Illustration: Jack Desrocher
I have a confession to make: I'm a used-gear junky. Just about everything in my home studio — synths, samplers, digital multitrack recorder, effects, even my desk and patch bay — originally belonged to strangers. I have bought (and sold) used gear since my earliest days as a musician, wired money to people I've never met, shipped valuable cargo halfway around the world on a promise, and lived to tell the tale.
In spite of the many horror stories in circulation, buying from auction sites or print classifieds is as safe as any arm's-length transaction, as long as you take a few simple precautions. In this column I'll discuss where to find the best deals, how to protect yourself, what to look for, and where to find manuals and service for older gear (see the sidebar “After You Buy”).
So why not just buy new stuff and avoid the hassles? Well, for one thing, used gear usually sells for half as much as new. Also, by the time a product reaches the used market, it has often developed a substantial user base. That base can prove invaluable to you when you are researching what to buy; additionally, it will help you in determining what type of support and assistance you can expect to get after you have made your purchase.
For the purposes of this article, let's differentiate between the terms vintage and used. Vintage, unlike used, connotes a certain level of desirability, function, and class that goes beyond mere age.
FIG. 1: PrePal.com tracks current prices for thousands of music products. This figure shows current auction prices for a number of Korg devices.
Before you start bidding or make an offer on anything, know what you want and why you want it. Peruse online user groups (most manufacturers maintain links) or run a search on the name of the product — and don't be shy about asking questions. Subscribe to relevant newsgroups, many of which have extensive searchable archives (see the sidebar “Net Sources”). And of course, don't overlook EM's online review archives.
Check out the manufacturer's Web site to learn about the product and to read any available technical reports. Surprisingly, even gear that's been off the market for years may still be supported with downloadable updates, user tips, FAQs, and more. Try to learn if a product has recently been orphaned (dropped from the development process). Dead-end gear may look like a bargain, but it's not if you can't get media, accessories, and supplies.
Purchasing items having obsolete technology and an entrenched user base is another story. Just because everyone's hyped about 24-bit, 96 kHz audio doesn't mean you should pass on a perfectly good 16-bit recorder if it fits your needs and budget. Or consider this: the venerable Yamaha SPX 90 digital multi-effects processor remains a staple in many studios even though it boasts only 12-bit internal processing. Some obsolete gear attracts a fanatical following — yet another reason to peruse user groups.
Once you have an idea of what you want, go to PrePal.com to check the price — it tracks all of the major online auctions, posting daily updates for more than 3,500 products in its database (see Fig. 1). PrePal.com is a great resource for finding pro and project-studio gear and synths; sadly, no such service exists for guitars and other musical instruments. However, you can get a pretty good idea of current selling prices for those by searching recently completed auctions or the past few weeks of the Sunday classifieds.
But be forewarned: I've noticed a couple of instances in which the prices for used gear were actually higher than what you'd pay for the same gear new from a discount retailer. It therefore pays to check the new prices, too.
GOING ONCE, GOING TWICE
FIG. 2: EBay is the world''s largest online auction site and is a great resource for buying used music gear. Searching for “Kurzweil K2500” returned a page full of hits.
EBay is the world's biggest garage sale — sooner or later just about everything real or imagined shows up for auction on this hugely successful, and large, Web site (see Fig. 2). There are many additional general-purpose auctions on line, offering everything from cars to collectibles. One, Digibid, specializes in equipment relating to music, video, and film, making it a good place to begin your search.
The secret to success with auctions is to know your price and stick to it. Don't get caught in a bidding war just to satisfy your ego; by the time the smoke clears, you may realize your winning bid was half your annual salary.
By the same token, you can't simply post your maximum bid and walk away — some dog is sure to top you. I've seen people cruise auction sites, upping bids by a dollar or two seemingly at random. Please don't adopt this strategy, because it doesn't work and it's really annoying.
I like to automate the bidding process, letting my robot agent top each new bid as it's placed, up to a preselected maximum. Most auction sites offer this service. If you'd rather participate, most of the action happens toward closing time, so set your alarm. Sometimes it all comes down to who's quickest with the Send button at the final gun.
Be aware of reserves, which are hidden minimum prices. It's pretty frustrating to discover after two weeks of nail biting that your winning bid won't be accepted after all. Digibid doesn't allow reserves; minimum bids are clearly posted.
EBay's system of rating sellers (and buyers) offers a modest amount of protection. Nonetheless, trust is the name of the game. Escrow services (optional on eBay, but standard on Digibid) foster peace of mind. Here's how they work: both the buyer and the seller agree to use the service and negotiate the terms. Once you win a bid, the escrow service holds on to your payment until you've received and inspected the gear. If it isn't as advertised, you can return it for a full refund, less a small handling charge.
If the seller is signed up with an online payment service such as PayPal, you get fraud protection built in to your credit card without the risk of giving a stranger your number.
The overwhelming majority of sellers are folks just like you who are looking to turn over some of their surplus gear. Nevertheless, it's never a bad idea to be careful. Be wary of generic e-mail accounts like hotmail.com or yahoo.com — they are impossible to trace if something does go wrong. Always make sure you get (and verify) a phone number, as well as a valid street address.
As with the classified section in print publications such as EM, online classified ads can be a great place to check out when trying to pick up used gear. Away from the bidding frenzy, you have time to ask questions, negotiate a price, and work out details of shipping and payment. User groups, forums, and news groups often allow members to post ads, a great resource when you are looking for something specific. Dedicated classified sites range from huge international listings to tiny pages with a few specialized ads. A number of online retailers and informational sites host independent classified sites as well.
Most classifieds work the same way: you contact the seller directly to make the deal. At some sites you post your offer for a set amount of time, during which the seller can accept it or pass.
FROM THE SOURCE
Products that have been returned to a manufacturer or retailer for one reason or other, although not technically used, can be huge bargains. Returns may be reconditioned by the factory to the original specifications, or they can be offered as “dented-and-scratched” merchandise. Both types offer the significant advantage of warranty protection and service from a reputable dealer. Beware of merchandise offered “as is” — that means it isn't covered by a warranty.
Used-gear retailers combine great selection with the protections of an established dealer (credit cards, returns, and so forth), albeit at a somewhat higher cost than classifieds or auctions. Most have a set trial period for all purchases, and some even offer limited warranties.
FACE TO FACE
Even in this wired world, a lot of commerce still happens at arm's length. Classified ads, garage sales, even the neighborhood pawn shack have a lot going for them; what you give up in privacy and convenience is offset by the chance to get your mitts on the object of your desire. Looking the seller in the eye while you decide the fate of your last paycheck isn't a bad idea, either.
Just about every newspaper runs a classified section for musical instruments — the bigger the town, the more choices you'll have. For even greater selection, check out alternative and free papers in larger metropolitan areas and college towns. I've seen some terrific rags dedicated to the local music scene, with listings for gear, rehearsal spaces, musicians wanted, and more. As with online classifieds, the key is to gather information in advance. Phone up and ask questions before you make the drive. If you like what you hear, make an appointment. And be prompt — no one likes to lose an afternoon waiting around for some joker who has no intention of showing up.
You may be entering someone's home to inspect the gear, so keep the conversation to a minimum and avoid trash talk. Bring what you need to check out the gear: headphones, your guitar, a favorite CD, and so on. Some people like to bring along an experienced friend for a second opinion. If you want to haggle, go ahead. For many people, that's half the fun; others find it insulting. Unless you are buying from a studio or other established business where credit cards and personal checks are accepted, bring enough cash to do the deal. Chances are that you won't be able to arrange an overnight trial deal, but it doesn't hurt to ask.
Garage sales are the stuff of legend. Everyone knows someone who knows someone who picked up a 1955 Fibson Trem-o-Valve with the original hound's-tooth grill cloth for $25 and change. The reality is a little more mundane: when you see the words “musical instruments,” expect a battered clarinet or cheesy chord organ. That being said, you never know when a sweet old RCA ribbon mic in perfect working order will show up. If you have the time, you can have a lot of fun and maybe even make a score.
Pawnshops get a bad rap in the used-gear world. Everyone knows the story: some out-of-luck soul had to pawn her axe in order to raise bus fare to go to her father's funeral, and then couldn't get back to reclaim her instrument before the loan ran out…
In most cases, however, the used musical equipment in a pawnshop is actually sold to the store, not pawned. Many shops maintain a lively trade buying and selling used (and new) gear, both retail and wholesale.
AVOIDING GEAR PROBLEMS
The bulk of the used gear you'll come across is good-quality stuff that has outlived its usefulness to the owner. Then there's that funky, broken junk that never was any good to begin with. How do you tell the difference?
First off, don't trust the photo posted next to an ad — especially an online one. Most likely it came from the manufacturer's Web site and doesn't represent the specific item. Always ask the seller about the manual and supplemental paperwork, and whether the unit comes with any add-ons or accessories such as power supplies, rack hardware, extra sounds, and so on. If you're buying online, you either post your questions using a query form or contact the seller directly for a confidential reply.
I always want to know if the owner has the original shipping materials and box, not just because they will help ensure that the unit will reach my door safely, but because it suggests that the gear has been well cared for by a meticulous owner.
Not all used gear is created equal; the quality of effects units, solid-state compressors, direct boxes, synth modules, and the like tends to be fairly reliable. Barring a serious electrical accident or outright stupidity, it's pretty hard to break them. A dead battery simply means that you won't be able to store your edits until you change it; a burned-out LED or LCD may not affect the operation; tubes are easy to change. Look out, however, for excessive noise at the outputs, crunchy pots and switches, and obvious shorts. In my experience, most older digital gear works perfectly well long after it has become obsolete.
Buying used microphones is another story. I've seen mics for sale that looked as though they'd been used as hammers. Insist on a trial period and test as thoroughly as you are able. At the very least, A/B your purchase against another mic of the same type. Make sure that you are getting all the accessories — clips, power supplies, boxes — that you bargained for.
As a rule of thumb, the more moving parts, the greater the chance for trouble. Recorders and mixers in particular require periodic maintenance to operate at tip-top shape. That's why I always ask the owner of an item I want to buy to give me as much detail about it as possible. Where was the unit used — a nonsmoking studio? As a remote rig? For house sound in a biker bar? When was its last scheduled maintenance? Who worked on it, and what was done? What is the current software version?
If you make a deal and are having the gear shipped, have the seller insure the shipment for its full value and be sure to get the tracking number. Inspect the package as soon as it arrives; shippers are liable for merchandise damaged in transit only if it was properly packaged and you file your claim promptly. Do not accept delivery if the packaging is obviously subpar — some unscrupulous weasels may be trying to stick you with a broken piece of junk by pretending it was damaged in shipment.
If during your agreed-upon trial period you feel that the unit is not as advertised, contact the seller and arrange a return. Expect to pay the return shipping, because most sellers insist on that in order to cut down on frivolous returns.
Outright fraud is pretty rare, but it does occur; that is another argument for using an escrow service. (EBay guarantees your purchase price up to $200, regardless.) Most auction sites can lead you through the steps for filing a claim with the proper authorities. Remember, you may also be covered under your credit-card agreement, so take the time to read the fine print.
READY, SET, SHOP
Buying used gear doesn't have to be scary. For the most part sellers are honest and the bulk of the horror stories you hear are urban legends. A few simple precautions, a little foresight, and a healthy dose of common sense can make all the difference between disaster and delight. And think of all the stuff you can buy next year with the money you save today!
Mark Nelsonlives and works in southern Oregon's Applegate Valley.
AFTER YOU BUY
It is surprisingly easy to replace a lost or missing manual. Many manufacturers maintain downloadable archives; others will sell you a hard copy. Some retailers specialize in out-of-print and hard-to-find manuals. The Online Manual Archive (see the sidebar “Net Sources”) has links. User groups are another great source — I've had complete strangers offer to make copies of hard-to-find manuals and tech documents.
Finding parts and service for obsolete equipment is more of a challenge. I always check the manufacturer's tech-support pages for a nearby service center. The Musical Instrument Technicians Association maintains a members' list sorted by state. If the company you're looking for is out of business, your best bet is to subscribe to a newsgroup or listserv. Sometimes posting a want ad will bring results.
Musicians classifieds, services, and more listed by city. Mostly U.S. cities, with a few Canadian.
Great auction site for music, video, and film technology.
The granddaddy of online auctions.
Electronic Musician's online presence.
Reviews, tips, classifieds, and great links.
The Musical Instrument Technicians Association has a members' directory and an interesting assortment of old organ manuals.
The International Musician's Trading Post. Listings in the United States, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand.
Reader reviews of new and used gear. Affiliated with retailer Musician's Friend.
The Online Manual Archive. This site is invaluable for helping users find old manuals, parts, and service information.
This site functions as an online banker, allowing individuals who have e-mail accounts to send and receive money.
An excellent source for used gear pricing information.
Music database and worldwide marketplace. Members include retailers, appraisers, and collectors. Still mostly under construction as of this writing.
Musician's classifieds, and more.
Extensive, searchable classified listings. Hosted by retailer Sweetwater Sound.
Good general site for information and links for synths, primarily.