There are some fine bargains to be had in the second‑hand equipment market — but there are plenty of pitfalls too. Debbie Poyser & Derek Johnson offer a guide through the maze.
Almost everyone buys second‑hand at some point, especially when they're just starting to build a studio. There's a vast pool of used equipment, and it seems a shame not to take advantage of the great prices and wide choice available. Buying used gear works out well most of the time, but there are some dodgy items out there, and since private vendors offer no money‑back guarantees it's definitely a case of caveat emptor. Use your common sense and the following tips to avoid being lumbered with a lemon.
1. First impressions are sometimes correct, so take in the item's cosmetic aspects before you try it. If it's really scruffy there's a good chance it's been used heavily or treated carelessly. Dirty, scratched keys can point to heavy wear on a keyboard, and while superficial damage to the case doesn't necessarily mean that there's anything wrong inside, it can be a warning to the potential buyer. If nothing else, a less‑than‑perfect exterior may mean you can haggle over price.
2. Missing screws can indicate that the owner (or someone else) has taken an item apart in some way, and this could mean that it has malfunctioned in the past. It might also be awry internally if someone unqualified has tinkered with it.
3. When considering a second‑hand buy, try to go for what was the flagship model in a range rather than the ultra‑budget one. As well as having more features and deluxe trimmings, the top‑of‑the‑range items can keep their value better and remain more saleable. Also, wherever possible, go for those units which have been upgraded with optional extras (the SCSI board for Roland's S550 sampler, for example) by the current owner. This will probably add a bit to the price, but if the gear in question is already discontinued you'll have little chance of buying the extras from the manufacturer later on.
4. Be prepared with the right background before you go to see the gear. If you can, check its SOS review — back issues are available from SOS mail order on 01954 789888, and many are now accessible on‑line on the SOS web site — and use the web sites which provide background information and collections of user reports (such as Harmony Central, www.harmony‑central.com). Reviews can often identify potential problems that may only become clear after using the item for a long time. They can also point out design faults that render it unsuitable for your purpose. We once bought a Roland JX10 analogue synth second‑hand, delighted with its wonderful sound, the fact that it had MIDI, and its great price. It turned out that the great price was because the JX10's MIDI spec is seriously flawed (sounds can't be saved or re‑loaded via MIDI), so the synth is not that sought‑after. And as well as looking back at the SOS review for an item and taking note of its original retail price before deciding what you're prepared to pay, also use the shop ads in your collection of back issues. If the item is quite a recently discontinued one, check whether the last stocks were sold to an outlet such as Soho Soundhouse. Such end‑of‑line items are often heavily discounted, and this could affect their second‑hand value.
5. If you're looking at a keyboard or workstation, every key should be tested with heavy and light pressure to ensure that all the notes sound and that the velocity sensitivity is all it should be. This needs to be done even if the synth obviously hasn't been used a lot — rubber keyboard contacts can perish with age. Checking every key takes a while, but it's worth it in the long run, as replacing contacts can be expensive, depending on the keyboard. Key misfiring can even hint at deeper problems — Polymoogs, for example, have a separate electronics card for every key, and a problem there may not be trivial. If keys misfire in specific patterns up the keyboard this could indicate a keyboard scanning fault in the electronics of the synth. In the case of drum machines, make sure the pads all fire, at various velocities if they're velocity‑sensitive.
6. The recording heads of digital tape recorders such as DAT machines, or Alesis and Tascam multitracks, have a finite life and are expensive to replace. It's important that the vendor has kept to the manufacturer's recommendations with regard to servicing and head cleaning — it wouldn't be unreasonable to expect documentary proof of a service history, as with a car. In the case of an ADAT or a Tascam DA88, though, you'll be able to check how many hours of recording the head has done by a sequence of button pushes, thus confirming or contradicting the owner's account of how much use it has had. On an ADAT, you hold down the Set Locate button and press the Stop button, and on a DA88 you power up the machine while holding down the Stop and Play buttons together. The total recording time will appear in the display. ADAT heads have a nominal life of 1500 to 3000 hours, but there are reports of well‑maintained machines running for more than 6000 hours with the original heads still keeping to spec. A recording time readout is also available on some very expensive, professional DAT machines, but is not present on the sort of models most of us can afford.
The efficient error correction implemented in current digital equipment can be a problem when assessing a second‑hand DAT machine: if a machine has a fault, the circuitry tries very hard to correct the signal into something playable. Machines with quite serious faults or wear may therefore sound fine, thanks to the error‑correction, and by the time they can't produce a good result it's generally too late. A service centre will be able to tell you a machine's error readout, though some DAT machines do offer an error‑rate readout in the display.
7. Try to establish the software version of a digital instrument and know in advance what it takes to update to the current or last version — which you'll almost certainly want to do, to take advantage of any bug fixes or extra features. This information will often flash in the display during power up, or can be made to appear with an arcane set of button pushes. Check with the manufacturer's product support department, or search the Internet for the necessary data.
8. Anyone who's interested in accumulating older gear should form a relationship with a specialist service centre — many advertise in SOS classifieds. They can be immensely useful when you are thinking of acquiring an item that may be faulty or has bits missing, and some will, for a fee, evecheck gear before you buy it. A quick call to someone in the know will tell you whether suitable spare pots for a Moog Rogue, say, are readily available or are as scarce as hens' teeth — before you part with your money. They should also be able to reassure you if a problem with a possible purchase can be fixed with a couple of hours of service time or could render the item unusable for months while service personnel wait for a broken unit to cannibalise to fix yours. (This happened to us with a Roland SH101.) Service people can also give you a clue about what items are likely to be most problematic — according to at least one professional, for example, Sequential Prophet synths with power‑supply problems (expensive to fix) and non‑functioning OSC OSCars are relatively common.
9. If you're looking at an analogue tape machine, check for head wear. The state of the heads is even more important than it used to be, now that fewer analogue machines are being made and spares are increasing in price. Heavy head wear is relatively easy to spot: it produces a kind of double wine‑glass pattern, with wear tending to be more pronounced on outer tracks. Wear that looks uneven could indicate an incorrect azimuth setting, with the head being tilted aainst the tape, and may also indicate a recorder that hasn't been well looked after or regularly set up. It could even mean a new set of heads is required.
Missing screws can indicate that the owner (or someone else) has taken an item apart in some way, and this could mean that it has malfunctioned in the past.
Other analogue tape issues include wear on the tape guides and, especially on big multitracks, motor problems — another major expense if they need replacing. Check the tension of the tape path by fitting a full roll of tape and winding it in both directions. If it drags, you should probably leave the machine alone. Capstan motors can be another potential problem area. Check for inappropriate movement in the capstan (it's meant to rotate, but that's all), which would indicate wobbly bearings. If there are any traces of oil coming back up the capstan bearing it probably means that the vendor has tried to solve (or hide) a problem by pouring oil down the capstan. There should be no traces of oil anywhere around the capstan — it has oil‑free bearings. Anyone thinking of buying an analogue recorder but knowing little about how they work should take a look at the Analogue Tape Special in the May 1997 issue of SOS for detailed construction information and maintenance advice.
10. To help ensure that you're buying a completely legitimate item, ask the seller about the gear and its background (and, depending on the item, ask to see a service history). How long have they had it, how did they acquire it, why are they selling it? View the gear at the seller's home, rather than in some impersonal meeting place, and look for its serial number. If this has been removed (as sometimes happens with stolen gear), be very wary indeed.
11. Check displays to make sure that the backlighting is working (if it should be present) and is bright. Displays can often be replaced fairly economically, but that's not the point! Also look out for clarity and any missing characters.
12. If you look along a keyboard's length at eye level and see some keys lower than others, the keyboard's springs may have been hammered.
13. When checking a unit which uses an external wall‑wart type power supply, it's a good idea to wiggle the plug around gently in the socket to see whether the connection is sound. If an instrument has been handled roughly, this connection could become intermittent.
14. If you're going to look at a piece of gear you don't have much experience of, try to take a friend who knows more about it than you do and will know what to test. Given that you may be going to an unfamiliar area to see a person you don't know, possibly with a large amount of cash in your pocket, taking a friend may also provide extra security.
...try to go for what was the flagship model in a range rather than the ultra‑budget one. As well as having more features and deluxe trimmings, the top‑of‑the‑range items can keep their value better
15. When inspecting a mixer, take along a CD you know well, and patch it through the various points of the desk — inputs, aux returns and so on. This will give you an idea of the desk's 'sound', and allow you to critically assess its EQ.
16. With mixers, check every fader, pot and switch. Listen for crackles, pops, and, in the case of faders, unexpected jumps or drops in volume. Also check audio connections — including insert jacks — for crackles or intermittence. Some problems may only require a little contact cleaner, but depending on the desk, replacing components could either be an easy, relatively inexpensive job, or lengthy and pricey. If the desk uses a budget, single‑board design, where all components are soldered to a large board, it could be time‑consuming to service. If, on the other hand, it uses a single circuit board for each input channel, this probably indicates what was originally a more expensive desk, which should be easier to service. The functioning channels of such a desk will also still be usable while the faulty channel is removed for repair.
17. With second‑hand mics, the visual inspection will be most important — though you must also try them out and listen for crackles. Look for evidence of knocks, drops or other shock damage to the case or the grille, and make sure that the connector is nice and snug, because they can get pulled out and damaged through misuse. With vocal mics, also check for rust and general gunge which may indicate that a singer has constantly used the mic right up to the mouth without a foam shield, and hasn't regularly cleaned it. Even if the capsule hasn't been affected, you still might not like the idea of singing into the mic yourself!
18. You might be tempted to buy a power amp second‑hand, but be warned that a faulty machine could be a dangerous, even lethal, purchase. Look for evidence of excessive heat, and check ventilation grilles and the fan, if the amp has one, to see if they're clogged up; this would bereasonable indication that the amp hasn't been maintained or cleaned. Another handy diagnostic tip is to power‑up the amp and have a sniff — any pungent smells might indicate that it has been running a bit hot. Also check for broken connectors (speaker, mains, earth and so on) and remove top and bottom panels, if they're easily removable, to have a look inside. Fuses can be a giveaway: if an amp has had a tendency to cut out or blow fuses, owners will sometimes uprate the fuses to stop the problems from happening. This in itself can cause problems, especially since some amps don't have protection circuits. It might even be reasonable to ask for a safety‑test certificate before buying a second‑hand power amp.
19. When buying a sampler, make the usual visual inspection, and power it up. In addition, try sampling something and listen for noise, such as clicks, pops, bangs, whistles, or digital bursts of sound. Internal disk drives can be a problem, especially hard drives, so examine their function closely. If a CD‑ROM drive is built in, make sure it works.
20. It's always best if there's a manual with a second‑hand item, but don't let it put you off a good buy if there isn't one (provided you're happy that the item is completely legit — see tip 10). If the instrument is not too old you may well be able to purchase a manual from the manufacturer or distributor as a spare. Failing that, you can often locate manuals, or photocopies, via SOS Readers' Ads, and many older, popular instruments are supported by third‑party user guides.