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Gear, Glorious Gear!

Baker Lee • December 2019FOH at Large • December 14, 2019

Illustration by Andy Au

Many of us who are gear aficionados tend to spend time frequenting flea markets, garage sales and antique stores in search of that amazing find; a vintage piece of equipment that for years has been packed away and hiding in a garage or cellar, only to be discovered by unsuspecting heirs upon the passing of the owner. Being in a hurry to finalize matters of the estate, some relative who inherits the piece gathers the contents of the cellar or garage and, oblivious to the true value of any of the items in their possession, heads to the nearest flea market to possibly make a few bucks while spending a day haggling with various bargain-seeking buyers.

‡‡         Art of the (Audio) Deal

Just to be clear, the buyers and sellers who frequent these venues on a consistent basis love to negotiate and quibble about value and pricing, and while everyone has a negotiating tactic, the most prevalent method for regulars is to act uninformed regarding any of the items up for sale. Often, an “Aw shucks” attitude is on display by both buyers and sellers in an effort to keep the opposing party off-guard. No one wants to show their hand, expose their knowledge and look like a professional dealer, but it often becomes difficult to hide one’s true colors once the negotiations get heated.

Considering that most sellers and buyers who frequent flea markets are fairly knowledgeable about antique or collectable items, it is safe to assume that the amazing find will not be sitting out in the open with a low-price tag but, as said, “anything is possible.” While the possibilities may be endless, the probability is a bit lower in regard to making a fortune from bargain hunting, but the hope is kept alive by such fabled stories as the story of someone in a Manhattan flea market paying 75 cents for a Velvet Underground demo, which later turned out to be worth in the vicinity of $26,000. Or the Philadelphia man who bought an undistinguished painting for four dollars only to have the frame break and reveal a small folded document that turned out to be one of the 24 surviving copies of The Declaration of Independence, which then sold for $2,400,000.

Unfortunately, most electronic pieces don’t fetch prices into the millions unless you’re lucky enough to find a 1923 Leica o-series compact camera, but in many electronic flea markets, one can find vintage vacuum tubes, capacitors, ham radios and oscilloscopes. Since there is not much resale value for these items, one either purchases them for personal satisfaction or for their own projects. It would be nice to purchase a box of oddities at a flea market only to open it and find a working Neumann U87 or AKG 414 from the late 1970s. It is true that a few years ago, FRONT of HOUSE editor George Petersen stumbled across a pristine 1960’s mastering equalizer that was custom built for Motown Detroit’s disc cutting room — at a flea market for a paltry $20 — however, such scores are exceedingly rare.

‡‡         Pedal to the Metal

Years ago, before the advent of pedalboards, I took to collecting vintage guitars and amplifiers. My collector friends and I would match certain guitars with the different amps in search of sounds particular to each pairing. Going to gigs became troublesome, as we could never decide on one amp/guitar combo or another, leaving us in the awkward position of having to bring multiple amps and guitars to get the various sought-after sounds. By the 1980s, most guitarists traded in bringing the extra amp and guitar for an extensive pedalboard consisting of a flange, chorus, delay, wah-wah pedal, overdrive and distortion pedals. Many of these pedals are still sought after by collectors — even with the plethora of new effects and modeling amplifiers available on the market — because that’s the way certain gearheads are made.

I have received requests for items such as the Empirical Lab EL8 Distressor as well as the Universal Audio 1176LN to go out on gigs, coupled with the latest digital console and with the current OS and Waves bundle. Why would anyone want the extra rack of gear when they can find the digital form in the waves bundle? The answer is: because gearheads can hear, if not feel the difference. Does it make sense to take these pieces plus vintage U47 and U87 mics to a live gig? It does if you can afford it and have the space where you can use it. Lou Reed — a renowned gear head — once asked me to place a U87 microphone 10 feet in front of his guitar amplifier to pick up the ambient sound of the amp. While being a great studio technique, it’s a less than stellar application on a 12-foot-deep stage with drums, bass and two guitars. As expected, I couldn’t turn on the U87 and since the microphone didn’t take up too much space on stage it was an additional piece that provided a bit of solace to the bandleader — even while off.

‡‡         The Most Important Question

How much gear should a gearhead bring if a gearhead could bring gear? Admittedly, we all like gear, but more importantly, we need the equipment to make our events a success. Since every event is different in scope, it seems obvious that we should only require gear proportionate to the size of the hall and the nature of the event. In a perfect world, I should only need to bring enough gear to fulfill the requirements of the job itself, but since we don’t want to be caught unprepared, we might bring some extra speakers in case a speaker fails or the client decides to make a last-minute change.

Bringing extra mics and cables seems reasonable and even an extra amp rack can turn out to be helpful — essentially, anything we can do to save us from last-minute scrambling if a piece of equipment should fail. Over the years, I have received many emergency calls from engineers frantically looking for everything from DSP racks, stage racks, console surfaces, drive cables, signal cables, fan outs, split boxes and more. Obviously, bringing two of everything for most gigs is unreasonable for quite a few reasons, but more gear is better than less gear, and for gearheads, more gear is the assurance against failure. Whether it’s a vintage piece sitting in the garage or studio or if it’s a contemporary item we take with us to a live event, the only viable option for gear lovers is more gear. If a client should ever question whether all the gear you bring to a gig is necessary, please do not hesitate to let them know that yes it is necessary and in fact, to be perfectly honest, there should be more gear!

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