Musicians, producers and engineers continue to discover the delights of all things vintage and retro, but why settle for classic gear that works but looks tatty when you can restore its appearance, too?
I remember visiting a used gear emporium shortly after the launch of the Yamaha DX7 keyboard. To the immediate right of the front door was a stack of original electro-mechanical Fender Rhodes pianos, piled as high as my shoulder like so many milk crates. All had been traded in by their owners and any example could be purchased for around £50. They had been piled up near the door partly because they weighed so much that schlepping them around the shop was clearly nobody's idea of fun, but also to encourage punters to buy and remove these unwanted, unloved and unprofitable items from the premises as quickly and as easily as possible.
Fast forward to the present and the realisation that older equipment isn't so much worse as, well, different. All kinds of different equipment — keyboard, guitar, outboard, amp, mixer, microphone or whatever — is making its particular contribution to the music of the time and now helping to establish the current post-everything sound. Today, vintage equipment is sought after (and indeed recreated; there's no shortage of retro designs when it comes to brand-new gear, too), nurtured and lovingly redeployed all over again, to do its intended job in its own unique way.
Many SOS readers will have experienced the thrill of finding a neglected item of classic gear and returning it to a full and happy life. However, while the occasional need to repair such finds is taken for granted, restoration work often stops at that point, which seems a shame when the distinctive design and appearance of vintage equipment is so much a part of its charm. A car enthusiast finding a classic Alfa Romeo in a barn wouldn't stop at getting the engine going but would look to return it as far as possible to its original pristine appearance. Applying this principle to vintage sound equipment has several advantages. While there's clearly an element of personal satisfaction involved, should you subsequently sell the equipment you can expect a better price for it, too. Careful restoration is also the best possible way of learning about how a piece of equipment actually works and spotting any areas that might need further attention in the future.
Of course, the actual repair of vintage gear is, for the most part, specific to the item in question. However, refurbishment, in the sense of dealing with minor issues that are common to most items of equipment, followed by restoring them to as close to a factory-fresh appearance as possible, is a different and more general skill, applicable to both classic stuff and to more modern used gear that just may not have been looked after very well.
To begin with, though, let's assume you've got hold of a vintage piece of kit which doesn't seem to want to come to life just yet. Before you start trying to source a service manual and looking for another example to cannibalise for parts, work your way from the point where the power and input go in to where the output (audio, MIDI or whatever) emerges and see if there aren't one or more basic, easily-fixed snags that can befall any older piece of gear. Is the item totally dead? Suspect a dud power supply, or simply a mismatched one if it's external — so test it with a multimeter. Do the voltage and current readings make sense? Is it DC when it should be AC? Maplin can provide external PSUs to replace most deceased or missing examples for very little money, so even cable breakages inside wall-warts or their moulded plugs are rarely worth any attempt at repair. If the beast runs on batteries, is there any reason why the power's not finding its way to the circuitry? Are there any external or internal fuses? Test them, too, either with a continuity tester or by using your multimeter on its resistance setting; no reading means no circuit, so there's your problem. Other than that, just look for the obvious: loose wires, dry soldered joints or even missing parts; components are often 'borrowed' from mothballed equipment and don't always get replaced before the item is sold or passed on.
So, now that all the lights come on, does the thing actually operate? If it does, but badly, check all the connections for dirt or wear. Apply contact cleaner/lubricant in the first instance and/or replace leads and sockets in the second (I once transformed a noisy old mixer by simply renewing all the worn and corroded input sockets). Rotate any non-directional plugs (so don't try it with DINs!) in their sockets to check for crackles and rustles. Contact cleaner can also work wonders on faders, switches and rotary controls. To clean the former thoroughly, use a pair of pliers to squash the tip of a cotton bud into a paddle shape, soak the tip in contact cleaner then stuff it into the fader slot and wipe it up and down the tracks.
But it's the equipment cleaner's best friend. Once any repairs have been effected, it's time to start on refurbishment as such. There are two reasons for doing these jobs in this order, the most obvious being that you might well be less inclined to clean up something that you can't persuade to work. Also, though, the repair process can itself generate a certain amount of mess, ranging from stray strands of wire falling where they shouldn't to a fresh coating of fingerprints all over everything — so fix before you clean.
Start the procedure by removing whichever surface of the case is the obvious one to remove in order to get at the item's innards. If the interior is seriously mucky, you should aim to extract the guts of the item from the case entirely, a procedure which can either be childishly simple (such as in the case of my trusty Emu piano module, which is held together by two clip-on panels and a single screw) or a total pig (never again will I dismantle a Farfisa Synthorchestra). If all goes well, you should end up with one or more circuit boards with various sockets, pots and switches in one place and an assortment of panels and casework in another.
Now's the time to vacuum the components to suck out any dust and accumulated debris, which, in my experience, can range from food crumbs to particles of polystyrene, the latter presumably from the original packaging. I still can't explain the tufts of blonde human hair I once removed from inside a turntable, though. Anyway, use a domestic vacuum cleaner (those silly battery-powered things sold as computer accessories are useless) with the crevice tool attached, or ideally with a flexible narrow extension nozzle which gives you powerful suction in a small area (universal types are obtainable from specialist outlets) and/or a can of air duster to remove any loose dirt. Next, wipe any parts that still have dust stuck to them with foam cleanser squirted onto a paper kitchen towel. The insulation on internal wiring is particularly notorious for being a general dust magnet, especially where it's near sockets or vents.
Be prepared to look in some unlikely-seeming retail outlets for odds and ends that may be of use. A hardware supplier can yield many useful items, such as replacement feet (for the equipment, not you), rubber ferrules and plumbing O-rings, which make useful grips for keyboard stands, and so on. A car spares shop such as Halfords will have such things as rubber grommets, including blanking grommets, which can be useful for closing unused holes.
If a piece of kit has been stored or abandoned with old batteries left in it, there's a good chance that the things will have leaked (even supposedly leak-proof types can do this eventually), thus corroding the terminals and coating the interior of the battery compartment with toxic chemicals. How lovely.
To remove this, scrub the compartment with an old toothbrush to remove any loose residue and vacuum it away. Dab a small paintbrush in some vinegar and apply it generously to the interior of the compartment, then dip the toothbrush into some bicarbonate of soda and scrub the affected areas with it. This will loosen the corrosion, allowing you to wipe it off. Any corroded areas that remain should be attacked with a piece of fine, abrasive paper wrapped around a fingertip or pencil. Finally, clean the compartment with foam cleanser to remove all traces of the vinegar and bicarb, as it's hard to feel credible if your gear smells like a bag of chips!
In extreme cases you may find that very heavy corrosion, either by itself or in combination with the cleaning process, has weakened one or more of the battery connections (usually of the coil or leaf spring type) to the point at which it/they snap. Trying to fudge a replacement connection is somewhat fiddly (but not impossible — as we'll see), so under these circumstances you should ask yourself whether you really need the option of battery power at all. If not, the compartment can just be left clean but non-functional. Don't, however, use this as an excuse to avoid cleaning the compartment, as the corrosion can spread and the chemicals involved are far too nasty to ignore.
On the other hand, you may, like me, quite like batteries. I don't tend to busk or do gigs in fields, but I do like keeping cabling to a minimum and with rechargeable batteries now being much more reliable (ie. they last more than five minutes and don't have a near-vertical discharge curve) I often use them for this reason. If you want to recommission a damaged battery system, you basically have three options. One is to see if the manufacturer's spares department can come through with some replacement terminals. Another is to try and devise your own, which, despite the above caveat, can sometimes be done by cannibalising an old or cheap torch, of all things, which has terminals of roughly the correct size and design; you'll get a leaf spring at one end and, if you're lucky, a coil at the other. This will entail you carrying the dud one(s) around for comparison and furtively peering inside any potential donor items before purchase (try a charity shop or a market stall with a friendly owner), so be prepared to appear eccentric and resign yourself to some soldering, bending, glueing and general improvisation in order to install the replacements.
Your third option is to obtain a suitable battery holder from Maplin and wire it up yourself, either fitting it with a PSU plug and lead and installing it in its own small case as an external battery pack, or by fitting it internally if space allows. Using a hacksaw, Stanley knife or file to remove the walls of the existing compartment may help in the latter instance; you'll also need to screw or Velcro the new unit in place somewhere, so make sure there's a suitable internal surface for that.
When it comes to refurbishing casework, the first thing to do is to remove any labels or stickers. To loosen any obstinate examples, first lift one edge, then flood the lifted area with lighter fluid. Pull the sticker back as you squirt more fluid into the join. This should persuade most adhesives to let go, but check that the fluid won't damage the casework first. Any remaining traces of adhesive can be rubbed off with aerosol polish.
Any dirty casework that doesn't involve wood, wood-based materials such as MDF, or adhered wrap-around finishes, should then ideally be washed with a mild detergent and warm water. This goes for plastic, resin, glass-fibre, steel, aluminium or any other such substance. Eco-friendly washing-up liquid is an effective and generally non-aggressive cleaner (test it on a small area first, if in doubt) that's ideal for most finishes, including painted steel and aluminium panels, painted or unpainted plastics and so on. Believe it or not, it really is a matter of treating the case components as if they were items of crockery, by plonking them in a sink full of warm soapy water and scrubbing them clean. A softish nail brush is ideal for this, as if used with care it won't scratch the components' surfaces. This done, fish them out, rinse with clean warm water, allow to drain for a while then dry thoroughly by hand. The thoroughness is important, as droplets of moisture sitting in any seams or folds in metal casework may be enough to kick off corrosion, while mineral deposits left by hard water can mark both metal and plastic finishes. If in doubt, blast any nooks and crannies with a hairdryer.
Lacquered natural wood finishes, such as those on the end-cheeks of classic synths, may look like tempting candidates for stripping down and re-lacquering. This is a nice idea if you have the necessary skills and patience, but a good compromise is simply to clean them thoroughly before adding a light coating of polish. To do this, make a 50/50 mixture of warm water and white-wine vinegar, dip a cloth in it and rub vigorously over the entire surface, rinsing the cloth in clean warm water every so often. This traditional concoction harmlessly removes old polish, fingerprints and general filth with ease. Having done this, rinse the mixture off by wiping thoroughly with clean warm water, then immediately dry the surface thoroughly with a cloth. You can then apply a light coating of aerosol furniture polish. This simple process is surprisingly effective in transforming nondescript bits of old timber into characterful pieces of vintage woodwork, as the removal of the dullness caused by dirt lets the polish enhance the appearance of the grain while also allowing minor scuffs and marks to look less scruffy and more interesting.
Wrap-around cloth finishes (generally applied to plywood cases — check out a Watkins Copicat) are a different matter. This stuff hates moisture, so there's a good chance that any existing surface marks, lifting or blistering of the fabric may have been caused by liquids. First of all, any loose edges should be re-glued with a contact adhesive such as Evo-Stik. Blisters can either be punctured with a pin, if small, or carefully slit with a razor blade, if large, so that adhesive can be injected into the gap (a handy way of re-using those syringes that come with printer cartridge refill kits).
Once it's all in place, restoring its appearance is a matter of degree. Cleaning agents tend to sit in the indentations of the grained finish and make it look worse than before, so the ideal tool to use is a soft brush (a shoe brush works well) which will get into the texture of the fabric. The easiest approach is just to use aerosol polish, scrubbing it lightly into the material then buffing it up with a clean cloth. However, for a near-perfect finish, there's an improbable solution in the form of old-fashioned shoe polish. Brush this on fairly sparingly (this type of finish is, of course, generally black, but you could use coloured shoe polish or cream to match more exotic hues), rubbing a little extra into any scuffs, scratches and worn edges/corners, then shine up with a clean brush and buff with a cloth exactly as if you were polishing shoes. The wax content of the polish helps to bind and stabilise the fabric and leaves a shiny, moisture-resistant surface. Try to avoid handling the item for a day or so afterwards, as the buffed-up polish will dry and set, thus transferring less of itself to you. Don't be tempted to use renovating polish, as this has shoe dye mixed in with it, which can get very messy.
Going back to metal and plastic cases, once you've dried them off you can touch up any chips and scratches with enamel paint of the kind used by modellers, available in a range of colours and generally sold in dinky little tins. Shake the paint thoroughly and apply it a dab at a time, using a droplet on the point of a pin for very small areas. Enamel flows smoothly, so just let it find its own level.
You'll probably want to give the front panel extra attention, so the first thing to do is to dry it carefully after washing. Resist the temptation to use metal polish on aluminium panels, as this will remove the finish and lettering (although Duraglit works wonders on any chrome or nickel fittings; remove and replace them for polishing if possible). Instead, use your paints to touch up any lettering, markings or logos that may need it and allow to dry before applying aerosol polish. I recall one special case when I found myself refurbishing a mixer that had had a coat of gold paint sprayed over its steel front panel, resulting in something that looked like a bad Star Trek prop. Reasoning that baked-on industrial paint finishes were pretty tough, I applied some domestic paint stripper. As I'd hoped, this removed the craft-shop aerosol paint but left the original painted surface underneath undamaged and just a rinse away from its original appearance. By all means try this if you encounter a similar attempt at customisation, but, once again, test a hidden area (for example — under a knob) first.
Black or dark-coloured panels and casework, whether plastic, metal or cloth, can be given a scarily factory-fresh appearance by applying 'Back To Black', which is usually used on black car trim. This odd stuff is a bit like a lacquer and a bit like a polish; just spray it on in little puddles (avoiding ingress points such as sockets and vents), wipe it over the surface and allow it to dry. Take care, though, as the shiny finish which results is quite slippery. This product is also excellent for restoring rubber and similar materials, so try it on anything from feet to black rubber drum pads. Avoid so called refurb spray, which contains a sticky resin that's hard to control on anything other than large plain surfaces (it cheered up the dull paintwork on my old Fiesta no end!).
Knobs and other removable hardware can be washed in soapy water along with the panels, then touched up subsequently if required. If any knobs are missing, it's often easier to replace them all with something similar than to attempt to find identical matching spares, so raid the Maplin catalogue, while also keeping the originals in case you later sell the item on to a purist!
If you'd prefer not to dismantle the equipment, you can still perk it up in various ways by using the appropriate cleaning materials cited above on the complete unit. Just removing the knobs (and giving them a wash) will allow you to squirt contact cleaner down the shafts and to give the front panel a good cleaning with foam cleanser, while the rest of the casework can simply be treated with the most suitable product. Other than soap and water, a good rub with isopropanol will remove most marks and general gunge, even on cloth-covered casework (it evaporates before it can do any damage), but, while I've yet to see this happen, this solvent can supposedly attack some materials, so the usual test procedure applies.
Hopefully, a few of the above tips will help you to spruce up that old Clavinet or MC202 quite nicely, but if refurbishing older equipment becomes a compulsion, you might want to acquire more sophisticated skills, such as matching classic paint finishes and removing rust spots using phosphoric acid (!).
All this and much more is covered in Andrew Emmerson's excellent book Electronic Classics: Collection, Restoration and Repair (Newnes 1998), readily obtainable from Amazon (although the title seems to have become garbled, so search for the author). While the book is primarily written for collectors of antique radios and so on, many of the restoration techniques are equally applicable to classic pro-audio and music equipment.
See you at a boot sale soon, then?