The True Cost Of Vintage Gear (The Quest For Techs Part 2)
WRITTEN BY: Tony Miln
UPLOADED: 19th Sep 2018
Part two of our series about the people who can fix all this old gear, people who really KNOW it inside out. And it’s also about what can be done about the slow but steady loss of this deep knowledge and real, hands-on experience from the world of vintage audio.
Are you a tech looking for work reading this? Or maybe you want to learn (and are local to us)? More info below, but we definitely want to hear from you!
This weekend I Iearned that we lost John Leimseider – a lovely, warm and generous man and a true giant in the small world of experienced and capable synth techs. He’s picture above (on the right), standing next to Malcolm Cecil in front of The Original New Timbral Orchestra (TONTO) that has sadly turned out to have been his last major restoration project. TONTO now resides in the National Music Centre in Calgary, Canada, where John was head synth technician, and featured on recordings by Stevie Wonder and the Isley Brothers as well as many others (including, of course, on the Tonto’s Expanding Head Band album Zero Time).
With every year that passes, we are losing irreplaceable experience and deep knowledge that only comes from lives dedicated to the restoration and repair of vintage recording equipment. To avoid me repeating myself too much, please also see my previous blog post, The Future of Vintage Gear (the Quest for Techs…), or you’ll be missing a chunk of the story.
You could be forgiven for looking at our site and thinking we’re only in the business of looking back, but here at Soundgas we are committed to ensuring there is a future for the vintage gear we all know and love. This involves training, education, and the dissemination of knowledge. I believe that the training of the technicians of the future is our most vital and essential role. If we do not invest time and resources in passing this knowledge on to the next generation now, our cherished vintage synths, valve amps, and echo machines will be little more than curious antiquities to our children and grandchildren.
In a world where colleges and universities compete to offer essentially the same music technology courses, seeking to train an army of recording engineers for employment positions that no longer exist, why are they not training new service engineers and technicians? One answer is that it is far from easy: hands-on and varied experience with vintage gear is the only sure route to success (and who wants an inexperienced student servicing their treasured vintage Minimoog?). It is also less-appealing to the students deciding which course to choose (and thereby to spend their course fees): the life of a tech is removed from a society in the thrall of celebrity culture and rock star glamour (although some of Dr Huw’s tales of life on the road would suggest otherwise). Right now however, a well-trained engineer equipped with the knowledge to competently-tackle a range of relatively-common vintage recording gear, has a well-paid job for life; and the best techs get to meet some very interesting people indeed.
Over the past year, we have concentrated a great deal of our resources on expanding our tech department. We now have four experienced members of staff who are dedicated to the servicing and restoration of vintage equipment; they have just been joined by our new apprentice, Will Bateman, who is keen to absorb their knowledge and become versed in the various dark arts essential to our gear’s future (he recently completed a course in tape loop splicing – not something many other 19 year olds can put on their CV).
Max Dawson (seen above contemplating the nature of Space), who initially joined us a year ago as apprentice tech, swiftly proved overqualified and was promoted to full technician within a matter of months of his arrival. Max can now reasonably claim to be one of the foremost Space Echo engineers on the planet. His tutelage under our chief tech and echo wizard, Dr Huw has been a runaway success, and both of them deserve our recognition and thanks for their dedication and hard work. They are not ones for resting on their laurels however, and Dr Huw has set Max the task of rebuilding a Binson Echorec 2 that has been no more than a box of components for the past two years. I’m watching his progress with great interest (he’s working on it in between Space Echo service work): are there any other 21 year olds on the planet who can even attempt to rebuild a Binson Echorec?
Binson Echorecs have been a passion of mine since I first encountered one over a quarter of a century ago. Finding techs to work on them in any way has always been difficult as they require an increasingly-rare combination of skills; valves, mechanics, electronics, tape recording theory (and its specific application with the recording wire-wrapped drums utilised on Binsons). Not only does a tech require the aforementioned skills, but they need to be combined with a great reserve of experience that can only come from dealing with the various features, flaws, foibles, and eccentricities of the various incarnations of these machines. This can only come as a result of a great deal of time spent at the coalface – there is no classroom for this knowledge beyond a busy and dedicated tech bench and Max is learning from the very best in the business.
Anyone who claims to know everything there is to learn about Binsons is more than likely to be something of a windbag (I’ve encountered those who’ve claimed as much – each was inevitably undone by a previously-unseen issue): those who humbly-admit that they are still learning are the real deal – with Binsons, as in life, we are all still learning.
There is no substitute in tech training for time spent on a quantity and variety of vintage machines, both exceptional examples and basket cases, and we continue to invest by encouraging our techs to take time to explore various avenues and possibilities, even if they turn out to be dead ends or red herrings. Dr Huw has recently made some significant breakthroughs in his Binson knowledge and servicing/modification techniques with results that shine through in our machines.
The True Cost Of Training
This quantum leap in quality has only been made possible by our employing a second and very experienced Binson engineer to perform the first round of restoration work – he was already regularly producing machines of a standard exceeding anything I’d encountered before. Once he has finished work, they pass to Dr Huw for extensive further improvements and modifications (icing the cake), often requiring as much or more bench time as the previous restoration process. The third part of the process is that I spend time tweaking and testing before often returning the machine to the workshop for further improvements. This is a very time-consuming (and hence costly) process, but the results speak for themselves. I look forward to the day – not too far off – when Max is presenting me with the Binson Echorec he has restored himself: another milestone for the Soundgas School Of Echo.
Investment in training is vital: it is also expensive – an experienced tech’s time is immensely-valuable to a business like ours, and time taken to train another person is time that could’ve been spent servicing a piece of gear for sale. Continued investment to produce new techs is part of the Soundgas philosophy: you can be sure that when you buy from us, we will be investing in training to ensure your gear’s future.
Our apprentices have to take an electrical apprentice course (learning about light switches etc) – sadly there is nothing suitable for those wishing to specialise in audio electronics. Perhaps the logical progression is for us to one day run a vintage electronics course in partnership with a college to offer a formal qualification? Watch this space!