There are some amazing plug-in versions of vintage audio gear out there, but no matter how good the simulation, sometimes only the real thing will do. Microphones and mic preamps rise to the top of the list of vintage “must-haves,” because interacting with such precision audio tools is still a very different experience from running a plug-in, and at the moment there isn’t much software that can model the tone of a Neumann U47 or RCA 44 microphone. If you’d like to take the plunge into the vintage-hardware world, start with these tips for making wise gear purchases. The term caveat emptor might be an understatement.
First, consider the transaction method. A face-to-face meeting with the seller enables you to see the unit firsthand and try it—and asking for a demonstration is not out of line. (In fact, if I were selling, I’d want to demonstrate a mic or preamp to a buyer so that there could be no dispute regarding its working condition.) When buying online, however, you’ll need to be more diligent about asking questions and getting descriptions, photos, and documentation. A video demonstration of an item is pretty easy these days, since it can be taken with a cell phone and emailed. I can’t emphasize enough that the higher price you might pay to a reputable dealer is money well spent if it gets you a return policy or warranty. (Thirty days is typical.) Plus, many dealers who specialize in vintage gear have techs who can test and perform basic maintenance on a variety of gear prior to the sale.
Use Your Eyes, Ears, and Brain Start by thoroughly researching the equipment you are buying, not only in terms of price, but the nature of the item itself. Take as an example the Universal Audio/UREI 1176: Let’s suppose you heard one in a studio, loved it, and decided you need one. Are you aware that it is available in various revisions with significant sonic (and price) differences? Do you want the LN, the Blue Stripe, or the Rev F? Are you prepared for the possibility that the rear panel may use terminal strips for the audio connections and not XLR or TRS connectors? Perhaps most importantly: Do you know what the unit is supposed to sound like?
Old audio gear might operate properly, but that doesn’t mean the audio path has maintained its integrity over the years. Electronic components such as capacitors, transformers, and power supplies suffer the wrath of time. Certain types of capacitors can lose their ability to hold a charge as they age. When used in the audio path, they may sound different from when they were new. Borderline or failing caps in a power supply can literally “starve” audio circuitry by not providing the correct supply voltage(s). Often these changes progress slowly over the years, and so the previous owner may be legitimately unaware that this deterioration has taken place. Ideally you will have experience with the device you are purchasing, or a “control” unit—a similar device owned by a friend that you could use for comparison.
The frequency response of a preamp or compressor can be easily tested by playing pink noise (or sine wave tones) into it and connecting its output to a spectrum analyzer or an analysis program such as SMAART or Metric Halo’s SpectraFoo, then comparing input to output. Power supplies can be tested for proper voltages though that should be left to a qualified tech. Replacing capacitors and resistors doesn’t seem to harm the value of most vintage gear, provided they were carefully exchanged by a qualified tech with components of the specified value. Find out if critical parts are intact or still available. A great deal on a vintage tape echo with a faulty motor does you no good if you can’t get a replacement. Other likely candidates for replacement include tubes, so determine the cost of replacements before you buy.
Don’t be afraid to ask the seller for a look at (or detailed photos showing) the interior and exterior. A rackmount unit with a bent front panel is a red flag; ditto for a microphone with a banged-up grille. Who treats gear like that? Examine circuit boards for loose components, burnt resistors, faulty capacitors, or leaking batteries, which can seriously damage circuit boards. Indications of capacitor failure include cracks at the top, brownish residue (it looks like rust) at the top or bottom, bulging, and splits in the plastic sleeve. Cigarette smoke residue can cause problems in electronics and you’ll usually know it when you see it: a disgusting brown film on exterior and interior parts. Figure out if there are accessories that you’ll need such as special cables, shock mounts, or power supplies. Tape machines will almost certainly need head alignment after shipping, so budget for a house call from your local tech. Documentation is very important, especially with tape machines. You’ll need the procedures for proper electronic and mechanical alignment, pinouts for audio and power supply connection, and schematics for repair. Is the seller supplying this documentation, or are you on your own?
Is This Thing On? Also found under the heading do you know what it’s supposed to sound like? are vintage microphones. The golden era of microphones is approaching 75 years of age. Over time, their semiconductors, tubes, and capsules have slowly aged and they may sound nothing like they did when they were new. In fact, when describing the sound of a vintage AKG C12 or Neumann U47, the question may not be, “does this sound like a C12 or U47?” but rather, “which particular C12 or U47 does this sound like?” The likelihood of two vintage condenser mics sounding the same is small. So which one is “right”? It takes experience to know the answer, just as it takes experience to know if the correct parts are still inside. This is where working with a reputable dealer gives you an advantage. It upsets me when I see a microphone on eBay with a photo showing the interior electronics, and it’s all wrong. If you’re going to lay down serious cash, it might be worth a few hundred bucks to have the microphone examined and appraised by a third-party expert who could verify the condition and let you know if it has been serviced, modified, or altered in any way.
If possible, make a test recording using the microphone. Use drums, vocal, or piano— familiar instruments. Drums and piano span a wide frequency range and help reveal a microphone’s low-frequency response. Multipattern mics should be tested in every pattern; make sure you are aware of the sonic differences between the patterns so that when you switch them you hear what you expect. (For example, the low-frequency response of a Neumann U67 is more extended when the mic is set to omnidirectional.) A condenser microphone that functions only in cardioid may have a bad diaphragm on one side of a dual capsule, which could mean a pricey repair. If you can get a look “underneath the hood” (i.e. see what the capsule looks like under the head grille), check out the appearance of the diaphragm(s). Is it wrinkled? Are there spots where the vaporized gold has flaked off? Are there any visible pinholes or tears? Can you see cracks in the capsule mount?
Something that I often see in ads for tube microphones, which upsets me to no end, is “power supply and cable not included.” This is almost as bad as “Works great. Power supply not included.” Really? Reputable dealers notwithstanding, a missing power supply is a red flag. It stinks like someone stole this mic but was too dumb to know it requires a power supply. How can the owner of a tube mic know it works great if he or she doesn’t have the power supply? This is a can of worms you don’t want to open for several reasons. First, you’ll have no way to test the mic when you receive it. Second, power supplies for vintage tube mics are not cheap. (Expect the cost to be somewhere in the range between $400 and $750.) Third, if the mic does not work, you’ll be in a pissing match with the seller over whether or not you connected the correct power supply. Fourth, if the mic has been modified in any way, it may need a complementary change in the PS and/or cable, and you probably won’t know about it. In my book, “no power supply and cable” equals “not interested.”
When it comes to ribbon mics, the equation is somewhat less complicated due to the simpler design of most ribbon transducers. Ribbons are so fragile that it’d be a miracle if the original transducer of an RCA 44 were still up to spec, so you may want to factor in the cost of having the mic re-ribboned. When you balance the cost of a new ribbon (less than a few hundred dollars for a mic that could be worth between $1,000 and $2,000), the repair is worth it. Dynamic mics seem to stand up a bit better to aging, and since they tend to be more rugged than condenser or ribbon mics, chances for damage are decreased.
Owning a piece of vintage gear is sort of like owning a bit of audio history; plus, it can provide great sound and years of enjoyment. Just be sure to do your homework!
CONSIDER THE ALTERNATIVES
THE PROS AND CONS OF RE-ISSUES
Suppose that you have decided that you absolutely cannot live without a Neve 1073 mic preamp/EQ. (I might agree with you!) You can search for an original “vintage” 1073 module, which at this point in time is 40-plus years old. That’s a lot of dog years on gear and you have no way of knowing how the unit was treated. True, cosmetic appearance is often a strong indicator of condition, but it’s far from an absolute barometer. A working 1073 in good shape will cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $3,000 to $5,000, and then you’ll need to buy or build some sort of rack enclosure with a power supply and audio connectors. (These modules were intended for installation in a console, not a rack.) A new “reissue” Neve 1073 costs in the vicinity of $3,400, and a rack to put it in costs another $900. Either way, it’s a lot of cash, but the point is that you can get a new module for a little bit less than a used module. Some gear snobs will argue that the reissue doesn’t sound as good as the original, while others will argue that a reissue may benefit from improved grounding schemes that reduce background noise, and higher reliability of modern components. The point here is that you may be able to get the sound you want, along with greater reliability (and perhaps enhanced performance), by purchasing a reissue. Think about this: How much is it worth for you to not have to deal with maintenance and down time?—Steve La Cerra