The good old British weather, a stalwart of British conversation, although not something that is regularly mentioned in reference to music technology. But with the climate-change-fuelled mayhem we now have posing as our seasons, there may be something more sinister in store for an unlucky minority of technology-dependent musicians.
Allow me to explain: I rang my musical partner-in-crime, Brendan, one afternoon to see what new ideas he'd been trying out while I had to earn a living away from the studio. I was shocked to hear that his house (and our studio) had been hit by lightning. Brendan had been at home during a typical British thunderstorm, when an amazingly bright flash was followed by an almighty bang. It was so loud that he actually thought a bomb had gone off in his living room!
The lightning hit the house directly, permanently taking out a few electrical items, such as the upstairs lighting circuit, a hi-fi and a DVD player. Brendan was fine, apart from feeling a bit odd and having a buzzing in his head, but it was a different story in the studio.
At first, it seemed that everything was fine, and we thought that our sensitive electronic audio kit had survived unscathed — until we tried to power up one of our Space Echoes, that is. The RE501's capstan clunked but nothing more, not even a power light. We checked the obvious fuses, but it was dead. So it was off to our local handyman, Jan, fingers crossed, hoping he could work his magic on our beloved Echo.
We continued to use our equipment with no issues for a couple of weeks, but when we went to use our other RE501 for some vocals, it started making sharp popping noises, and no matter how hard we tried, we could not get it to howl on feedback, something that is normally the simplest of sounds to achieve with a tape echo. Victim number two. So we tried our RE301 (yes, we have three Space Echoes!), which worked, but again, would not howl, and seemed distinctly more polite than its usual aggressive self. Victim number three.
As the weeks have passed, the full scale of the damage is still being realised. So far, the list of casualties includes both RE501s, the RE301 and our TR808, while the two inputs on our Digi 002R that were connected to the RE501s are blown, and Pro Tools is starting to play up a fair bit, with frequent connection failures.
All the kit was plugged into purpose-built, heavy-duty power distribution units (and I don't mean cheap consumer models), and thus had more protection than most people use, but the older equipment simply could not handle the surge of electricity. As sod's law would have it, the equipment that's taken the brunt of the lightning strike is, annoyingly, also the hardest and most expensive to repair or replace. And with the strange new behaviour of the Digi 002R, I expect to see more problems over the forthcoming weeks (it's lucky I've just ordered a new interface!).
It's now some weeks after the incident, and it appears that the first RE501 to die is in a seriously bad way. Handyman Jan is doubtful if it will ever function again, but has promised us he will try his hardest to resurrect it. The TR808 is looking terminally ill, with little hope of ever producing its characteristic deep kicks again (yes, we know we could use samples, but as anybody who has ever used an 808 in earnest knows, it's never the same!). The second RE501 to die still has capacitors overheating, and the RE301 is sounding more and more like a whimpering Hugh Grant, rather than the snarling Ray Winstone it used to be.
To add insult to injury, the most common responses we're getting from the tech-savvy people around us are along the lines of "just use X, Y or Z plug-in for echo," or, "try Ultrabeat, its 808 is killer". While we appreciate the suggestions, if we wanted to use an artificial recreation of the original piece of kit, we would have been doing so! But that's for another Sounding Off.
So the moral to this tale is simple. Next time there's lightning in your area, do yourself a favour and go and unplug your kit. It might just save you some money or, as in our case, a much-loved rare gem or four. Remember how your mum always used to tell you to unplug the TV aerial during storms? Seems she was right after all.
Dom Melville currently teaches Live Sound at Brighton Institute of Modern Music and likes to keep his hands dirty with live and studio production work. His New Year resolution is to unplug his studio gear whenever there's a thunderstorm.