Wait, isn’t it supposed to be “the pros and cons”? Well, it’s true that there are lots of pros out to con you.
We’ve all seen and heard endless claims about how older instruments and gear are better; nobody makes ’em like they used to; the originals are the only ones worth having; and of course vintage mojo is the source of sweet tone. Sometimes those things are true, in specific instances, but not true to nearly the extent that so many people would lead you to believe.
Some older gear is simply old. Equipment gets beat up over time with use, and electronic components will commonly expire and drift out of their ideal operating range. This can cause older electronic gear to perform and sound quite differently than it did when it was new, to an unpredictable extent. Capacitors are one common victim of old age–you will hear repair techs talking about a “cap job” pretty often when refurbishing older gear, and this just means replacing all the capacitors, especially the electrolytics. When somebody says their old preamp or EQ for sale is just like the ones the Beatles used at Abbey Road Studios, you have to wonder: did it sound different for them when it was operationally new? Remember that vintage gear was new back in the old days, and probably did not have all the quirks, mechanical hiccups, noise, or distortion that such an item may have 50 years later.
So when you see a piece of gear or an instrument being advertised as vintage, just replace the word “vintage” with “old” in your mind, for a quick reality check as to whether the item will be sure to give you the tone or performance that is claimed.
I’ve only recently realized what an issue this could be in my compressor reviews, as many of the comps (especially rack units) were old, well-used, and probably out of spec. Is the MXR Dual Limiter really as bad as I said, or was it just that the one I happened to buy was decrepit? I’ve been told by a former Aphex engineer that the Dominator 720 was designed to be totally free of coloration or distortion, yet the two I bought had terrible tone and distortion, even though one of them looked like it was in “mint” condition. Should I buy a third one, brand new, just to find out the truth? One of my internet acquaintances bought an Aphex 651 that was unused old stock, still sealed in its original box, and it’s giving him all kinds of trouble–even though it could be sold as “new”. Sure it had never been used, but it still got old.
Some people have had great experiences with vintage gear. Their favorite items might be old, but were well-maintained over the years, or were refurbished recently. Or they just got lucky. You might get lucky too, but you may have to buy an awful lot of duds before you find the good stuff. If you see (for example) a vintage guitar in really good condition, you have to ask yourself “why didn’t it get played much?” Even the great instrument companies turned out plenty of not-so-good units, even during their glory days. That’s a natural side-effect of using natural (highly variable) materials like wood, and of course human error in the assembly. As a result, there are lots of vintage guitars out there which are in surprisingly good condition, because nobody wanted to play them–they sucked. 70’s Fender basses are a classic example: for many years people avoided them because they were thought to be much lower quality than the early 60’s stuff; but when the frenzy of vintage guitar buying hit its peak in the late 90’s and early 00’s, and prices skyrocketed for 60’s guitars, both buyers and sellers started looking at stuff from the 70’s as a plentiful and more affordable source of “vintage mojo” for sale. Sure, there were certainly some gems from the 70’s production; but you’ve got to realize that the only real selling point today for a typical 70’s Fender bass is that it’s old.
So does “old wood” really sound better, after aging and playing in smoky bars over the years? Maybe, sometimes. Wood and metal do both change on a molecular level over time, and under vibrational stress, so there is legitimate science behind the claim. However, the actual audible results are not at all predictable. Maybe a certain piece of wood sounds better when it has aged, but maybe worse or maybe the same. No guarantee, and no way to know without trying the instrument yourself and hearing whether you like it.
Naturally we consumers want to buy mojo that will make us sound better and look cooler. And naturally a seller wants to unload their merchandise on anyone they can convince to buy it. This creates a “perfect storm” of fools parted with their money. Sellers will say all the right things to make you believe that magical fat sweet tone will be yours, if you just buy their classic vintage gear. And we suck it up.
It’s the same axe I always grind: “Use your own ears, and don’t believe the hype”. And realize that any old gear you buy may need some work to be brought back into spec, for proper performance.