calling one of the colleges or schools that offers engineering courses; they occasionally need bands to be engineered, which means free or cheap time in the studio (as in cheap haircuts from modelling school). The negative side is that you have to do what you're told, and at the times they allocate.

Recording is the time that you should perhaps worry about bigger gear: you'll find friends and acquaintances far more willing to loan you stuff they know is only going studio-wards. But make sure that you know how to use any items you borrow — there's nothing dafter than wasting expensive time trying to work out how to program or MIDI up unfamiliar gear.


The handle finally dropping off my old Yamaha bag actually prompted this article: thrifty musicians will keep old shoulder bags, suitcases, and things like that for stashing leads and pedals.

They will also do such boring but useful things as wiping strings after they've played, boiling bass strings to get the gunge out, polishing cymbals to keep them bright, checking for loose screws and the like on amplifiers. They will even go as far as realising that an ironing board draped with a floor length black cloth makes a pretty moody keyboard stand. They might even come up with a suggestion for what to do when you've forgotten your mike stand...

There are all sorts of little money-saving tips that you can employ, and I know only a few of them — any other suggestions gratefully received.

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Secondhand Synths

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The Country Gentleman

Publisher: Making Music - Track Record Publishing Ltd, Nexus Media Ltd.

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Making Music - May 1987


Buyer's Guide

Feature by Jon Lewin

Previous article in this issue:

> Secondhand Synths

Next article in this issue:

> The Country Gentleman

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