Buying Secondhand & Surplus Recording Equipment
Tips on what to look out for
Despite the fact that recorded sound has been around for over 100 years the desire to listen to one's own efforts or those of others is as strong now as it ever was. The demand to listen repeatedly has ensured a long life for the 'talking machines' and caused it to develop from a scratch on a tin-foil drum to a series of pulses stored on disc or tape and read capacitively, optically or magnetically, with a lot of variations between the two extremes. The progress which has brought this about has created a situation in which the demand for the latest in recording technology has caused a corresponding fall in the demand for all that went before, since supply and demand dictates price there is a corresponding fall there too.
Every year professional organisations such as TV and BBC Radio or Government departments replace large quantities of high quality sound equipment, some of it a little dated but nevertheless still useful and ideal as a basis for a budget studio which would offer professional facilities at a strictly amateur price. No matter how much the quality of domestic equipment increases it rarely incorporates the features required by the professional, such as a switchable capstan motor and easy access to tape heads to facilitate accurate editing — though it must also be said that not all professional machines have these provisions.
One of the key advantages of buying used professional equipment is that it will have been maintained during its working life, that is not to say it will be in perfect working condition when sold, but the chances are it will be in a better state of repair than a well used item, from a private source, where there was perhaps never the time nor money to follow the manufacturer's recommended maintenance schedules. Irrespective of the type or make of equipment there are certain things to watch for.
Always look for obvious signs of physical damage resulting from either transit or abuse, ensure that nothing is missing, covers, control knobs, special plugs, cables or service information. The wisdom of trying to collect all of the bits can easily be understood when it is realised that a leather carrying case for a portable recorder may cost more than the surplus recorder itself when it is bought new. When there are related items 'going begging' — take them, and in the event that they are not required they may be sold at a later date to help recover some of the initial outlay. Performance should also be checked, though when buying an unfamiliar piece of equipment it is difficult to know what is right and wrong since the function of all the controls may not be known, there are however several things to look for such as noise, both electrical and mechanical, sloppy controls and bearings which are a sure sign of excessive use.
Since surplus equipment is yesterday's style, it was until recently strictly mono, but nowadays there is a considerable amount of two channel equipment about at rock bottom prices. The current trend in the home studio is to use a cassette-based multitrack system operated by a lone recordist building up the sound layer by layer; but mono, single track still has much to commend it. Small groups of musicians can work wonders with a couple of mono machines costing little more than £50.00 each. Whilst some may consider that 'laying down some backing tracks - man' is the only way to do it, it is worth remembering that as far as many members of the public are concerned, the best pop records ever made were recorded in mono and probably in one complete take!
Other broadcast bargains which are to be found in surplus stores include amplifiers (often Quad), mixers which vary from the most basic 4 mic/line type, to a full broadcast console. Individual channel modules and faders are sometimes available much to the delight of the DIY types. Even the simplest of mixers usually incorporate peak programme metering (PPM), a feature which will cost more as an extra on some new mixers than the total cost of the surplus mixer, making it a bargain for that one facility alone. The older style monitor loudspeaker systems are still to be found from time to time, a typical price per pair would probably be between £75.00 and £100.00. The finish varies with age and use but there are some fine oak veneered units around. Bargains are not only restricted to major items, such studio necessities as tape, reels, connecting cords and GPO patchbays are also to be found.
One of the main reasons for buying a professional open reel studio machine (apart from the obvious one of quality) is the simplicity of tape editing which enables a whole range of effects to be achieved which are virtually impossible to obtain with the standard compact cassette system. The professional machine will often have two or more tape speeds, which opens up additional creative avenues, as does the fact that the tape may be reproduced in reverse or turned to present the wrong face to the tape heads. In addition to these advantages an open reel machine will invariably have three heads, a feature which is both rare and expensive on its cassette counterpart. The three head format provides an echo facility at no extra cost and regenerative effects by patching proprietary effects units between the playback and record circuits. Inexpensive machines such as the old Ferrographs and Brennells may be used as echo units in their own right, with a performance which will far exceed the standard musical group type which is often pressed in to service.
So it would seem that the industry's old workhorses can still be saddled up and manage some good tricks! It's just a matter of keeping your eye on the newspaper classifieds or ads in the back of magazines.
Feature by Steve Taylor
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