Forty years ago I began my career repairing industrial electronics equipment. Right out of tech school with a wife and a kid on the way, I worked on precision measurement equipment by day, and played rock 'n' roll and fixed musical equipment on nights and weekends. My employer was mismanaged by a group of salesmen who knew nothing about any part of the industrial equipment I installed and repaired. One of our two vendors refused to provide any schematics or service information for their products and they were also incapable of repairing their units in less than a month. Our customers expected one-day service and went ballistic over a day of downtime. So I spent a few evenings looking up component part numbers, tracing circuit boards and drawing a set of schematics in order to troubleshoot these products.

A year later I was offered a slightly better position with a competitor and I took my service information with me. My new boss was a technical guy who had clout with management. When the uncooperative vendor called on our sales department, my boss told them that we wouldn't install or support any product that came without factory-supplied service information. The vendor refused to provide that documentation and our company told them to take a hike. A few weeks later a box of schematics, installation documents and calibration information appeared in the mail. We did end up working on the equipment, but that vendor was always our sales department's last choice in any installation.

I quit tracing circuits in order to build my own schematics about 25 years ago, but it's not that knotty a process. Anyone who really wants to know how a piece of gear is built can figure it out. Analog circuit designs in particular are just not that sophisticated.

The school where I teach has had a batch of microphone preamplifier failures from a particular manufacturer. In a couple of years we've had several of these units die, and the company's repair jobs don't last any longer than the manufactured product. It's not an expensive product — about $600 for two channels — but it's expensive enough that a one- year lifespan is perturbing. I contacted the company's service department about getting a schematic for the unit so I could take a look at the design and see if I could find a weak link. The company's response was, "I'm sorry, we cannot provide any design information for our units as it is proprietary information." Since the preamp is a straightforward transformer-input, FET-based op amp circuit, there is nothing original or clever in the basic design. It does have a cheesy, "tube emulation" side-chain circuit, but if that's worthy of the "proprietary" invention claim, then American engineering is doomed.

For the first time in years, I decided to trace out a circuit and see where the faults lay. It turned out that the input stage's FET inputs were improperly biased and the supply voltage was over the op amp manufacturer's spec. As a permanent solution, our school's resource director had already said that the school would not be purchasing any of this manufacturer's products in the future.

Twenty-five years ago professional audio products came with exceptional service and users' manuals. Schematics were the least of the information provided by tape deck, console and signal processing manufactures. You could practically build a Studer or Otari multitrack with the information provided in their manuals, yet there is more original, clever circuitry in a single control board from those products' designs than in many entire modern product lines. SSL, Harrison, Neve, API and Trident's console manuals provide a component-by-component explanation of what each part does in the circuit. That information has kept those consoles in operation long after some of these companies quit providing support. In fact, many of the current generation of boutique manufacturers are barely more than copies of sections of 1970s console designs. If you aren't getting a schematic with your garage-manufactured peripheral, you're being refused information by a company that probably got its design from another company's service manuals. If that isn't ironic, I don't know the meaning of the word.

Most personal computers come with far better service information than many audio companies provide. In today's economic climate, it's foolish to spend serious money on a product that doesn't come with schematics and troubleshooting data. Even in good times audio companies go belly-up, but today every company is at risk, and the chances that you could end up owning a brand new, expensive boat-weight are better than they have been in 80 years. Even a lifetime warranty is worthless if the company that issued the warranty is history.

Planned obsolescence is a reasonable expectation with a disposable product like an iPhone or a video game, but good studio equipment can last for a career (or two). Unfortunately some manufacturers are taking advantage of the steady drain in studio technical competence. Not that long ago, a recording engineer calibrated and repaired tape machines, maintained consoles, fought with clunky, expensive and unreliable computer equipment and designed and wired studios. That kind of technician has little-to-no use for equipment that doesn't come with service information. Our industry is a "leading user" business, and if our leading users are nothing more than software users, then we're in trouble.

The time to get service information is before you spend your money. When you are spending a lot of money, you have substantial clout with manufacturers. Once the cash has swapped hands, your clout is gone and you are at the mercy of the company's service department — that is until the company decides the equipment is obsolete. Then you are out of luck.

As Dick Cavett said, "As long as people will accept crap, it will be financially profitable to dispense it." Before our industry is reduced to consumer status, we should start demanding complete service information with every product that claims to be "professional." Even if a studio owner isn't technical enough to use that information, its existence preserves resale value of the equipment. Possessing service information puts you in position to find someone who can fix the gear when it breaks. The difference between a good design with complete information and a good design without is a professional product or a throwaway commodity that deserves little respect or investment. If manufacturers know we're willing to pay a reasonable premium for professionally supported gear and that we are unwilling to consider unsupported gear worthy of professional investment, then maybe they'll quit hiding behind the "proprietary information" crap and start treating us with respect.

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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