Buying second hand can save money, but there are pitfalls for the unwary. It is all too easy to buy a bargain, only to discover it will cost more to fix than the price of a new one. If it can be fixed at all.

Points to remember: With older models, external components are probably not available. This includes Keys, Buttons, Knobs & Case parts etc. In general it is wise to only consider purchase if the instrument is complete & in reasonable cosmetic condition.

With later instruments matters are often even worse. From the late ’70s increasing use was made of custom electronic parts. By the ’80s dedicated ICs were increasingly used, most, if not all, of these are no longer made. Supplier’s stocks are dwindling or exhausted.

Even instruments using standard parts are not immune to this obsolescence. Over the years the patterns, dimensions & general design of many components change. Others cease to be made when sales drop below economic thresholds.

Simple things like latching push-button arrays are smaller now, with different fitting. Some TTL & CMOS logic has been discontinued. Even many multi-section capacitors are no longer sold. Many earlier instruments use multi-function valves which are very hard to find or unobtainable.

Many digital instruments used devices called ULAs. These are a cross between a high volume produced standard gate array and a custom part. A standard matrix of gates was made in large numbers, but the mask printed interconnections, essential to form a working logic system were omitted. The device was thus not committed to serve any particular purpose,

Hence the abbreviation stood for ‘Uncommitted Logic Array’. The lesson of history has shown that it really meant ‘Unobtainable Logic Array’. To make the device do a particular job, a pattern of connections was devised. This was then printed onto a comparatively small number of chips, which were then encapsulated. This combined the low cost of high volume production with some of the flexibility of small batches.

Human nature decreed that too few parts were made to provide for continued service backup. Since the minimum viable quantities were in the thousands, it was obvious that the shortfall would not be rectified. Much of such equipment still works & is sometimes offered for sale. A failed ULA is terminal.

There should be a statutory notice applied to relevant equipment, ‘Warning, this item contains time limited irreplaceable parts’. Makers never dare to be that honest, so many innocent buyers burn their fingers financially. A general rule of thumb is ‘don’t pay too much for anything old & digital’.

Later advances phased out the use of ULAs, instead a device called a PAL or PLA came into service. This stood for Programmable Array Logic or Programmable Logic Array. These are truly programmable, once only, in small numbers, even singly. Whilst the devices are still made it should, in principle, be possible to programme a replacement for any failed part.

Come on now, we all know the business world is not like that. No-one is going to divulge the secret code to enable re-programming, even when the secret is no longer a commercial advantage. Often design data is deliberately destroyed, presumably to ensure that equipment must eventually be replaced, the ‘Consumer Society’.

Other parts, seemingly standard, in much ‘high tech’ gear, are in fact not standard at all. The humble floppy disc drive, increasingly made at lower cost, hides an open secret. The makers included a number of hidden logic links, these could be set in a particular way, to an instrument maker’s specification. This ensured that drives brought from any other source would be no use.

Thus the maker concerned was able to sell replacement disc drives for their equipment at inflated prices. This offset discounts needed to sell the original equipment in a competitive market. Today it means that when such a drive fails, the equipment containing it becomes worthless junk.

Hard drives on some instruments & equipment have a similar problem. The Emulator Three had, in its expanded 8MB memory form, a list price in Britain of £11,500, usually discounted to some extent. Its SCSI port worked well for hard drives of the time, but it was not fully standard. Once drives evolved to larger sizes, making smaller ones obsolete, there was a problem.

The 8MB EIII had 100 file locations available, so it could only format a drive to 800MB. Later drives of several Gigabytes were simply not compatible. The company’s answer was to continue developing new machines able to use the later drives. So much for backwards compatibility, EIII owners were out in the cold.

Akai, the other major sampler maker, had a policy of backwards compatibility, unlike E-mu. So an S900’s discs would play on an S950, S1000 or S1100 etc. This compatibility extended to the S3000 series, good for those with extensive libraries from older machines.

They did however use non-standard memory cards & disc drive configurations. So all is not sweetness & light with these models. Those that are floppy based are in trouble if the drive or the memory fails.

Take care if about to buy, ensure the drive loads discs easily, with no noisy re-seeks or frequent error messages. Make sure it will cleanly play back a sample, long enough to fill the entire memory. Use maximum sampling speed for this test, it pushes the RAM harder & takes less listening time.

Make sure the buttons, especially those frequently used, (cursor & enter etc.) are not loose. On later machines a loose button is broken & probably not available. We do have a few left, but not many.

Standardization has made the computer revolution possible, but has been kept well away from the digital musical instrument world. So you can see why, although we still fix modern gear, we have a soft spot for true classics. Instruments that are simply well made, instead of hiding petty commercial secrets.

If a computer fails, it can usually be repaired. A new mother board won’t break the bank and is usually an effective upgrade. Drives are ever larger, fairly reliable, with standard interfaces. Cards are mostly reasonably priced, with standard fittings. Unlike digital musical instruments, whose custom designed mother boards, if still available, cost hundreds of Pounds or Dollars.

No wonder so many people have moved over to computer based music systems. Hardware digital instruments may soon be a thing of the past, making matters even worse for those who own them.

A warning for anyone buying instruments, or looking for service.

Some customers have had minor financial disasters over purchase of a second-hand instrument. Others have suffered after contacting unscrupulous or incompetent individuals claiming to provide skilled service.

A few guidelines will not go amiss & can save you a lot of money or frustration. Some of these are repeats of comments made earlier, or elsewhere. We suggest that, if this section is relevant to you, it should be read in full. Firstly, regarding purchase, servicing follows on.

When buying a second hand instrument, try not to let your heart rule your head. If a tatty or faulty one comes along, stop & think carefully. A better one may show up afterwards, you may finish up kicking yourself.

Many a battered instrument will cost you more to fix up than you can pay for a good example. Our mission includes repairing faulty instruments, tuning, or restoring good ones. We do NOT relish the idea of you spending a fortune on salvaging an instrument that should only be used for spares. We would rather charge you a reasonable amount to improve a good one

Servicing of musical instruments

Servicing may be required, once an instrument has been purchased, or after a lot of use. Great care should be taken at this point, many repairers around the World are reputable & genuinely experienced. Others are not.

Ensure that whoever you choose has a proven track record. That he or she knows the theory & practice of their art. That they genuinely know your instrument & how to get the best from it.

Courtesy of Ron Lebar , Alfa Entek Online