barn find of a lifetime

The Great Barn Find Adventure Of A Lifetime – Part 1

As many of you know, I have spent my life and career working on electronic equipment. This started early in elementary school, and I was selling CRT televisions out of my parents’ basement by the end of high school in 1981. That continued throughout the 80s, until the bottom dropped out of television pricing, and I subsequently transitioned into pro audio installations and servicing.

Ampex ATR 102
Ampex ATR 102

I’ve had what I call an ‘unhealthy obsession’ with reel to reel tape decks since I was a toddler, and no one knew why. My parents were both accountants, and while we had a mono tube reel to reel in the 1960s to send tapes back and forth to my grandparents in Europe, we didn’t have a stereo until I built up my own around Grade 6. I was fascinated by the turning reels and the overall high sound quality of tape decks.

In 1991 I purchased Vancouver Audio Clinic, one of Vancouver’s largest consumer and pro audio repair shops. This was the place that I took equipment in high school when I didn’t have the skills to repair them (yet). Every time I set foot into Vancouver Audio, I wanted to work there. Back in the late 70s when I’d go to Van Audio,  the place was filled with large power amplifiers, receivers, guitar amps, cassette decks and reel to reels. Sadly, by the time I bought it, most people were abandoning the old large vintage receivers and reel to reels, in favor of 5.1 surround receivers and compact ‘BPC’ (black plastic crap) stereos, as home theatre was all the rage in the early to late 90s.

I ran Vancouver Audio Clinic for almost 4 years before I sold it. It shut down in 1995.

What I did take away from Vancouver Audio Clinic, however, was the knowledge to repair – and more importantly, to calibrate – reel to reel tape decks. I learned the importance of MRL calibration tapes, azimuth and bias, things that I more or less guessed at during the 1980s. Van Audio had a great tape deck tech, and he taught me what I didn’t know.

One of the things that kept Van Audio going is that I’d repair and sell abandoned repairs as used equipment at the front counter, with a small display area. Occasionally I’d buy used equipment from people looking to unload unwanted equipment, and that’s something I’ve continued to this day.

Studer A807
Studer A807

Fast forward to 2017, and the Reel to Reel Tech website was launched. I continued my interest in reel to reels while doing large commercial audio installations, and for the last 10+ years, I  advertised refurbished decks on Craigslist. My running joke was that in the 2000s, the only people that wanted reel to reel machines repaired were people over 50 that had one in their past, and needed a deck to play their old tapes on. Once the website launched and hit Google searches, the emails and calls increased exponentially, and I found that about half of the website inquiries came from musicians that were discovering or rediscovering good old analog sound. To date, the demand for multi-track as well as consumer decks remains high, and I buy, repair and sell a lot of decks every year. My youngest client was 18 years old, who had only worked with ProTools, and wanted to try reel to reel recording. He bought an entry level Akai reel to reel, but was back a year later to buy a 4 channel Teac 3340s for multi-tracking.

As a result of the website visibility, I receive numerous  emails from people wanting to sell me tape decks. These range from tube mono machines from the 1950s and 1960s, to high end 24 track studio machines. While every machine that comes through the shop needs servicing, I find that most of the long abandoned studio machines need a ton of work. This was due to  maintenance was not kept up on these machines, as digital started taking over in the late 1980s. It’s not uncommon for a 24 track machine to come in with 9 or 10 channels being dead. The working channels would simply get reduced in the studios as preamp modules would fail, and years (sometimes decades) later, I’d buy the machine for restoration.

I generally get a couple of emails a week from people wanting to sell me decks, and I never know what the client has. Sometimes it’s a single machine that came out of the seller’s home stereo, other times I get calls from recording studios that have several decks, plus parts, plus a ton of associated equipment.

This long preamble brings us to March of 2022, when I received a random email from a seller wanting to ‘sell off a large collection of machines that his dad had collected over a series of decades’.  Of course, this piqued my interest. The person emailing me was the son of the owner of the decks. He lived in Portland, his father lives in Texas, and the son had to make a trip to  Texas to take inventory and to capture some pictures. He told me that he’d make the trip at some point in time, with Covid of course making travel a bit more complicated as well.

 

Because of the large number of emails I deal with daily (generally 20-40 a day), if something isn’t happening immediately, I end up forgetting about it, as I did with this seller’s email. I received another email in July 2022, with the seller telling me that trip hadn’t happened yet, but it would be. Finally in November 2022 early on a Sunday morning, I  received an email with an Excel spreadsheet attached of the equipment for sale. Up to this point, I wasn’t given brand names, or even  whether the decks were consumer or pro, or a combination thereof. With literally 100-200 decks coming through the shop every year, I’ve seen a lot of the common consumer and pro models, along with various ancillary equipment, and I see multiples of many brands and models of decks every year.

 

It therefore takes a bit for me to sit there, open jawed, looking at a list of equipment. Well, this was one of those times where my jaw sat on the floor of my office while I was staring at the spreadsheet. Ampex ATR, Studer Revox, Technics, Studer, Studer, etc. There was a total of 105 items, with only two decks being consumer models, and all others being semi pro or professional makes and models. On top of that, there was service manuals, spare parts, high end test equipment, and a bunch of equipment that I’d never seen in person.

I quickly emailed the seller back, saying I’d need 24 hours to do some research on the equipment, and to study the pictures, to come up with pricing for all items. The seller replied that he wasn’t in a rush, to take my time. I spent the rest of the day cogitating on what I should offer for the long list of gear, knowing that I’d have to bring everything back through customs to Vancouver to work on it all.

From the pictures, I could  also tell  that this wasn’t a scam of random pictures gathered from the internet and  simply put  on a spreadsheet. I could see that all pictures were taken from the same area, and I’d see the corner of one piece of equipment in another picture. This was definitely legit!

I decided to approach this two ways.. to provide a purchase price if I bought absolutely everything on the list, and another price, more expensive per item, if I was allowed to cherry pick. I also would have to fly down to Texas to inspect all equipment before committing to it, and then  coordinate logistics to get all  of the items to Canada. Fortunately I have a logistics whiz that I have been working with, shipping electronics all over the globe for the last 20 years, and he was on it.

To make matters more interesting, the seller lives on a 70 acre lot, with a ½ mile long driveway in the middle of nowhere, with a couple of hairpin turns, making it impossible for a semi trailer and truck to arrive at his property. Instead, we’d have to hire a smaller 5 ton truck to drop off pallets, find a few people to pack up the equipment, and then drop all of the pallets off at a local truck dock so that a 53’ semi trailer could make the drive to Vancouver.

 

As I went through the list, I realized that it would be foolish to cherry pick as I wanted it all. Then there was the matter of finding a place to store all of this equipment without paying insane storage locker charges. I therefore made an offer that was fair to both parties, and taking into account that everything was sold ‘as is’, and the cost of trucking it to Vancouver, the customs clearance charges, along with flight and accommodation charges, and hiring labor at both ends to pack and unpack the equipment.

My logistics guy advised that a 53’ trailer would fit 26 pallets, and to try and keep the load to those 26 pallets. Spending more time poring over the spreadsheet, I figured that with careful packing, I could indeed keep the load to 26 pallets, but some would be stacked high.

I’d then also need packing material, as I’d bring nothing with me. Off to the Uline website to place a large order for packing material: Boxes, some double walled, so they could be stacked without the bottom boxes collapsing under the weight. Tape gun, tape, shrink wrap, box cutters, Sharpies to label each box, moving blankets, ratchet straps, etc etc. The bill from Uline alone came to $2,800 USD. The estimated shipping cost to Vancouver, not including customs clearance costs is in excess of $10,000 USD.

 

The seller accepted my offer, and I sent him a deposit to show that I was a legit buyer. When it comes to online transactions like this, trust and communication is everything to keep both the buyer and seller happy.

As of January 12, I have the bank draft drawn up for the balance, and there may be more pieces apparently that were not on the original spreadsheet. My flight leaves Jan 18, and I’ll spend 10 days taking inventory as well as serial numbers for the customs paperwork needed, and to oversee the packing  of all of this sensitive vintage equipment.

All equipment should be in Vancouver in the first week of February, then the long process begins of unpacking, and servicing equipment that may not have been turned on in years. I do not know the backstory currently of how the buyer managed to acquire this equipment, but I will find out, and will expand this find of a lifetime post as things occur.

 

Most of the non reel to reel related items are at www.vintageaudio.ca, and not at reeltoreeltech.com. Feel free to reach out to them if anything is of interest to you, however keep in mind that their skilled technicians also need to run through each piece of equipment before it is for sale.

Jump to Part 2 – Loading seven tons of equipment!

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