Vintage gear guide

For those looking to stretch their budget when equipping or upgrading a studio there is no better way than to buy secondhand. But how do you know whether that deal really is just too good to be true? Jory MacKay investigates the market for buying used and brings tips and advice from the industry’s biggest brokers and resellers.

Walking into a shop selling used pro-audio and studio kit can feel like going deeper and deeper into an Aladdin’s cave passing shiny and not-so-shiny esoteric pieces of kit in search of that diamond in the rough. Yet there is always the risk that when you clean the grime off that ‘vintage’ piece of kit, there’s a lot less diamond and a whole lot more rough underneath.

It would be a lie to say that the vintage gear craze is slowing down, with any self-respecting studio owner going above and beyond to fatten out their list of vintage microphones, preamps, consoles, and backline (we’re still waiting for the vintage plug-in craze to kick in). The stacks of outboard that disappeared during the initial move over to digital studios in the 90s have sprung up again, with analogue kit being a big selling point for many commercial studios.

But the path to a vintage-equipped studio is fraught with pitfalls that even the pros sometimes can’t avoid. Just as if you were buying a secondhand car sight unseen, what’s under the hood might not be exactly as advertised.

For those looking to add some flavour to their studio, or just stretch their budgets, there are a number of processes for procuring used kit, each with their pros and cons.

Where to buy

The private market is full of people moving along old kit, upgrading, or who just fancy a change. But what if you aren’t willing to part with your hard-earned cash without some type of guarantee as to what you are receiving?

“You can obviously stretch your budget and pick up a bargain, but you’re in a bit of a lottery,” comments Funky Junk founder Mark Thompson. “Lets put it this way: we love eBay. Probably at least 50% of our work in the past year has been from things that people have bought on eBay and aren’t what they thought it would be. If it’s a bargain there’s a pretty good chance it won’t be as it seems.”

Thompson founded Funky Junk in London in the early 1990s. It specialises in buying vintage kit, servicing and sometimes restoring it, and then selling it with a warranty. At almost the same time across the Atlantic, engineer/producer/musician brothers Michael and Andrew Nehra were doing something similar under the Vintage King moniker. Both had become frustrated with the lack of responsibility taken by private sellers and gear brokers of the time and understood that, as Thompson puts it: “Every single piece of gear has something that needs to be done to it and most pieces of gear that come from a professional background need a lot done to them.”

Thompson uses a recent example of a Teletronix LA-2A that Coldplay wanted to use on their new record. The unit measured fine on all the tests but his techs said that it didn’t sound exactly right and brought in a tube specialist.

“Before that goes anywhere we’re going to make sure it sounds like a Teletronix should,” he explains. “If you were buying that same unit off eBay, you’d pay the same as you would from us or Vintage King, the difference being that we would have invested £160 in bits, maybe more, plus a couple of hours on the bench. It’s not just the cost of doing that, but finding someone who has the time to do it.”

Knowing what you can, and can’t get spares for is important

The personal touch

While Thomspon and Nehra have built their businesses around this model, the recording industry is still a small, tightknit group of people, and one where many deals still happen on a personal basis. Enter the pro-audio broker…

“A broker’s role is one of trust and providing a secure buffer between the buyer and the seller so that both can feel confident in trading especially when a technical authority is required to be certain of how much value for money you’re getting,” explains Hamish Jackson of equipment broker and studio real estate company mjQ. “Quality and assurance is the basis of a broker’s reputation, which takes a long time to establish.”

Unlike Funky Junk and Vintage King, which act more as a curated secondhand shop, a broker is responsible to both buyer and seller, which means, at least to Jackson, that sticking to a clear company policy is the best bet at making the deal as transparent as possible for both sides – something that is summed up in the unofficial mjQ motto: if it ain’t fixed, don’t ‘broke’ it!

Knowing when to steer clear

Experience counts when it comes to buying used gear. Besides going through all the right steps once you’ve begun the negotiating process (see box above), are there some pieces of kit that you should be especially wary of?

“Anything digital can be an issue because it isn’t fixable by a normal tech as usually it has surface-mounted technology and has to go back to the manufacturer who then tends to change the board,” says Thompson.

“There is a list of stuff that you just cannot get spares for: Fairchilds, if the output transformers are gone you can’t get them and the value goes down from £30,000 to £15,000 on the spot. Neumann’s, with the U47 if the VF14 tube is gone you can spend a long time looking and spend a lot of money trying to find out. On an AKG C12, the capsule – you won’t get one.”

Yet it’s not just the specific model numbers that you need to be aware of. Buying secondhand smartly also means knowing what a piece of kit should sound like.

Thompson: “When capacitors go in a piece of equipment it will very often continue to work although it may become intermittent, but the sound thins out – you lose the bottom end, you lose clarity and punch. This is why I say we often see people who have bought stuff secondhand, usually processing gear, and they’re putting up with something that isn’t performing anywhere near to its optimum and they don’t realise it.”

Electric Lady Studios in New York is home to a fully restored Neve 8078

Sound investment

While the idea of buying ‘secondhand’ might be a great way to build up your studio while saving money compared with purchasing new gear, buying ‘vintage’ is a whole other story.

There is some level of cultural weight we attach to recording gear from the ‘Golden Era’ that manufacturers continue to play off. Just look at the way new kit references the revered items of the 60s and 70s, or the sheer amount of plug-ins that claim to be the most realistic end-to-end sonic recreations of those specific models.

“People are increasingly conscious of the resale potential, much like works of art (which they are!),” says Jackson. “Trends are still quite territory-specific, for example Neumann vinyl cutting lathes are going back to Germany where the mastering industry is booming and the Chinese love affair with tape machines is still very much alive and well.”

“With computer technology and the internet over the last 15 years you’ve seen a steady and exponential increase in the amount of musicians who can record affordably,” adds Nehra.

“We still find a massive amount of this stuff and it does still change hands, but more people want it and that’s driving up the price. So, there’s only so many U47s, and however many Pultecs, Fairchilds, Teletronix LA2As, etc… So the demand is higher and the price has gone up. There’s more users and only X amount available. When we started in 1993, a vintage 1073 was $700, now it will go anywhere from $6,500-$7,500. It’s a pretty good investment.”

Not everyone, however, is as optimistic about the continuing growth of the market and Thompson believes it is starting to soften and that prices might need to be re-evaluated and lowered in the near future: “Instinctively I feel the market softening a bit. I don’t know why, maybe because the stuff we do is just the froth on the cappuccino.”