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Publish and be Saved!

Tony-Miln-Soundgas

WRITTEN BY: Tony Miln

UPLOADED: 15th Jan 2020

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Is it morally-justifiable to withhold (or charge for) rare schematics to vintage equipment? When there are fewer and fewer people on this earth who have the knowledge and desire to restore and repair the gear we love, is it right that their valiant efforts are thwarted by lack of access to access to schematics and service documentation?

Many of us are indebted to brave and generous engineers who work longer hours, very often without expectation of adequate recompense, to trace out schematics or reverse engineer circuits. Had they the correct documentation to refer to, their workload would be less onerous and they’d have more time to fix more gear. Is it sustainable (or sensible) for a solitary person or business on one continent to hold the only key to repairing pieces that are in use all over the planet? What could and should be done, and why is this important?

The Quest Continues

I have written before that we firmly believe that it is no longer sufficient to merely service and supply vintage equipment for our customers. If we do not invest in training the next generation of technicians to maintain and repair the gear we love, then in a decade or two it will all be mere museum curiosities to gawp at and wonder ‘What did that sound like?’

This is already the reality for some of the stranger and more esoteric synths and studio tech: lesser-known devices, produced in small quantities, with obsolete chips/EPROMs (often with obscured identification numbers) are already no more use than doorstops or paperweights. Then there are those pieces – often very expensive – that are impossible to repair because the schematics are no longer available or are closely-guarded by sole custodians.

A perfect example of super-rare gear with impossible to find EPROMS is the Frogg Compusound. The shot below is from when our tech James was working on resurrecting one of these (we have two more still to go!). This work has been touched on before, but there’s a whole post to come covering this rare beast, and all our findings including the contents of the chips will be published once we get it organised, but if you have one you are trying to recover now then get in touch and we will try to help. The shot at the top or side of this post (depending on how you’re reading) is also a close up of the Frogg EPROMS with part numbers scratched off!

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So for us, training techs is only part of the solution. Sharing such knowledge as schematics, service documentation, calibration charts, and older engineers’ notes/experience, is absolutely vital if those new techs are to be charged with maintaining equipment manufactured decades before they were born. But where to find such information?

Forum Foraging

For techs and enthusiastic amateurs alike, there are a wealth of forums where knowledge is freely-shared and specific questions answered. Inevitably online one has to be vigilant for those less-informed who seek to pass themselves off as experts;  a little diligence soon reveals the talk that doesn’t match the walk. Some sites are more reliable than others for knowledge and (though I’m no expert these days having time for only the briefest of visits) I’ve found much to be gleaned from forums such as Muff Wiggler, GroupDIY and Sound On Sound and I understand there are some very good Facebook groups where knowledge is freely shared. I find Gearslutz can be hit and miss, but this very much down to the sheer volume of information posted therein; sift through the waffle and you can find deep and informative insights from experienced individuals.

Had Enough Of Experts?

My golden rule with ‘knowledge’ found online is that it should come from a trusted source: this can be tricky to verify as someone’s online reputation can be somewhat opposed to their actual knowledge and capabilities. Over the years I’ve bought equipment from, or had work performed by, persons whose reputation led me to anticipate greatness, only to find myself disappointed by mediocrity, incompetence, and/or shoddy/dangerous work. When scanning forums for information it is not uncommon to read posts about the relative merits of a certain synth or effect versus another, only to learn further down the thread that the contributor’s robustly-expressed opinion is at best based on personal experience limited to only one of the pieces concerned (the ‘mine is better’ syndrome), a plugin approximation, or something they’d been told by ‘a friend’!

Protection Or Extinction?

It is understandable that a company or individual should seek to protect their intellectual property, especially so if it relates to a product in current or planned future production, yet often with vintage gear, this is not the case. Whether through diligence, luck, or hard work, one person may hold the key to restoring certain rare and valuable pieces and understandably seeks to maintain their advantage and continue to be the go-to tech for their speciality in their country or continent. But what happens when a solitary individual holds the only schematics and a tech on another continent needs to effect a repair? International shipping is not always a sensible solution for delicate machinery and is certainly not the best option from an environmental perspective.

Below is our Dr. Huw working on a Binson in our workshop. Much of the technical information we have on these is only because it has been freely shared by others.

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Spirit Of Giving

What harm does it do a technician based in Europe to share information with someone in New Zealand? It certainly doesn’t impact the European tech’s business negatively. In fact, the opposite is true: sharing rather than withholding knowledge is a cycle of give and take that benefits us all. While there are some who still retain an outmoded attitude of hoarding information that could be made widely available without adversely affecting their business, many take the opposite view and generously-share when asked.

Mission Possible

Those of us whose main concern is to see this wonderful old gear remain serviceable, wherever it is located, have a duty to improve the situation for the benefit of the worldwide community. It is very much a key part of our mission at Soundgas to make this site a trove of such information, accessible to all. If you have hard to find manuals or schematics, we welcome all contributions and will continue to invest in improving the availability of such documentation. It can take a good deal of time and effort to scan and clean up documents, and we salute those who devote themselves to improving the current situation. If you do have documents that you’d like to see made more widely available, then please get in touch and if appropriate we’ll scan and publish them on the site.

Endangered Species

We all need to think about the wider implications of our actions for the sake of the future of the gear we love. If the only schematics in existence are confined to a single building, computer drive, or individual’s head, then these pieces are one fire, hard drive failure or heart attack away from extinction. Some of the most desirable gear that we love falls into this endangered category.

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My Sweet Lord

One such item is the Sony DRE-2000: the first digital reverb, released in the early 1980s and favoured by the Lord Alge brothers, Chris and Tom. These units have become very scarce (I read somewhere that Sony recalled many of them) and documentation is thin on the ground ground. We purchased one recently in the hope of resurrecting it, and this was achieved against the odds (and without complete schematics/calibration documentation) thanks to the incredible work of a very dedicated tech. It now lives and breathes again and was a labour of love and curiosity that went far beyond economic sense.

I Am The Resurrection

This is often the case: a sole dedicated technician motivated more by the desire to raise a piece from the land of the electronic dead rather than the promise of financial gain, toiling for many more hours than he can bill. As a result, not only is this great vintage reverb heading to a valuable working future in the USA, rather than superannuation and possibly landfill, but we now have a nearly complete set of schematics and manuals for other techs to benefit from. We intend, with his blessing, to publish all the documents we have relating to the DRE-2000 in the hope that this can help others restore and repair these rare devices. The schematics are not the best scans, but we’ve just found a fresh set that we’ll be scanning and uploading soon. If anyone has the calibration guide, it would help future techs immensely if we could add it to the resource.

In the same way, when we received schematics and a lot of other documentation about the Grampian Type 636 we invested in putting it all up on our site (even though at the time we knew we might build our own, and which we now have of course…).

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Living On A Prayer

Without a new generation of experienced engineers, all of our treasured studio kit is living on borrowed time, and without the right information at their fingertips, they are operating in the dark. For the sake of their sanity, and a sustainable future for our gear, there needs to be a seismic shift in the attitudes of the custodians of rare documentation. I call on anyone who is holding such information to make it freely available online: if you do not have the resources, know-how, or inclination to do it yourself, then get in touch and we’ll help. Let’s ensure that more pieces of equipment are successfully resurrected to enjoy a bright and useful future in our studios. Act now before it’s too late: publish and let the gear be saved!

Tony Miln is the co-founder (& Head Gear Head) of Soundgas. See/hear him in action on Instagram.

Related Resources

Including links to a few of the schematics and manuals we have on the site. Find them all in our Resources section (with a lot more to come once we get the scanner fired up again!).

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