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Secondhand Taping

Recording Gear

Article from Making Music, July 1987

There are bargains in the land of non-new taping equipment, specially if you like unfashionable effects

DAVID ETHERIDGE chats to recording gear retailer Tony Larking, and finds out how to look for secondhand bargains. Find out in the process what monitors Thomas Dolby uses and what sort of mike Bill Wyman gets repaired.

Want to set up your own studio? You'll have gathered, then, that there are many options open, from a cheap portastudio type machine, via more involved 8-track machinery, to full-blown 16- or 24-track facilities.

But an attractive way into home recording at any level is to buy secondhand: obviously things are cheaper this way, but people are often put off by the risk factor. Is this thing being sold because it's clapped out? What can I do to check that it's OK?

With questions like these in mind, I went to talk to retailers Don Larking of Luton who have made their name supplying both new and used recording gear over the past decade. As well as the latest ranges of desks, machines and outboard gear that Trevor Horn would find commonplace, Larking also have a nice range of reasonably priced 'historical' items that will still serve well in a home studio.

Tony Larking told me that the company began by selling only used equipment, but as time has gone on they've taken also to retailing new gear, picking up some of their secondhand stock from part exchanges on new stuff. Up till two years ago Larking did everything from portastudios up, but with general music shops moving into that field they now concentrate on 16-track up.

"With the advent of the B16 and E16 machines," said Tony, "it's made some of the big old machines like the Ampex MF100 redundant, whereas when we started, everything was sellable. We used to sell half a dozen of the big Ampexes every year but now they're very hard to sell because they're so big. If someone is on a budget for equipping a studio, and they've got the space, a 16-track machine like the older Ampexes is worth considering if you've got the ability to keep it running."

How difficult is maintenance for the older machines?

"Well, we don't do maintenance on machines like that ourselves anymore, but a company like Bauch can handle repairs on all equipment. It's getting to the point with some of the larger 1in machines now where they're getting old and in some cases troublesome, so even though you can pick them up for £500 to £600 or less, you could be buying trouble. We've had to become more selective in our choice of secondhand machines, because we're still liable for how good it is."

Do the earlier 4-track machines compare favourably to portastudios?

"The earlier Teac 3400 and 4400 are still a very good standard, and compare very well in terms of signal to noise ratios and general sound quality to portastudios, though I can't comment on the newest range of portastudios."

What is the current market for studio effects like?

"There's always a great demand for the current models and the latest technology, anything like that coming in secondhand will sell straight away. But we have to be very careful of FX generally as they're very liable to fashion. What's worth a few hundred pounds today may only be worth £20 tomorrow: for example, the advent of digital FX has made analogue delays and spring reverbs very difficult to sell. With trade-in prices being so low on things like that the owner might decide to hang on to the analogue gear as it'll be worth more to them than the current secondhand value. The fave raves currently are Drawmer gates, Bel digital delay fines, with Lexicon and AMS very much in demand. The Eventide range that used to be so popular — harmonizers, rack-mounted vocoders and such — are now possibly of interest only to enthusiasts. It seems a common occurrence, though, that certain models become very much in demand as soon as the manufacturers stop making them; the Roland Dimension D is a typical case in point."

Do studios upgrade monitor speakers as often as other equipment?

"Yes. The ones that instantly come to mind are the old Lockwood Majors, which seven or eight years ago were very often mounted in pairs in studios. As they come on to the secondhand market they get sold another step down the ladder, so to speak. They sell nowadays for about £500 a pair — very popular. It seems that every couple of years the fashion changes in studio monitors — they're a very funny area where personal preference is always the yardstick, and nowadays a lot of people will monitor mainly on small speakers like Auratones and use big monitors as a kind of aural microscope to check out the odd thing in the sound to make sure it will sound right. Small monitors are definitely the thing now: the new Uhers we get asked for a lot, and the Yamaha NS10s are very much in demand since Thomas Dolby was seen using them — and people blow the tweeters every week if they can't handle the power."

Have mikes changed over the years in quality and reliability, or are people just throwing older ones away?

"Well, we do. Microphone manufacturers never seem to delete any of their range; they keep bringing out new mikes, so the list gets longer and longer — just look at AKG or Beyer's lists. With secondhand mikes, again we've had to be selective about them. With the expensive ones like Neumann U87s and U47s, we only pay a price that allows us to get them fully checked over and make sure they're up to spec before we sell them. With the cheaper dynamics you'll find that a mike that's worth £50-£60 secondhand will cost an equal amount to get fixed."

What sort of things are likely to go wrong with mikes?

"With the U87s and some of the big valve Neumann mikes we've found in the past that the capsules get dirty and clogged up; we always send them out to (importers) Bauch, and they'll be fine afterwards. Capsules inside are things that go wrong with most modern mikes, but they aren't expensive to get cleaned up properly or to get a faulty one replaced. We just had a valve mike fixed for Bill Wyman. The bill for that came to £400, but the mike itself is not made now and is worth around £1,500: so that's worth it. With the cheap dynamics, repairs are not worth bothering with if they're going to go wrong."

What would the aspiring purchaser need to check out on secondhand recording gear?

"On any multitrack machine, the main thing to check out is head wear. Again on Soundcraft machines, we've never had to change heads on them, which says something about their quality. Motors can go wrong on machines, but in the main it's a rare occurrence. The problem to face is the cost of repairs as opposed to the value of the machine itself. For instance, a capstan motor for an old Ampex may cost the better part of £1,000 fully fitted, and the whole machine may be only now worth double that amount, so perhaps it's a false economy. There are always small companies who specialise in one-make repairs and servicing, so it's always worth finding these guys out for help and advice before you make a purchase. When we get a secondhand desk in, we check it out and connect it up fully for the buyer who can then run through all the channels and all the circuits to make sure they work and also to check for noisy pots, noisy faders and the like. Anyone in the market for a desk should do the same."

As with all types of electrical gear, check the overall condition, particularly mains connection. Watch for tell-tale signs of abuse: stains, burns (are they cigarette or electrical spark burns?), and broken controls.

Tape machines — what's the history? Why is it being sold? If the studio is updating, OK, but has it been regularly serviced? Most importantly, do you know who serviced it, and can you get it fixed if something goes wrong? Check head condition and look at guide rollers for general cleanliness. Wiring diagrams that come with any machine are always a help.

Mixers — check the history as above. Check all pots, sliders for noise and/or failure. What does it offer in the way of extra facilities? How many FX can be routed from each channel? If you're looking for 4-track reel to reel gear, a good quality PA mixer may give you far more responsibility than a porta-studio at the same price.

Mikes — not much to go wrong apart from the capsules. Secondhand, try and get the best you can, and preferably a condenser type; however, watch for potential problems with loose connections in phantom-powered models, the type that just takes a small battery will probably be a safer bet. Ribbon mikes are a good bet but are rarely sold off and very expensive.

FX — lots depends on your approach here. You can pick up real bargains in analogue technology if you're not worried about fashion in sound (how long has the gated snare sound got left anyway?), or you're a bucket brigade echo fan, the new Phil Spector (or even the old one), or an ethnically dedicated dub and reggae fan. For home quality demos, even FX pedals can serve very well. Remember, it's the off-the-wall approach that can make your sound individual — whatever the technology.

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

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Making Music - Jul 1987


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