The Price of Maintenance

ã 1999 by Eddie Ciletti

Rather than talk about any specific piece of gear, I'd like to talk in general terms about one of the hazards of doing business, The Price of Maintenance. I get so much positive e-mail from writing a column ó in EQ Magazine ó But sometimes the questions roll in as if I had asked, "What is the quality of service you are getting from: your gear, the local service center or the manufacturer?"  Some people are realy angry out there!


One frustrated user e-mailed to say he was ready to trade in one set of digital eight tracks for another brand. Ok, Iíll be diplomatic and not mention the brand and model because it really doesnít matter to the story. The beef is about the projected cost of service. "Is it worth paying $1,000 per machine per 1,000 hours?" Here is my view on the cost of repairs as part of normal studio business.

Today, mass manufacturing techniques can build a product faster and more efficiently than ever before. Itís all about two things: volume and the lack of human intervention. Volume reduces per unit cost ó any human intervention adds big dollars to the cost. 

Remember the song, "We Are The Champions?" Well, when I was doing live sound, I used to say that the theme song of the opening act was "We Are The Sound Check." These days, even though the gear is more reliable and more sophisticated than ever before, I think the theme song for gear sluts should now be, "We Are The Quality Control." 


So, what did I tell my "trade-in" buddy?  For every hour a tape machine is moving tape, you should be moving one-dollar from your wallet into the maintenance piggy bank.  Iíve said it in print before...

In 1985 a synchronize-able half-inch analog 8-track cost $5,000 and it took two synchronizers to link three together with some sacrifice (to the tune of $20,000). Three tracks were lost to SMPTE and the three neighboring tracks could only handle low-frequency tasks to avoid time code contamination caused by cross talk. Back in the day, the new two-inch 24-track options might have ranged from $40,000 and $80,000. Someone was more likely to purchase a used two-inch machine rather than synch three 8-tracks together.

By now you should know what I am getting at. If it ainít obvious, todayís digital 8-track machines are a bargain even without converting 1985 dollars into 1999 dollars. They are so affordable, that rather than complain about downtime I highly recommend buying spares. Itís a better insurance policy than buying insurance. This can be applied to nearly all of the potential mishaps-in-waiting with the possible exception of software. For essential items you canít do without, have spares. (This includes: hard drives, DAT machines, cables, power supplies, monitors/drivers, fuses, etc.) And donít forget to backup!


The alternative questions are, "how much would you pay for rush shipping and service charges?" And, "Can you expect rush service to have you back online AND be as good as when a technician takes a little extra time?" I think the quality of service you get is sometimes the quality of service you allow. If you call up hootiní and holleriní and in a general crustacean state, Iím not sure Iíd wanna take any chances with ya! Iíd change every part that came in contact with the part that was causiní the trouble, especially when paying for overnight shipping. Remember, the person on the other side of the phone is way down on the corporate food chain and is probably more like you than the "corporate they" youíve pent up rage for.

Do I suck up to the manufacturers? Absolutely not! Iím a wannabe product developer whoíd like to make a positive contribution to the end result. I openly confess that made-to-be-serviced gear inspires technicians to do a better job. My soft, sensitive, romantic side wishes all manufacturers were like the people involved in the Audio Underground Coalition. Hereís a group of companies so small they joined forces to share a marketing company. Chances are better than 85% that if you call for help, youíll get the person who designed your gear. Itís exceedingly rare!


This last section is for those of you trying to resurrect gear thatís soon to be classified as "vintage," in the least sexy connotation. Iím talkiní Ďbout cassette anything. A recent phone call came in on a Saturday, a day on which no "official hours" are posted. "Do you repair the Tasty-Track four-channel cassette deck?" No, I donít do those analog things any more.  "Do you know who does?"  Did you try Bury-Me-Knot Service Center?  "Yes, they want $80 just to tell me whatís wrong." Well, what is wrong?  "It wonít go into rewind and it flutters a lot in Play."  Looks like I saved you eighty bucks so far!

Note: The prices quoted for cassette decks are most likely for mechanical repairs and not any audio-related problems like intermittence, scratchy pots and switches, etc. 


Seriously though, the "right" service center knows the price because theyíve done the work. A five to ten year old cassette deck needs all new rubber parts and clutches.  New Stereo Cassette Decks are not as well built as those from the late seventies and earliy eighties.  If you are going to bother to invest money into a major repair of an antique, take a technician to lunch and make sure you are both on the same page.  Few things are worth fixing twice. 

The over the phone quoted price won't necessarily be accurate in terms of an itemized detail of the work required. It is designed to help the customer make a decision ó as delicately as I can put it, the price may be set high to scare the customer enough to not attempt repair. 

Want to know how to do your own estimate? Factor in two hours labor at between $50 to $100 per hour, then add parts. Almost anything will cost between $125 to $250. Not too high for multitrack cassette if youíve got tapes to archive. Perhaps too high for a stereo cassette deck (unless youíre in love with it). Now itís your call. And donít think that it will "only take a second."  That happens in less that one out of one-hundred cases.

For most digital tape machine repairs, I start at $300 (add another $350~$450 for a head change). Too high? Iíd rather prepare people for the worst rather than tease them with an itemized list. People hear the very first quoted price (in a string of numbers) and it sticks. Everyone I know shops for price. There is some psychology involved here! Why else would products be tagged $499.99? Afraid of getting ripped off? Believe me, I charge $100/hr for labor and expect to spend 2.5 hours on each machine. If that machine needs more attention, I canít charge much more even though I often spend twice as much time!

Not all of your broken toys want to stay repaired after the first round. If you shopped around and determined the "price window" to fall between $75 and $300, youíd probably choose the lower. I learned one lesson a long time ago, "You can never do anyone a favor that doesnít end up making everyone unhappy." Keep those low prices in mind if repeat service is necessary. Mine is the higher price but Iíll take the "problem child" back with a smile (and only charge for the additional parts, if necessary). Most people expect not to pay extra even to the person who undercharged.

If you need the work done and are willing to accept a "higher estimate" over the phone ó get it in writing and get a detailed receipt ó and you are more likely to be satisfied. If no shipping is required, check the functionality before leaving. 


I also hear this storyÖ "You know that thing you fixed eight years ago? Well I just plugged it in and it doesnít work." Huh? Gear that sleeps for several months or more may not work the first time you plug in, especially old analog gear. Exercise all the buttons. Turn it upside down. Put it in your car and drive it to the mall and back (pretending to take it in for service). Sometimes, broken gear works when I get it. The vibration during shipping fixes all the intermittent connections for at least an hour! 

I canít speak for all service facilities or for any of your bad experiences. But there are a few folks who are still trying to provide artisan-style service in an exceedingly mass-produced, disposable age.

PS I am purging his shop of old service manuals and analog tape deck parts. Click here for the list.

THE REAL ANSWER (This is another story)

It all started with an e-mail about my column on the Boston PRE Party, a mic preamp evaluation held in Boston last summer. A CD was compiled from the two-day "session." (Visit Mercenary Audio to order a CD to check out for yourself.) The person in question had purchased the CD and wanted to know my REAL feelings about the preamps, off the record, " as-if " I hid my true feelings! 

Iíll be the first to admit that we in the press lean toward diplomacy, though all of us have been known to ruffle a feather or two. But as much as youíd like us to get down 'n dirty and talk some trash, the responsibility goes much deeper than that. I think I can safely say that "We, the contributing editors of EQ, have been humbled and tempered by the experience of expressing our views in print for all the world to see."  How does that translate?  In part, itís about not being elitist, because all kinds of people read EQ from the beginner to the experienced pro.  In fact, new readers are constantly checking us out. 

We have to be equally objective when reviewing a $150 mic preamp or a $5,000 preamp. One case in point was the Fostex FD-4, a digital multitracker with a street price of $499. When it showed up I thought, "why did I get this?" But after playing with it ó creating a song and having fun ó it sent me the reality check!  It's never too late to be humbled.

TO THE CORE (yet another minor detour)

During my nineteen years in New York City, I have come to accept "the Apple" for its best and its worst. Only when entertaining "visitors" do I catch myself seeing and smelling the town through their eyes and nostrils. And so with EQ and all other audio magazines Iíve become hyper-sensitive to the "wee-bairns," the new-comers to the audio biz . 

Like my "city visitors," I  feel for the audio neophytes who are being marketed to in such a heavy-handed way.  Some reviewers seem so nonchalant about suggesting that every new product that costs more than $5,000 is worth purchasing.  An educated consumer is the best customer and there definitely needs to be more education!

I also think that some reviews are little more than a glorified press release. Itís not my job, but I feel responsible as if connected to a Siamese twin. In EQ, we have three sections for product info: Product Views (press release), First Look (basic overview of product features) and In Review (the blood and guts). 

On one hand, who wouldnít be happy to play with new toys all the time? On the other, we need to apply the eye of experience. Weíre supposed to know what to look for, to teach you to do the same and to catch the flaws that could cause you to lose a gig. Sure, we are here to help manufacturers get the word out. But to honestly say, "this really is the magic box?" HmmmÖ I think The Boston Pre Party CD was a good idea because it let the user make the sonic decision. Sonic preferences are a moving target. 

The Internet is not far from making equipment evaluation easier still. Who knows, perhaps some day youíll access / rent an esoteric piece of outboard gear over the Internet for pennies on the dollar!

Want a REAL product recomendation? "Whatever is right for you at this moment."   I fix gear for a living.  I don't worship it.   For me, itís really about performance on the other side of the mic.  After all this time, I can barely tell you which tape machine to buy.  They all eventually need service and some have great features that make it worth dealing with an idiosyncrasy or two. What do I use? A little of everything! 

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