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Buying Used Gear

Tips & Techniques By Paul White
Published January 1994

Paul White offers a few tips to help you avoid pitfalls when buying second‑hand equipment.

Buying used equipment is one way to save a lot of money — and in the case of certain vintage instruments, the only way to get your hands on what you want — but risk always accompanies the bargain. If you buy from a shop, they are bound under the Sale of Goods Act to ensure the item is fit for the purpose for which it is being sold and that it is in working order. Shops usually provide a limited guarantee with used equipment, and though this is invariably less than the manufacturer's original 12‑month warranty, it's a welcome safeguard.

A somewhat different situation prevails when you buy second hand from a private individual; though it is illegal to knowingly misrepresent the item being sold, the onus is on you, the purchaser, to prove intent to deceive if you encounter problems with an item you've bought privately, which can be both difficult and expensive. A far more pragmatic approach when shopping privately for used gear is to remember the old axiom 'Let the Buyer Beware'. Because of the lack of safeguards when buying from a private individual, expect to pay a lower price than you would from a dealer (always haggle), and take every possible step to ensure that the item is working properly before you part with any cash. When replying to ads such as those in SOS, arrange to see the equipment at the seller's home, not at a pub — if the gear turns out to be stolen, saying you bought it from a man in a pub isn't going to score any points for originality!

    The most dangerous second‑hand purchases are tape recorders, DAT machines and cassette multitrackers, because any form of tape mech‑anism will wear, especially the heads and tape guides. I'd like to be able to tell you exactly what to look out for here, but it isn't possible to be too specific, as the amount of acceptable wear differs from machine to machine, depending on the type of heads and the geometry of the tape path. Some guidelines are:
  • Tape head wear is evident as a flattened, polished area where the tape runs over the head; the wider this strip, the more wear there is.
  • It is important that the worn area is rectangular; if it tapers across the width of the head, it shows that the head has worn unevenly, which is bad news.
  • Head wear is an important consideration — a replacement set of heads might cost half as much again as you paid for the used machine.

Because head wear is so difficult to assess, the best advice I can offer is that you either take someone with you who has had experience of such things, or consider buying your tape machine from a dealer, even though the cost may be a little higher. The same is true of DAT machines — you can't even see a DAT head without dismantling the machine, and even if you could, you probably couldn't see anything that would help you.

    Most conventional mixing consoles are, electronically at least, quite straightforward devices, which means they shouldn't cost a fortune to fix if they go wrong.
  • As with tape machines, the mechanical parts wear first, so always check for crackly faders and pots, dodgy switches and intermittent connections on the insert jacks.
  • Provided the mixer is of a known brand and spares are still available, replacing the odd switch or pot shouldn't be too difficult or unduly expensive, but if they are all on the way out, it might be cheaper to look elsewhere.
  • Automated mixers with inbuilt computers are less easy to fix, so it's more important to buy a brand that has good UK support. Computer systems in general tend either to work flawlessly or crash disastrously, but intermittent faults do happen. Many of these are related to heat, so ensure the system is fully warmed up before you give it the OK.
    The problem with electronic equipment is that you never know when it's going to fail. Statistically, equipment tends to fail more often when it's fairly new, then it levels out for a few years, after which the chance of failure starts to increase again. Because effects units are again computers in disguise, they tend to work quite normally or not at all, and because they have fewer moving parts than items like mixers and tape machines, they represent a safer second‑hand buy. Even so, intermittent faults can creep in, such as unexplained memory loss or corruption, so check a few of the user programs to make sure they are OK.

Unless the price is very low, make sure that the model you are considering can still be serviced, should it become necessary, and take note of the general physical condition of the unit; a tatty case might indicate that it's been gigged a lot as opposed to being used at home.

    Be particularly careful when buying used software. If you buy a pirate version, not only will you get no proper manual, no manufacturer's support and no upgrade path, you'll also be breaking the law. Ensure that any software you're offered comes with the original manual, and if you want to continue to receive information about upgrades, register the change of ownership with the UK distributor. There are many so‑called 'cracked' software packages around that run without a key or dongle, but as well as being illegal, in our experience most of these are unreliable, with some features either partially or completely inoperable.

Computers & Keyboards

The comments relating to computer‑based equipment applies both to stand‑alone computers in general and modern keyboards, which are really just computers in disguise. However, both have mechanical parts which do need to be checked, so:

  • Always insist on seeing the disk drive doing its stuff and listen for any untoward rumbling and scraping noises.
  • If you are buying a computer to use with a sequencing package that uses a plug‑in key or dongle, take it with you and make sure it loads. There have been several reports of apparently perfect used Atari STs which have refused to run the software properly when a dongle is plugged into the cartridge port.
  • Always check every key on a computer or synth keyboard (play synth keys at both high and low velocities to ensure they trigger), and don't forget all the other switches and dials — wiggle all silders and turn all knobs, check out the mod wheel, if the synth has one, and ensure that the pitchbend wheel springs back correctly to its central position.
  • Be particularly rigorous if the keyboard casing shows signs of damage, which might indicate a heavy gigging life.