I ran into my buddy Grumpmeier at the local Electronics Land the other day, as I was mulling over a new microwave with more controls than my last mixing console. “That 50-year-old washing machine of yours finally give up the ghost?” I asked him. “Heck, no,” he said. “I got that thing held together with fishing line and Silly Putty. It’ll go another 30 years, I’m sure. I just came here to borrow some stuff for the weekend.”
I laughed, “The library is across town, my friend.” “No really,” he replied. “I do this all the time when I need something for just a couple of days. Come over here, and I’ll tell you how it works.”
We crouched in low behind a 64-inch TV set that was blaring out a trailer for Terminator IX. Arnold was climbing into a time machine that would take him back to early 18th-century Leipzig, while solemnly proclaiming to a crowd of awed onlookers, “I’ll be Bach!”
“See, I’m in the middle of a TV project, and one of my VHS decks died yesterday,” Grumps began. “It’s pretty old, and it would cost more than it’s worth to fix. Meanwhile, I just got this new cut from the producer, who wouldn’t know what window burn was if it bit him on the behind. So I gotta have two decks so I can make a work print. I’ve got a new deck on order from a mail-order house-one of those industrial models, I push my decks pretty hard-but it’s going to take a few days to get here. In the meantime, I don’t want to fall behind on the project, so I’m going to borrow a deck from these guys to do the dub. Here, take a look at this thing.”
He shoved an S-VHS deck into my face. “This has got more features on it, and the picture quality is better than the deck I’m throwing out. But it costs about a quarter of what I paid. Amazing, huh? Of course, the transport knob looks like it’ll break off if you look at it cross-eyed, and the case feels like it’s made out of cardboard…”
“Borrow?” I interrupted him, as my eyebrows went up in tandem. “You mean you’re going to try to steal it?” “No, dummy!” he snapped. “I mean borrow. They have this 30-day, no-questions-asked return policy. I put the thing on a credit card, use it for a couple of days, put it back in the box with all the manuals and the other crap, and bring it back for a refund. No problemo!” he smiled, quite pleased with himself.
“But that’s dishonest!” I cried, causing him to put his greasy hand over my mouth. “Of course it is,” he hissed. “But they’re asking for it. Hey, I didn’t tell them to make this policy. They do it to lure in customers, make them think they’re not taking any risk when they spend their money here. Why can’t I take advantage of that? Who does it hurt?”
“Well, for starters,” I started, in urgent but hushed tones, “the store can’t sell something that you’ve returned as ‘new,’ can they? So you’re actually devaluing the merchandise when you do that.”
“So they knock down the price a few bucks, so what?” he scorned. “They’re still making money.”
“But what if everyone did this?” I asked. “What if you had 300 customers come in to the store every Friday, strip the shelves of DVD players and cart out all the big-screen TVs, and then bring everything back Monday morning?”
“You don’t think that happens some weekends?” he laughed. “The people who work here hate the Super Bowl. Not only do they get crazy busy in the days just before it, but all the time they’re wondering how much of the stuff is going to come back the next week, and they’re going to lose their commissions. But you know what? A lot of stuff doesn’t come back. People get these things set up in their living rooms, and then they decide, ‘Hey, this is great, why don’t I hold onto this thing?’ If they hit the limit on their credit cards, they just apply for another one. You know how many credit card offers I get in the mail every week? Heck, even those radical left-wing political journals my wife subscribes to have their own platinum VISA cards now.”
“So I guess you don’t own a computer, either, eh?” I challenged him. “You probably just come here and borrow one for a month, and then return it and get the next model. That way you’ve always got the latest, and it doesn’t cost you a dime, right?”
He took the bait. “Actually, they’ve got that figured out. With computer stuff, they charge you a 15 percent ‘restocking’ fee, which pretty much kills the deal. On the other hand, sometimes when I’ve needed extra storage space, I’ve been tempted to get a hard drive from them and write off the 15 percent as a rental fee.”
“Do you pull this with everyone you do business with?” I wondered. “Do you order guitars from the music store chains and send them back when the album is finished? Do you tie up some poor dealer’s ADAT inventory when you need a few more tracks?” “Naw,” he answered. “I just do it with stores I hate. And I hate these big chains that put all the locals out of business. Now they’re trying to run the whole consumer electronics game themselves-like that chain that came out with that stupid ‘Divx’ thing. I mean, what’s up with this ‘disposable media’ stuff? If anything’s gonna kill DVD, that’s going to be it. Can you imagine what would have happened to CDs if they’d come out ten years ago with disposable ones that only played twice? If they’d tried that, we’d all still be playing vinyl.”
“So you do still support your local pro audio dealer and buy your high-end stuff there, right?”
“Naw,” he replied without a trace of irony. “I do everything by mail order. It’s cheaper, and everyone has a return policy. Pro audio dealers can’t match that. And besides, they all hate me.”
“Can’t say I blame them,” I laughed. “But you know, you should give them a chance.”
“To do what?” he scoffed. “They gonna offer me price guarantees like Musician’s Best Bud, or Bert and Gert’s World of Audio and Toaster Ovens?”
“You’d be surprised what they can do,” I explained patiently, as a techno-grunge version of the Toccata and Fugue in D minor blasted away in the background. “The dealer I work with gives me great prices, and even if they can’t always go as low as the big chains or the mail-order places, they can come close. I know if something doesn’t work out, they’ll take it back-they don’t have to trumpet that as a marketing come-on; it’s just their way of treating customers. And they’ve even lent me stuff for a couple days when I was in a real pinch, and I didn’t have to pay freight charges. But they only do this because I’ve been doing business with them for years. I’ve only got my one personal studio, so it’s not like I’m buying hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of stuff, but they know that when I need something, I’ll come to them, and when my school or one of my students or a client needs something, that’s where I’ll tell them to go.
“That’s called loyalty.” I emphasized the last word in case he had never heard it before. “And it works two ways. Maybe I end up spending a few more bucks than I would otherwise, but I know that when they sell me something, they’ve made sure it will be compatible with my setup and do what I need it to do, and it will work when I pull it out of the box. Try to get that kind of assurance from a mail-order place that makes more money on guitar strings and calculators than on pro audio gear. And if something doesn’t work, they’ll give me a lot more by way of assistance than just a Return Merchandise Authorization number.
“And there’s another thing that a good relationship with a dealer can help you with.” He was beginning to get fidgety, so I pushed harder. “If some manufacturer is doing a close-out on something, the only way you’re going to find out about it is through a dealer. By the time it hits the magazines, you can bet all of the stock is gone. Last month a buddy of mine heard from his dealer that a manufacturer was blowing out a reverb that had only been out for a year at 60 percent off. He’s a regular customer, so they let him be one of the first to know about it. He was smart enough to buy two-and he sold me one.” I grinned triumphantly.
“Yeah, well thanks for the sermon,” Grumps grumbled, and signified our conversation was over with his usual subtle tactic of walking away. “I got a dub to make. Say, are you using all of your multitracks next week? I got a band coming in with a big horn section, and I don’t know how I’m going to handle them all. You think I could borrow a deck?” I just smiled.
A couple of weeks later, I ran into Grumpmeier again, outside a coffee shop. “So how’d that TV project work out?” I asked. “Did you get any flack from the store about bringing that deck back?” “Oh, it went fine,” he said, “and the store didn’t give me any trouble, because I never took it back.” He sighed. “My wife got one look at how good the picture was and demanded we put it in the bedroom. And I’d already ordered the industrial deck for my studio, so now I have two new decks, both of which I gotta pay for. And now she’s screaming that we need a new TV set to match the quality of the VCR. Guess I’ll have to get another credit card.” I was watching the utter defeat of a man whose sole purpose in life is to be cheap.
“But you know what’s really bothering me?” he moaned. “My teenage daughter wants to have a big party next weekend, and she went down to that same store and came home with this enormous, ridiculously overpowered system with a subwoofer the size of a filing cabinet. I asked her how she could afford it, and she looked at me like I was a blithering idiot and said, ‘But, Daddy, I’ll bring it back next week!'”
SPRING CLEANINGWell, as you read this it’s summer, but as I’m writing this the peonies are just popping out of the ground. And besides, “summer cleaning” just hasn’t got that ring. So besides throwing out that pile of 400k floppies I’ve been collecting, I’m going to take this opportunity to clean off some of the reader correspondence that’s been piling up on the old Insider Audio desk.
My mention of Auratone “road cubes” as favorite “vintage” equipment (November ’98) has generated a lot of mail, including a note from Bob Watson that appeared in our May Feedback column, and several responses along the lines of, “Yeah, I loved Auratones too. Where can I get some?” As far as I can tell, the company that made them is out of business, and no one has picked up the line. Perhaps a reader knows different. Certainly there are a few available used, but you can’t have mine.
The column describing my horrible problems trying to get MIDI, SMPTE, and digital audio synchronized (June ’98) prompted an awful lot of people to ask me what the culprit software was. I’m still not telling, but the manufacturer has indeed fixed the problem, and I just finished another TV project (with the same production company) in which I did the music the same way, which turned out fine. Besides using the newest software, there was one other major change in my procedure: I locked the digital audio to word clock coming from a Mark of the Unicorn MIDI Time Piece A/V, which also served as the SMPTE source driving the sequencer. And the manual now says that I shouldn’t have done what I did last time: “If you’ve already recorded MIDI…synched to SMPTE, don’t record audio while synched to SMPTE…[They] will not correctly line up…during playback.”
Thanks a lot. There’s still no excuse for unlocked audio being 1% off (I checked my original SMPTE source against the MTP A/V’s internal timer, and the difference was never more than 1 Hz out of 44,100), but at least now I know the workaround. And I also know that from now on, at least when I’m working against picture, I will never trust a digital audio system that can’t be locked to an outside sync source.
I’ve also gotten a lot of mail about the horrors of upgrading a Power Computing Mac clone with a G3 accelerator card (February ’99), mostly asking, “Did you ever get Pro Tools working?” The answer, I’m happy to say, is “Yes.” I had to shuffle the Pro Tools and video cards around a couple of times (and if you recall the absurd SCSI connector on the NuBus Pro Tools III systems, you’ll know this is no picnic) and ignore Digidesign’s explicit directions about which cards to put where, but I eventually found a combination that works.
Finally, in response to my March ’99 column about the Bell Labs reunion celebration, Lauren Weinstein, who describes himself as “one of the old men of the Internet,” told me about his Web site, which features a brief but fascinating history of computer music, including a streaming version of the original computer-generated “Daisy.” Check out www.vortex.com/comphist. Laurie Spiegel, who started her distinguished career as an experimental musician at the Labs, has documented a lot of her work there at her site: www.dorsai.org/~spiegel/. And if you missed the article, Art & Science Collaborations Inc., who presented the panel, have posted a copy of it (with our permission, of course) on their site: www.asci.org.