Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Support in the Maker Age

Sometimes working with music equipment, especially vintage gear, can feel like being an antique car enthusiast - things break, fuses blow, components burn out, everything eventually falls out of calibration - and that’s a best case scenario for studio use. Add in live gigging and you introduce a whole new world of spilled beers, power surges, drops and collisions, etc. It’s not fun, but it comes with the territory. David over at The Compleat Synthesizer recently had a string of surprise equipment failures. A few of my vintage pieces, including my beloved Roland System 100m, need a handful of smaller repairs and refurbishments that I don’t feel like paying for and don’t want to attempt doing myself. Sometimes the techs themselves are a whole other can of worms.

With the big analog resurgence and the explosion of boutique gear manufacturers over the past decade, many people have dumped their vintage equipment in favor of the modern stuff. I totally respect that decision, especially for musicians that don’t want to be bothered with maintenance or surprise failures. As a vintage fanatic, I’m more than happy to take the ancient stuff off of their hands!

However, new gear breaks too - and what companies do next can either make or break reputations in the modern customer base.

In the past decade, the rising tide of Maker Culture, circuit bending, and the DIY ethos has created an entire generation of tech-literate end users who are more than comfortable doing their own troubleshooting and repairs - or at least the bulk of the diagnostic work. When I had a problem with my Elektron Analog Four, I didn’t just say “help, it’s broken,” I created a high-quality YouTube video to demonstrate the problem before my little box was even packed up to be shipped back to Sweden so their tech geniuses could repair it. Many other people are comfortable busting things open on the workbench and doing their own repairs - that is, if the company will work with them.

And that’s where things can go terribly wrong for all involved. My friend Caleb recently had a nightmare experience with Arturia trying to get help with a basic repair on his Minibrute. Caleb is a genius synth builder, module designer, and hardware hacker who could have done the repair in his sleep, but instead ended up with a five-month runaround from the company that left him so disgusted by the experience that he immediately dumped all of his Arturia equipment on Craigslist and won’t do business with them again. What an unfortunate lose/lose outcome: he won’t get to enjoy their amazing products and is likely to share his negative experience with many other people from his position of influence in the synth community.

Another high-profile example from my circle involves Eric Magrini, a guy I’ve known online since 1997 (wow, it feels crazy to type that out!) who has always been a natural ambassador for equipment that he loves. Though we started with the Roland MC-505 back then, he’d since become a major proponent of Elektron’s devices and created a ton of helpful tutorials and content. However, after a recent support scenario where the company would not do right by him - the less said about the better - he’ll no longer use their products. Ouch. A company couldn’t pay for the amount of dedication, support, and cheerleading that this guy has freely given for the past 15+ years and now that bridge is burned over something so utterly preventable on their part.

In some cases, these companies are still in the awkward growing stages of transitioning from a few guys in a garage to supporting an international client base. In others, they’re way too established for such behavior to be accepted. I’ve had nothing but exceptional experiences with Roger Arrick of, whereas anything I could say about Dave Smith Instruments’ support would just be added to the legions of frustrated users out there - that ship has sailed for the company’s rep at this point.

Things are going to mess up, even with brand new gear. Whether you’re a dude soldering at the kitchen table or have 30 years in the game, what you do next will make customers for life or permanently poison the well.