Servicing your needs
Question: What do you do when your synth blows a fuse and you blow your top? Answer: You take it along to London's new Synthesizer Service Centre set up by skilled repairmen Ron Lebar and David Croft. Matthew Newman reports.
When your synth blows a fuse and you blow your top, where do you go to have it repaired? Back to the shop? SOS reader Matthew Newman reports on a newly-founded oasis in the hi-tech servicing desert - The Synthesizer Service Centre in North-West London.
Many of us have been disillusioned for some time now with how we're treated by both manufacturers and dealers alike when our equipment goes wrong. Obviously we, the punters, are a far less interesting species once we've had our cash removed.
The breed of woman employed by most manufacturers to answer the phone is a species unto herself, designed only for the despatch of leaflets estolling the virtues of new product lines. Their attention span seems to develop horrifying limitations when asked how to get a repair done in a hurry.
Some dealers, likewise, are at best apologetic but are invariably ready with far from unbiased opinions about when a certain piece of broken equipment has become obsolete, and how long it will take to fix. A "state of the art" synth purchased from them last year is no longer a "hot product" but a pitiful relic of a bygone age...
And the common arrangement of having dealers doubling as service centres for certain makes of gear has, for this very reason, proved to be a far from satisfactory one. It's one that has nonetheless endured and become regarded as a fact of life. Not that many of us can ever claim to have had this point explained to us by our father in a man-to-man chat just after we started shaving. But few of us are surprised that when we walk into a service centre with a broken item, a lot of tut-tutting and shoulder shrugging goes on.
You can rarely return after a few days and expect to find the problem solved either. The story is usually one of having to send for parts from some remote outpost of the Empire, followed by a long delay, and then a large invoice!
Thankfully, there are two gentlemen and their assistants in London NW3 working on making all this history...
Ron Lebar and David Croft are two of this country's leading lights when it comes to the repair and development of hi-tech musical equipment. They were hardly short of work before joining forces, but since setting up together things have positively snowballed for them, to the point where after a matter of weeks they are working till gone midnight every evening and discussing plans to expand.
Together they have formed The Synthesizer Service Centre, or "SSC" as Ron says far too quickly whenever he answers the phone. In a very short space of time they have become an authorised service centre for all the major makes of electronic musical instruments and the recognised main service centre for a very impressive list of manufacturers including Sequential, Oberheim, Ensoniq, Akai, E-mu Systems, etc. It would appear that a couple of other majors have expressed an interest in following suit and chances are these arrangements will have been made by the time you read this.
Suffice to say that whilst being asked to do an interview for Sound On Sound obviously represented a high point in both their careers, Ron and David couldn't really drop their soldering irons and chew the fat for any length of time without there being some interruption. David answered most of my questions on the move between telephones, and judging by the number of calls he took, there really are a lot of people with gear they want fixing - and The Synthesizer Service Centre is definitely where the bulk of it gets done.
Ironically though, it is in the field of development rather than repair that Ron and David's talents and interests lie. Time after time they appear to have enhanced existing instruments to such great effect that the manufacturers have subsequently taken their modifications 'on board' as official engineering change orders in later models of several well-known keyboards. It is encouraging indeed to hear that Sequential, for example, are open to suggestions from these two characters when it comes to altering an established line so as to achieve a more reliable product.
Sometimes though these 'enhancements' take the form of separate units - interfaces and the like. Obviously, there has been some demand of late for add-ons or retrofits which enable old favourites such as the Oberheim OBX and the MemoryMoog to transmit and receive MIDI information. David and Ron are invariably able to perform this sort of operation but mentioned, as a warning to anyone thinking of getting that favourite antique converted to MIDI, that it may often cost as much or more than many pieces are worth to have them "fitted up" with MIDI. It's obviously one of Ron's ambitions to "MIDIfy everything"; he's recently been approached to do a violin and evidently relishes this sort of challenge. Apparently, the violin is not so keen on the idea of donating parts of itself to Ron's science but...
All this aside, the majority of the work which keeps David off the streets and Ron from performing indecent acts with a violin, is doing routine repairs and servicing. The causes of this were what I enquired about next.
The main source of problems is apparently that a great proportion of modern equipment is designed and tested on a different power supply to our own. In fairness, Ron points out that David and he are in a far better position to analyse and correct this than, say, a manufacturer in the States. The modifications made in other countries so that a unit will run on our UK mains voltage (220-240 volts) may work perfectly well when first tested abroad, but not so well over prolonged periods of usage and abusage over here.
That leads us neatly on to the subject of equipment 'abuse' - something that I'd been dying to talk to the chaps about since the beginning of our conversation. So let's not dwell on my personal problems, but move on to the serious business of pouring beer down the back of our keyboards.
I was mortified to learn that our heroes believe this not to be good practice. Apparently, in this supposedly technologically advanced age, there isn't a synth in existence whose performance can be improved by a liberal dousing of lager top; and to think they can put a man on the moon!
The teetotal among us can afford to be no more casual either. Bakerlite and fibreglass form the mountings in printed circuit boards, and these are organic plastics which are able to contain the harmful organic acids found in fruit juices about as well as crisp packets can contain brake fluid! So, a carefully aimed shot of bitter lemon can mean up to a day's work for David or Ron and their cotton buds, delving into those places other repair shops cannot reach.
Quite a bit of work in replacing keys and switches etc, also stems from clients whose studio floor is obviously so cluttered with cigarette butts that they have to use their keyboard as an ashtray. Ron describes this as "sheer vandalism" whilst David's philosophy, I imagine, is similar to that of the man paid to re-attach the receivers in phone boxes...
Even if you avoid practicing any of the most common vices in close proximity to your synth, it would appear that you still can't win. Ordinary dust and electronic gear are unhappy bedfellows and those of us using air-conditioned studios and stages appear to be in the minority. Few products supplied nowadays come complete with a dust cover, and if they did, how many of us would have the time or inclination to use it?
As I said, Messrs Croft and Lebar are very busy men. They are also two very different but equally affable characters. David, being much quieter and younger than Ron, nods and smiles a lot - a manner of being quite unique in his profession. One is more accustomed to a lot of shaking of the head and sucking of air through the teeth. Not that Ron is by any means an old misery guts either. On every occasion I've met him, he's been wearing a more interesting shirt than the last time and he always seems ready, and more than happy, to explain what has happened to the piece of equipment presented to him for repair. Not that this is always a great deal of use or interest when the explanation takes the form of a series of numbers and initials, but it is refreshing not to be fobbed off by a technician.
David Croft studied Electronics at Aston University in Birmingham but left after the first year, coming down to London to join a band with - among other people - Steve Jolly, who went on to produce Imagination, Alison Moyet, Bananarama, etc. David ended up doing "various odd jobs" before joining a showband and playing guitar in Germany with a broken finger for three or four months. This was all the encouragement he needed to "drift back into electronics".
He was employed at Soundcraft for a while, and then a small hire company, whilst working on a film of his own. This project spanned several years and resulted in a full length feature film intended for television called Last Shot Of Dignity and featuring Frank Williams (the vicar in Dad's Army). Since then he's concentrated on his successful repair business Croft Electronics, operating alongside The Synthesizer Service Centre out of premises in North-West London's leafy Primrose Hill district.
Ron Lebar began his potted history by trying to refute all allegations that he's been around since the time when men were men and radios were either gas or steam-driven. His interest in things electrical apparently began long before leaving school to work for two pounds and a penny per week at ITT (who called themselves STC in those days). This was his apprenticeship period but he accidentally discovered one of the electrical 'facts of life' whilst investigating a 15 amp socket at the age of five. "I've been getting my own back on it ever since" he claims.
On completing his apprenticeship, Ron found himself on Government contracts wiring radar systems and bomber aircraft. "The job security was practically zero. Those in power at the time were frequently in the habit of spending millions of pounds developing a missile only to scrap it at the last moment." (Some things never change!) However, it proved excellent training for doing "neat wiring" very fast. The latter involves more than just wiring something tidily - it has to be put together so it can be moved without breaking. Primarily, this entails ensuring that the whole weight of a wiring loom isn't hanging on a few joints. This technique has been of immense help Ron reckons when redoing a job in what the manufacturers have described as a "portable" keyboard which, when it arrives at NW3, is more often than not full of absurdly positioned T-junctions within the loom. David added that this skill had been particularly pertinent on jobs they'd been required to do on older Hammond organs that have been "moved about a lot."
Ron spent a few years working at Vox during their heyday, building and developing the Vox Continental organ. He moved on to Brenell (the tape recorder manufacturers), Leek, and then Selmer, doing mostly development work. He worked on bulk tape copying for Philips when this began to be done at high speed (but outside the cassette case in those days).
Then in 1979 he struck out on his own repairing musical equipment for a while in partnership with Bill Dunn. He then decided that although he had a great respect for what Bill did, and still does, Ron's interests lay less with the orthodox forms of electronics and high speed electric piano tuning, and more with work on state of the art digital synthesizers.
He had a short spell also trying to mass produce his own make of amplifiers called 'Banc' which, though they created quite a stir at the Frankfurt Music Fair, never really got off the ground. A failure Ron puts down not least to the fact that the company name was pronounced 'Bonk' in most of Europe!! He then spent some time working with John Kelly, concentrating on servicing Sequential and Oberheim products.
Ron insists that he sees his role more as "customer support and not only a way of making money." This admirable ethic was what drew Ron and David together and the "honest approach of providing the kind of service and support we would like to receive" has won them a lot of friends.
I hope things continue to go from strength to strength for these two gents. I'm sure everyone will see the multiplicity of advantages involved in having equipment servicing performed on a personal level by those unburdened by the desire to sell their clients anything other than their ability to repair and improve products. May the unhappy marriage of sales and servicing be annulled by the success of The Synthesizer Service Centre.
Feature by Matthew Newman
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