There are some astounding values placed on vintage instruments and recording equipment these days. A 1958 Stratocaster in excellent condition, for example, may fetch as much as $25,000. Vintage recording devices from bygone years may also be valued at $10,000 or more for the most coveted items, such as rare German tube mics or broadcast limiters.
For the vast majority of people, these prices put items like this out of consideration. But researching, locating, testing, and purchasing lesser-known instruments and devices from the past can yield some fantastic results.
In our search to learn about some of the less-obvious paths that a person interested in such old gear might travel, we spoke with Mark Rubel, owner of Pogo Studios, located in Champaign, Illinois. Mark has been finding and collecting vintage instruments and recording equipment for many years, and his studio is home to dozens of rare and wonderful items. His recording credits include projects with Hum, Alison Krauss, Adrian Belew, Melanie, Luther Allison, and Henry Butler, including work for RCA, Capitol, Warner, and Jive/Zomba. He also teaches music technology and recording at Eastern Illinois University, where his students often ask him about his interests in vintage gear.
“I tell my students that just because something is old or has tubes, it doesn’t make it good. That said, there are certain pieces from what we might call the golden age of technology, the mid-1940s to the mid-1970s, that have become classics.”
“Why are they classics? Maybe they offer a particular sound, one that is immediately recognizable, or are ergonomically designed and are intuitive to use. Beyond those reasons, I like vintage gear because of the cultural, emotional, and psychological value they may offer. You know, the sound of this stuff is a kind of a connection with recording history.”
Mark actually began purchasing vintage equipment when he first started his studio in 1980. “It was mainly because we couldn’t afford to buy the newest and best equipment at that time. So I’d get on the phone and call studios in New York or LA and ask whether they might be interested in selling a small start-up studio in the middle of the country some of their old gear. And the funny thing was, a number of them said ‘yes.’ That’s how we ended up with a part of the original Studio A console from Universal Recording in Chicago, which was built by Bill Putnam, Sr., a legendary audio designer.
“I think there’s a visceral reaction, a kind of immediate feeling you get when you hear some of these pieces of gear. For instance, a vintage Tele, a Vox AC-30, or a 60s combo organ. You hear it and say ‘There it is! That’s the sound!’
“As sophisticated as today’s synthesizers and virtual instruments have become, there’s a certain essence to the original article. Take a Hammond B-3. It has a sensual personality, which even if its sound wasn’t a part of our musical DNA, would probably be cool for anyone first touching it and hearing it for the first time. The same goes for tubes and certain microphones, you hear them and the sound is somehow familiar. I don’t know that anyone, decades from now, is going to be missing the sound of an MP3 and Auto-tune. I also like the fact that on a lot of vintage gear, there are two knobs and one switch for controls, rather than pages and pages of menus and sub-menus.”
In our discussions about vintage gear in general terms, Mark identified some rare gems and a few affordable pieces. “Many of the older microphones are iconic and highly prized. All of the old ribbon microphones from RCA are classics, along with a few of their dynamics. Old tube mics made by Neumann, AKG, and Telefunken are all collector’s items today.
“I’m pleased with the comeback of ribbon mics, today you can buy very nice ribbon mics from Coles, AEA, or the Cascade Fat Heads, which offer great value. I’d even call them modern-day classics. I think the comeback is due in part to the fact that ribbons are well-suited to the type of recording medium we now use – digital, they have a naturally dark sound, in part because their design. Condenser mics that were the gold standard in previous years, were better suited to recording on analog tape. The condensers have a resonance around 10-12K that helps minimize the high end loss that is inherent in analog recording when you are dragging the tape across the heads hundreds of times making a record.
“The UREI compressors still sound amazing today. I was just using my LA-3A limiters the other day and marveling at how much you can compress a signal and still have it sound very musical. Any of the old tube broadcast compressors made by Collins, Gates, or Fairchild are rare and in great demand. Old spring reverbs are fun and not very much money.
I’ve grown fond of the Roland Space Echo. It has a nice sound of its own. I always make sure to show my students how it works and to also route it back into itself to show them how tape feedback works, speeding it up and slowing it down – which is basically the sound from nearly every sci-fi movie from the 1950s.”
“When it comes to old guitars, beyond the Gibsons, Gretschs, and Strats which are so expensive, I’m fond of Baldwin guitars. They were made between 1965-1970 by Burns of London, who made their own models as well as the Vox line of guitars. The guitar player in my band has a solid body Baldwin electric with two or three pickups and a toggle switch labeled, ‘Jazz – Rock 1 – Rock 2 – Wild Dog’ – that’s pretty cool!
“At one point in the 1970s Rickenbacker made an electric guitar – Model 331 – with a color organ inside, so as you played, the guitar created its own light show. A few Japanese guitars from the 1970s are interesting, especially those by Tiesco and some of the early Yamahas, which were space-age looking. Ovation also made some solid body guitars with ridiculous names that were really ugly but well made with excellent wood and a lot of mass. I have a Magnum bass from that line and it has a built-in graphic equalizer, a graphite neck and a big rubber mute to get the deadened bass sound popular at that time.
“Two companies that are making affordable retro-style guitars are Eastwood and Italia, both of which have that cool 1950s look, an homage to some of the classic solid bodies from that era.
“Old amps come in various sizes, but if it has tubes, it’s likely to be worth trying out. Two lesser-known brands are Magnatone and Garnet. Garnet amps were made in Canada. I think that Steve Albini and I may be the only people who collect Garnet amps. (Ed. Note: Thomas “Gar” Gillies, a sound technician who collaborated with the Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive, made them.) There was the “Pro” model, and the BTO (Big Time Operator), which had really interesting labels for its tone controls. They were labeled “Sound Fountain,” and the distortion control was called “Stinger.” They sound a bit like vintage Orange or Hi Watt amps from that period. You can find them from time to time on Canadian eBay.
“I’ve got a Garnet Herzog, which is a small tube amp that you can use with a separate cabinet. It’s about 15 watts. However, it was really designed as a pre amp to get loads of sustain by hooking its output up to another larger tube amp’s input. In fact, the classic sustaining solo guitar featured on the Guess Who hit “American Woman” was cut with Randy Bachman’s Herzog.
“Older synths can be fun to play with – I have a vintage Moog 900 five-oscillator system and an ARP 2600 in my collection. I also love the sound of an old combo organ, like the Vox Continental. There’s a certain obnoxious whine that comes from it that screams 1960s. Stomp boxes can be fun to collect, as they are small and relatively affordable. I have an Electro-Harmonix guitar synthesizer, which has an octave pedal and a fuzz, but a few years back, they reissued it, so mine isn’t as rare anymore. It’s has a triggerable hi- or low-pass filter which is pretty cool. I had a Foxx Tone fuzz for a while which was nice, but I ended up giving it to Adrian Belew who uses it now.
“Actually, today there are a lot of nice boutique pedals being made by small shops, so there are both new and vintage pedals that are collectible. The Danelectro line of pedals have some very good products in the $30-50 range like the Chili Dog and Tuna Melt, which are fun to use. I do think the weird parts that some of the older pedal manufacturers used have aged and now sound even weirder. For instance, if you have an original Cry Baby wah, its squally-sounding and can really honk more than a new one.”
Vintage Shopping Tips
So is there any overriding philosophy Mark would offer for collecting and using vintage gear?
“Just explore and see what’s out there. Use your ears and if it sounds good or weird, it maybe worth purchasing. Basically, I would say if it has any of these three things, a big knob, some type of meter, or a tube in it that lights up, it’s probably worth buying if it’s less than $50. If it’s a pedal, or wah-wah, or some other small device and it works, I’d say $20 is a good range. Craigslist has become the new garage sale and has really replaced eBay as the place for finding these things. eBay is really more of a seller’s market.”
The final question that often comes up in discussions about vintage gear, is whether or not it really is better than the new gear being made today.
Mark says, “Very likely, yes. The main reason is that in the case of what we would use for recording, it was built to either a broadcast or a military specification that was intended to last for 50 or more years. My friend, engineer Bob Ohlsson, reminded me that companies like RCA, Gates, and Collins actually leased their equipment to radio stations, so they really overbuilt their gear, because if there was a problem, they would have to go out to fix it. As a result, it was really designed and made with the best possible quality components.
“Basically, if it’s got a tube in it, it likely will sound better. Tubes do have a pleasing effect, but to work properly, pairing them with a good quality transformer is essential.”
- Meet Mark Rubel in this video profile from Illinois Public Television
- Pogo Studios (Be sure to check out the virtual tour with 360-degree views of the studio)
- Bill Putnam, Sr., sometimes referred to as the “father of modern recording”
- The classic RCA ribbon mics and Neumann’s historic U 47 are pictured on this web page titled:
“12 Microphones That Changed History”
- Burns- Baldwin Guitar History
- “Retro” Guitars Currently in Production:
- Danelectro pedals and products
- Magnatone Amps Archive
- Garnet Amps
- Randy Bachman describing the invention of the Herzog preamp