When your business is selling gear with a past, how do you make sure it has a future?
Turning your passion into a business isn't always a great idea, but it's worked for Tony and Jo Miln and Soundgas. They take the risks out of buying vintage, by selling equipment that is properly serviced and backed by robust after-sales care. From guitar effects pedals to analogue synths, via studio hardware and Tony's beloved Binson Echorecs and Roland Space Echoes, Soundgas's catalogue of vintage gear is always growing. Based in rural Derbyshire, the company now employ 13 full-time staff, including renowned synth tech James Walker, and are looking for larger premises.
Despite this growth, however, a concern was looming in Tony's mind. "We needed to train more techs!" he realised. "I'd lost three Binson engineers in the last 10 years. If something had happened to Huw Williams, who did all our Space Echoes and Binsons, or if something happened to James Walker, the business would've struggled — but, equally importantly, there'd be no-one to fix all the gear I love!
"We used to have TV repair men with shops in every town, and that's where you used to go with your valve amp, because TVs used valves in the early days and these guys knew how to fix them. No-one fixes TVs any more. When they go wrong, we throw them away. No-one, domestically, is being trained to fix old electronics, because it's a very niche thing — but in our industry, it's massive. The thing that makes everyone go 'Wow!' when they walk into a studio is an old desk and a rack of blinking lights from classic vintage gear.
Tony Miln: "It's not something you do for money or status, it's something you do because you love it.
"If someone buys an echo from us, they get a one-year guarantee, and we promise them tech support for life — obviously not free, but they have access to our techs and expertise. We'll keep their gear running into the future. We need to be able to look after them. If we don't train new techs now, in 10 years time it's going to be too late, because there aren't going to be any good techs left to train them."
With this in mind, Soundgas launched an apprenticeship scheme. As Jo sees it, this doesn't just benefit their business but the industry as a whole. It also offers a potential career to young people who might otherwise struggle to find a direction in life. "It's also about providing valuable life skills for the younger generation. We've got five members of our team who started as Soundgas apprentices, and they are now full-time with us but they've got skills for life. Our guys training on the tech side have skills that will land them a job in any studio. Or, if they wanted to, they could set up on their own as independent synth repairer or Space Echo tech."
Some of Soundgas's apprentices have already spent years tinkering with soldering irons and breadboards. Others have been keen musicians with no electronics experience, but few have had any formal training that was relevant. Tony: "To start with, our apprentices went on an electronic apprenticeship course at one of the local colleges, but that was mostly training people to install light switches. And the sort of circuitry and electronics knowledge that you require to work with this stuff is not really taught any more. Obviously there are basics — what's a capacitor, what's a resistor, how do you read a schematic — but most of this stuff, it's not made any more so no-one's training people to fix it. For every single piece of gear in here, you need pretty specialist knowledge to actually work out what's going on inside.
"It's about attitude as well. It's about not just going, 'That will do.' Many independent techs are used to musicians going on a Friday night, 'I'm going to need this amp for a gig tomorrow, can you fix it? I've only got 20 quid.' So they do a quick fix, they get the amp out of the door, the guy's happy. That doesn't cut it for us. We want people who will look at something and go, 'OK, that doesn't work, I'll fix that. What's likely to fail in six or 12 months' time? What could go wrong?' Especially with a lot of old digital gear, when a capacitor goes it can take out scores of other components and cause all kinds of chaos. So we need people who are methodical but also perfectionists.
Jo Miln: "It's about providing valuable life skills for the younger generation... Our guys training on the tech side have skills that will land them a job in any studio.
"It's not something you do for money or status, it's something you do because you love it. No-one becomes a tech through ambition, or because they want to drive a Porsche. It's an insane job, because you open something up that you think, 'Oh, it's going to take me a day or two,' and 10 days later you're still trying to work out what's going on."
Jo, who Tony refers to as "the financial brains of the outfit", is also responsible for HR: "We've had quite a few false starts, but these days we know pretty quickly whether someone's right or not. Our current tech apprentice, Will, has been with us over a year now, and it was pretty obvious from the start that he really wanted to be here: there's nowhere else quite like this to work if you're into music and sound."
Tony: "He's had a year of training and is now at a level where he's better than some people I've known who've been doing that job independently for 20 years. When someone comes in and they've been here two or three months and they can't wait to get in and they stay late and they just love it, and they've got a grin all over their face, they're the right people. You've got to really live and breathe it to even have a chance of making it."
Obviously, Soundgas apprentices won't be plunging a soldering iron into a vintage Memorymoog on their first day at work, but they'll certainly get hands-on with classic equipment from the off, as Tony explains. "The first thing our apprentices learn to do is pack gear for shipping, because that's the most important job in the building and if you can understand how delicate something is, that's a good starting point. And then they learn to clean things! With a Space Echo, for example, there's a top-level service which involves starting to clean the switches and pots. Once we're confident that they understand that, they'll get simple circuitry to work on."
Jo elaborates: "You don't get an apprentice fixing the more expensive equipment, but we've always got guitar pedals and various weird things where Tony's said to himself 'Never seen one of those before, I wonder what that does?!' There's always bits and pieces of low-value gear, or stalled projects to practise on. So we'll sort of start them off on those, and as they grow in confidence and as our confidence in them grows, then they start to move up to the more exotic stuff."
Tony continues: "Dismantling and recapping something relatively simple is a job that you can teach someone fairly quickly. Obviously they've got to be supervised, and that's why it takes us time, because if we put someone in with James, he can't do a full day's work, because he's spending a lot of his time teaching someone else. If we were just servicing Juno 106s all day, every day, then he could teach someone to service a Juno 106 in a couple of weeks, maybe. And that'll be it and he can go back to his job. But the fact is, every day there's a different synth on the bench."
The Soundgas apprenticeship programme has been running for three years or so now, and as Tony explains, it has already proved crucial to the expansion of the business. "Before this building opened two-and-a-half years ago, we had no tech department. We've gone from zero to, I think, nine — two senior techs and seven people that have been trained — in two-and-a-half years. So it's coming together. In the next 10 years, if we could deliver 10 new technicians who are trained to a level where they've been here for two or three years into the world, it would have a huge impact."
Taking the informal Soundgas apprenticeship scheme to the next level will require it to be put on a more structured footing, and to this end, Tony and Jo are talking to several educational institutions about possible partnerships. "We'd love to get to a point where we have formal training courses. And that's where we need a bit of help, I think, from people who've got more experience. We need to partner up with someone who can help us formalise it. It's something we want to provide, but it's not necessarily our area of expertise, so it makes sense for us to partner with the right organisation. I think that will give things more structure, and I know the universities do apprenticeship degree courses, which is perhaps the sort of thing that we could be getting involved in.
"We've expanded quite rapidly, we've gone from five to 13 in a space of about two years. We're the only people who are dealing with the range of stuff we see, because no one else is daft enough to take a lot of it on! So we're doing this while keeping the business afloat and paying the wages. So the luxury of time to set Huw or James aside and say, 'Right, devise a programme' — we haven't got it at the moment, but that's where we're headed. The future of Soundgas is sharing knowledge. We're really fortunate we've got James Walker and Huw, but if we can get some of their knowledge into more people and also be able to transmit that into a more formalised education process, I hope we can help stem some of the loss of skills."
"I saw this thing on eBay about 15 years ago, and had no idea what it was," says Tony Miln of his first Grampian 636 spring reverb. "It turned up, and it sounded pretty awful. Very, very hissy. But I could tell there was an amazing quality to the distortion.
"Over the years, I don't know how many of these have been through my hands. Maybe 20-25? And they've all sounded completely different. But once they've been set up right and repaired, they've all sounded absolutely magical. And it turns out that the mic preamp circuit is very similar to an early Fuzz Face.
"For the first year or two, I'd buy them for between 100 and 200 quid, get them fixed and sell them on. And then for a while I stopped seeing them, and prices have just gone insane. You will see people trying to sell them broken for £3000 or £4000 — one joker was even asking £7k for one recently. For me they're not worth it unless they've been fixed by someone who knows what they're doing and come with some sort of warranty. But they can sell for a lot of money.
"A lot of the original ones were powered by old lantern batteries, and we had one that we had to rebuild that had been stored on end. The battery had leaked and the acid had eaten away most of the reverb tank and a lot of the circuit boards. All that was left, really, was the front and some of the chassis. Huw rebuilt it and I said to him, 'You've pretty much built a new one there.' And he said, 'Yeah, yeah I have.' I said, 'Could you...?' And he went, 'Yeah.' And that was the start of this."
This being Soundgas's very first product of their own: a limited-edition recreation of the 636, using original Gibbs reverb tanks and NOS germanium transistors. (The transistors alone are so inconsistent that they had to buy a batch of 500 in order to get 25 suitable examples.) "This is the sort of quality that we aspire to," explains Tony. "It's all built in a modular form, so each of the boards can be taken out if there's a problem. We've learnt a huge amount about what affects the sound of these things, but also about doing it so that the quality's there. These are all hand-built boards, but the capacitance, or the resistance of the original circuit board can make a huge difference to the performance, so Huw's ended up hand-flowing the solder on some boards to get the sound right. True old-fashioned craftsmanship.
"Each one is a bespoke unit. Because of the vintage components it's had to be individually tuned. I shudder to think how many man-hours have gone into these. From a business perspective it's maybe not, you know, as good as making a guitar pedal! But our team have excelled themselves and created something truly magical, and our customers, some of whom have an original 636 to compare it to, have been delighted with the results. Our next step is to work on something similar but with less complex and vintage components that doesn't take so much time to build but that can still deliver some of the magic in a more modern form."
"This is why you should never plug a Binson Echorec in unless you've had it checked out first!" cautions Tony Miln. "The insulation on some of the wiring that they used degrades, and a lot of that wiring carries mains electricity — in a metal case! And this is the problem. There's loads of people teaching themselves to service these things, and not only can they be extremely dangerous, they also don't usually sound right. Because so few techs know what a really good one should sound like and almost no-one has the skill set required to get these right."
These Italian disc echoes have fascinated Tony ever since he bought one from a retiring Shadows fan in the '90s, and Soundgas are almost certainly the world's leading specialists in Binson restoration. But despite the high prices Binsons now command, Tony says it's rarely economic to restore them on purely financial grounds, as getting them working properly can involve a huge amount of work. "We only sell them on pre-order now, because the actual rebuild process is backwards and forwards between us and the techs, and that can take a month or two. You need mechanical knowledge and you need valve knowledge and you need tape knowledge, and then you need a bit of something else — because this is not tape. It's a drum wrapped in very fine wire, which is milled down to a flat surface, and it behaves totally differently to tape."
"The first one I bought was sold as 'working'," laughs Tony Miln. He's referring to the Frogg Compu‑Sound, an obscure '70s guitar effect notable for its retro computer-style interface. "I'm not fooled by that any more. I know that most of the time when something old is sold as working, it probably won't be. But it was like, 'I don't know what that is!', and the limited amount of information on the Internet said that there were only 100 of them made.
"So I bought it — it was very expensive — and it partially worked. And I liked the sound. It's described as being digital, but the only thing digital about it is it has a key pad and LED display. If I find something I like, I have to buy another one, firstly because I want to keep one for our studio, and secondly because if you're fixing things it's probably better to have two, because if there are things not working, then hopefully the things that are not working on one will be working on the other, though this doesn't always follow.
"Unfortunately, the second one had parts that had been butchered, so we ended up buying another two. And by this point we're up to some thousands of pounds, because they're not cheap to buy, and all the programs are stored on EPROMs that have the writing scratched off, so we don't know what they are.
"By a process of elimination, James Walker narrowed it down to two or three potential EPROMs, and he had an old computer and an EPROM reader that could read one or two of these particular EPROMs. He said, 'I think it's this one — but if I'm wrong, and I try to read the original, we risk wiping it. And this is the only one we've got that's working properly.' Deep breath, 'OK, go for it'. Thankfully, he was right, and he was able to read and write Frogg EPROMs, saving us from a pile of expensive extinct junk. That was enough to fix the two that we had nearly working, and the other two will get fixed at some point.
"James has now got a pretty detailed schematic, bar a certain section, so at some point we will either post all of this online so that anyone else who's got a Frogg Compu‑Sound can repair it, or we are sort of talking about whether we can make a new one — not actually a new Frogg Compu‑Sound, because there are 99 programs and they're not all great, but there's quite a lot of it we really like, and that would be a happy sort of unintended consequence if something new came out of it."
"The Dynacord Echocord Studio!" says Tony Miln proudly, lifting the lid from something that looks as though it came from the set of an old Bond movie. "Nineteen-sixties, germanium, some of the later ones are silicon. Looks like a magic typewriter. I assumed it was one of the Dynacord tape echoes — but it's not. It records on an oxide-coated disc. There were a few similar disc echoes, but I'd never seen one like this before. This one's been quite heavily modified now. It's got a Binson jockey wheel to drive it. It's got Varispeed, because it was only two-speed originally. The heads lift up from the disc so you can clean them and service them, and Huw's added remote-control solenoids which will lift the erase head or the record head, so that it works as a true analogue looper. The original surface was completely shot, but he's managed to find a way of using old large-format floppy disks for the new recording surface. The amount of man hours that have gone into modifying this is not something we'll ever recoup by selling a handful of them!
"A really good customer of ours in America saw the demo and said, 'I need to have that.' And I was about to take his order when I realised that the chances of it arriving in one piece were pretty small. So not only has it represented an enormous investment in time, but it's not very easy to sell to one of our biggest markets, because we can only sell it to someone who we can hand-deliver it to. But, it's just magic and we use it all the time — and people can access it remotely via our online studio service."
As well as training up people to restore and maintain vintage equipment, Soundgas are also exploring the possibility of offering short training courses that anyone can pay to attend. "We want to run courses for tour techs," explains Tony Miln. "We went to see the Arctic Monkeys, and we ended up walking out of the gig with their Space Echoes. Max and Dec came in on a Saturday, fixed them and took them back for the second night in Sheffield where they had to radically change all their settings to compensate for their echoes suddenly sounding much better! We've fixed echo units for Red Hot Chilli Peppers, the Killers, Franz Ferdinand and Sunn O))) so we figured we should run courses for tour and studio techs to help them learn a bit more about maintenance."