Tech's Files: The Joys and Perils of Used Gear

Apr 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Eddie Ciletti



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The next step is to capture and loop a section, and alternately solo each track, and then see if you can identify which device the artifacts belong to. Keep in mind that distortion is typically below 1 percent, so it won't be obvious. Assuming you get a decent subtractive null, the device that sounds “louder,” richer and, yes, warmer most likely has the higher distortion. This matter of personal taste also extends itself to hardware-vs.-software comparisons. Lack of null cancellation typically implies latency. After capturing raw and processed analog tracks, zoom in to determine the latent channel and then insert a sample delay on the opposite channel to compensate.

Hiss and hum levels are typically higher for vintage gear due to the tolerances of that era — analog tape was always noisier; turntable rumble overshadowed hum on the original recording. Selecting low-noise components (tubes, transistors, FETs and resistors) can lower hiss. Bringing the power supply into the modern era can reduce hum. This can be as simple as replacing/upgrading parts, or as complex as adding regulation and improving ground distribution. And here, “original” doesn't necessarily equal “better.”

Kicking the tires on a car may not show much, but looking under the hood can be revealing. Excessive heat turns circuit boards brown, makes resistors hard to read and reduces capacitor life. Shorted capacitors can cause power transformers to overheat and fail. Speaking of visual inspections, Fletcher from Mercenary Audio offers this tip: Silkscreen wear-pattern around major controls (like control room level) is a sign of heavy use. Pop the hood and look for replaced parts (like capacitors) and other signs of good routine maintenance.

The Final Tweak

We all want a low-mileage piece of gear owned by the little old lady from Pasadena, but these items are rare. Vintage audio gear was typically powered 24/7, often in a smoky environment, which means it will require a healthy dose of TLC.

I'm always amazed by the amount of vintage recording equipment that has narrowly avoided the dumpster. Back in the mid-'80s, when ABC was upgrading its video facilities, I remember a station wagon pulling up to Ramco Electronic Surplus on Canal Street in New York City. It was filled with Pultec equalizers that were selling for $95 each!

Back then, I didn't have the money. But even today, there are still good deals to be had for recent and vintage gear — if you're willing to look around and apply some care and common sense.

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Capacitors are in every piece of audio gear, and of all of the passive electronic components, they have the shortest life expectancy. Bad caps in a power supply cause hum. In the audio path, open caps filter low frequencies, and shorted caps pass DC instead of blocking it. (Mis-biased tubes, transistors and op amps will distort and run hot, causing premature failure.)

In vintage gear, switch contacts were larger, had greater spring tension, a thicker precious-metal plating, and with daily use were inherently self-cleaning. The design was either “open” or easily disassembled for cleaning. From the '70s onward, switches and pots got smaller, and had less contact pressure, and thinner plating and conductive coating. Modern parts are typically sealed, making them nearly impossible to expose, and they are often custom-made so generic parts won't fit.
Eddie Ciletti

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