The Analogue Options
As the industry has focused on mass-market, mass-produced digital recording solutions, we have seen a resurgence in interest in analogue technology as audiophiles and those nostalgic about the golden audio age seek the musicality that only analogue equipment can offer. However, although enjoying a resurgence in popularity, analogue remains a niche market particularly as the implosion on record sales decimate the economics of the recording industry.
So what are the options? By and large, analogue audio enthusiasts have two choices – to purchase new equipment manufactured by small ’boutique’ companies or to recycle original pieces of classic gear. Both have their own problems.
The last ten years has seen an explosion of small ’boutique’ companies manufacturing variations on classic audio themes, often bristling with tubes and transformers. Sadly, as someone who has been involved with the professional recording for most of my working life, having engineered my first album in nineteen-eighty and having been involved in building and supplying studios since nineteen-ninety, I’m a little cynical about much of the new gear I see from small manufacturers these days. The background of these companies seems similar – a studio owner with some electronics knowledge copies a piece of classic gear for his own use, usually a Urei, Altec or Fairchild style compressor or a Pultec eq. A few mates likes it so they commission one of his KitchenComps and within a couple of years Mister Studio owner is spending more time making gear than recording (not that he ever had many studio clients anyway). So where’s the problem? The problem is that KitchenComp is a bodged copy of a forty year old piece of kit, designed in a different age for a knowledgeable professional market of recording studios with skilled in-house maintenance technicians to interface, service and modify the gear if required. Output requirements – levels, impedance etc. – were different back then. The transformers originally used are no longer available and in any event, KitchenComp uses cheaper components in order to bring the price down. Chinese or Russian tubes are used as the originals are now hard to find and extremely expensive. Oh, KitchenComp looks the part – big plastic knobs and meters set into a chunky faceplate – but behind the facia lies a mishmash of shoddy design and construction. But that doesn’t matter as the units are being purchased by a new generation of recordists who have never used the originals, don’t know what to expect from a well-designed and well-made piece of analogue kit and don’t realise that the levels are mismatched with modern requirements. And poor though the unit is, it sounds better than the cheap digital devices the buyer is used to, and let’s face it, adding transformers to a signal chain will invariably improve the sound not matter how ineffectual the rest of the design might be.
Sometimes our garage manufacturer does produce a good sounding, well-designed and well-built device and our wannabe entrepreneur finds demand outstrips his ability to supply, with the result that customers and dealers become stressed at late, very late, delivery of orders or a dramatic decrease in quality or reliability as corners are cut to ramp up manufacture. There is a huge difference between designing and making a few pieces of outboard and growing a business. Sadly, I could name dozens of well-known boutique manufacturers (some of them Gearslutz favourites) that we won’t stock or recommend because we’ve learnt from bitter experience that the manufacturer will take weeks or months to deliver or because we know those pieces of gear spend more time in our repair shop than they do in use. Or both.
So if the new boutique audio route must carry a warning, what’s the alternative?
Over the last two decades, we’ve seen the growth in demand for used professional audio equipment expand dramatically. Indeed, Funky Junk were the first company in the world to offer fully serviced used outboard and mics from stock complete with no-quibble warranty and comprehensive service backup and we remain the leading supplier of quality used professional audio equipment in Europe. And therein lies a key problem – so much of the classic and vintage outboard that comes through our workshops needs a complete overhaul to perform as it should. Sadly, there is a generation of recording enthusiasts who don’t understand the effect that age, use and wear and tear have on outboard, mics, multitracks and consoles. If a piece of gear passes signal and the meters light up, they assume it works and never having used a legendary piece of equipment before, the new owner doesn’t realise how it is supposed to sound. The result? Disappointment or dreadful sounding recordings. Indeed, unless buyers accept that they will almost certainly need to invest in service and refurbishing costs (by someone who knows what they’re doing rather than a mouthy mate), their money would be better spent on a new reissue model rather than a tired and faulty original. Sure, a recapped, refurbished Neve 1073 may well have the edge on Neve’s current reissue but not if the capacitors have dried out or the transformers are open circuit (common problems). An original Urei 1176 has a fuller, more solid sound than the Universal reissue or a Disstresser, but only if it’s serviced and properly lined up. The reissue is a good device and sounds better than the majority of originals bought privately on-line or from brokers.
Classic outboard and mics can be serviced and restored but even here, caution must be exercised. Some gear used tubes, transformers, switches and even knob caps that are impossible to get these days so make sure that the bargain AMS delay or Eventide H910, Ursa Major Space Station or Neumann U47 works perfectly; don’t assume you’ll be able to get it fixed. Note…other audio headaches are available…
My advice for those seeking analogue Nirvana is to listen to those who understand the pitfalls rather than accepting second-hand and often ill-informed advice from audio chatrooms and recording forums. Great analogue gear can massively enhance the recording and listening experience, but don’t always believe the hype or assume that purely because the manufacturer (and his on-line sock-puppet internet mates) ‘claims’ his gear replicates audio classics, this is actually the case. And don’t assume that when an eBay seller or a broker claims the piece of kit he’s selling is ‘perfect’ that he’s telling the truth (or knows what it should sound like). After all, I’m sure you wouldn’t buy a new motorbike or a car without a test drive or a used vehicle without getting a mechanic to check it over first (and get a warranty from the seller). Many items of high-end audio cost more than a used banger, and some cost more than a new one, so please, please, please take care when making what can often be a major investment.