I want to talk about kitting out on the cheap, but first, an update: I’ve heard from Meg Davis, and the fundraiser has met its goals! She has an iPad and is already working with it, learning about software. When she wrote, she was having what had been a bad day – the kind that would keep her from doing anything – but thanks to this device, she was catching up on business and email, and seeing how Garage Band works. Seriously, way to go, you guys. \o/ Well done.
Now, on to cheap equipment!
I’ve been pawn-and-thrift-store spelunking again, this time for good camera tripods. I started at UW Surplus (no), then hit Goodwill and a local pawn store near Goodwill, and came up with two tripods – one that just needed cleaning and its camera pad re-glued, and one – a Slik U-210 – that needed a bit more work. I talked about that a little on Thursday here, if you’re curious, but the details aren’t really important. The U-210 is a heavy-duty no-fucking-around professional’s tripod; the successor is the U-212, which isn’t as tall. It’ll hold up a small building.
U210 on the left
I don’t need that much; to be honest, I’m probably fine with a generic $40 “prosumer” model made in China, with a 10% junk/return rate. But I hate doing that, and mostly just won’t. So if you don’t do that either, and you’re trying to kit out, here are a few key things I’ve found important to know.
- Learn to judge quality in a general sense. That’s not easy to teach, frankly, but you can avoid loose fittings, cheap rivets, overly-thin aluminium, flimsy or brittle plastics. Heft is no guarantee, but it generally doesn’t hurt, either. Similarly, learn to identify excessive wear. If there’s a moving part, make sure it still fits well with the parts it’s moving against. Broken is almost always easier to fix than worn out.
If you have no idea where to start here, try watching a bunch of back episodes of the old late-90s BBC show, Bargain Hunt. Pay attention to the experts on that show and try to pick up on how they think.
- Talking of broken, be willing to fiddle with things and take them apart. If you’re not at least a bit of a DIYer, or interested in being one, don’t waste your time on this approach. But if you are, and are prepared to apply it, you can make off like a bandit. Recommended reading: The Readers Digest Fix-It-Yourself Manual. Not for any one repair, tho’ it’s good for that, but for a general idea about how you approach these kinds of problems.
- Be willing to see past dirt. Thrift stores in particular get a lot of estate-sale leftovers and storeroom cleanouts. Great grandmother finally passed on, and the kids aren’t photographers, and now I have a serious business tripod – a tripod that sat in a crawlspace by the furnace for 20 years, getting coated with grime. Now? Cleaned and lubricated, it’s ready to go.
- Recognise what’s out of place. If a pawn shop has a lot of something, it’s probably not that good a deal; they know it, they recognise it, they go through a lot of it, and they can price it with confidence rather than searching the internet and hoping. Guitar amps are a perfect example of that; they know crummy guitar amps, and they move well. DJ equipment, too, to a lesser degree. But if they have only one of something, and it doesn’t look like the other things? That’s the interesting item. Particularly if it’s dusty.
(There are exceptions, of course. If you need an SM-57 or SM-58 microphone, those don’t stand out, and they know what they are, but they’re such commodities that the price will be good, and the damn things are nearly indestructible. Knowing when it doesn’t matter is a lesser skill, but a skill nonetheless.)
- Play with stuff in the store. Plug it in, bring in your equipment and use it. If they won’t let you, go somewhere else.
- Pawn shops always negotiate. Never pay what’s on the label, always bring cash, and if you get it out, make sure you don’t have enough to pay the label price anyway.
Examples: A: My PA’s board/amplifier unit met rules 4 and rule 1, spectacularly. The pawn shouldn’t ever have taken it. It’s not DJ equipment, it’s not a guitar amp, it’s not a car stereo. Few of their customers know what it is, and almost none of them know how to use it, or are even interested. It was missing a knob, which I replaced easily without even taking the unit apart, so I’m not counting it as rule 2, but that didn’t hurt, either. B: My speaker main, an old-school Crate, met rules 4, 3, 2, and 1. It was some arena-band-wanna-be’s stage monitor, and a total monster, and more than I’ll ever need for primary PA. It was dirty but would clean up well; it had a bad coil in the tweeter horn ($26 total repair cost), reeked of quality despite that, and it was totally out of place.
I got them both for dirt – seriously, like 90% off new retail – and for about 60% of the pawn’s asking price in both cases, because they didn’t want them around anymore. They stood out, saying, “this doesn’t belong here,” and were idle too long on the floor.
You can even find instruments that way, occasionally. They know guitars of all kinds, but they’re much less sure about anything else. I have a student violin for which I paid $40, including tax. It’s not a good violin, but it holds tune just fine, is complete with bow and case and all parts, and the screwed-up part wasn’t even broken, just, you know, screwed up. I put it back together correctly and saved it from a junk pile. Now I have my viLOLin. Tremendously useful? Eh, probably not. Fun to play around with and maybe even learn on? Oh yeah.
When the turret says, “I’m different!” – sometimes it is.
You got any suggestions for putting together a kit? Leave them in comments!