Old, New or Custom-Built

OLD:  Recently I went on a sojourn with a guitarist friend to preview the newer electric guitar amplifiers. Since I’m accustomed to hearing old tube amps, my friend wanted my opinion on modern tube reissues. We found a couple that were great sounding but we were surprised at the amount of noise inherent in their design. Later we discovered there are web sites that provide modifications to lessen noise and hum in new tube amps, begging the question: “Why didn’t they design them properly in the first place?”

Many years ago, when old Tweed amps from the forties and fifties were lurking in basements and closets everywhere, I started buying them cheap. To this day, they still work perfectly and they sound great. One would think that such reliability would be commercially available in 2008 but to the best of my understanding it is only found in the expensive, boutique, hand-made option. The same applies in the realm of studio gear.

A couple of weeks ago, I spent a couple of grand on a prime example of an RCA 77 DX ribbon microphone circa 1950. The quality of build and the sonic integrity are stunning. If we take into account that this mic originally sold for $250, then $2000 today is a good deal. (Remember that in the forties, twenty-five bucks a week was a good wage which means that this mic would have cost two and a half months’ of wages at the time!)

One of my pet peeves is the plethora of options available in the market today.  Whether it’s seeking out converters, software, preamps, consoles, compressors or mics, to wade through them all would be a life long mission. So, going straight to a known quantity, vintage gear, shortens the search to some degree but it creates its own unique problems.  Sometimes maintenance and repairs add up to what you paid for the device itself or even more.  However, the cost can usually be recouped, and sometimes even a profit can be realized at point of re-sale. Old stuff can be solid investments as well as useful recording tools.

Increasingly people are recognizing the substantial sonic improvement provided by high quality signal paths. The resurgence of analog gear has prompted companies to reissue their popular devices and consoles. These, of course, cost every bit as much as their vintage counterparts.

However, certain vintage gear is ignored in the marketplace and is still relatively inexpensive and of excellent quality. Old McCurdy tube mic preamps and Ward Beck recording consoles are two excellent examples and, incidentally, both manufacturers are Canadian. The trick is to ensure you are dealing with a reputable seller. The larger companies that deal in vintage gear usually have knowledgeable staff and reasonable prices. The difficulty is that you often can’t try before you buy.

CUSTOM BUILT:  Believe it or not, sometimes custom-built is not as pricy as one might think. If a competent technical person can obtain the same components as the high-end vintage companies, they can replicate vintage products. Furthermore they can design and build preamps, compressors, mics or whatever you may need to new and modern standards as well.

NEW:  There are of course a multitude of choices of new recording equipment. Usually the more you spend the better the device. It then becomes a matter of choice as to what sonic signature is required by the buyer. People are often lured by the marketing ploys of the various companies. They’ll see a rack pack of 8 mic preamps with all the bells and whistles, for the price of a single, featureless, higher quality preamp and buy their studio ‘by the pound.

If there are no needs or expectations to make a high quality recording then the less expensive, readily available consumer grade gear will be adequate but if quality is the goal, be prepared to spend a lot of money.  Usually experienced artists either have knowledge of the gear or have at least endured a bad recording facility so they will seek out the studios which are properly fitted.

The deeper we delve into the world of recording and the more we work; the more we develop our ears and the more sophisticated our studio needs become. We begin to recognise harmonic content that is provided by transformers and tubes. We hear the subtleties and differences from one tool to another; each piece of recording gear has its own sonic character. We can listen to an instrument or voice and know which device, with which sonic signature, will give us what we need. As we grow in hearing the sonic subtleties of each of the components in our studios, we can identify the gear that falls short of what we need and replace it.

So let’s strap on our best ears, grab some dough and buy some quality gear then, above all, have some fun.


Gerry Griffin is an independent songwriter, singer, harmonica player of note, and, yes, a guitar player of sorts. He owns a studio and will produce your album. Visit his Web site: www.gerrygriffinmusic.com.



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