Last May, my first thought when I heard that the company Heathkit closed its doors was, “Heathkit was still in business?” The article brought back pangs of nostalgia, making me recall the days when I’d wander into their store in Warren, Michigan and see all of the exciting electronics that you could build yourself. The first color television that I bought myself was a Heathkit. The first VCR available to consumers was also from Heathkit. Generations of electronics aficionados built their chops on these things! Yet changing times and cheap overseas labor made do-it-yourself savings a moot point, and doomed the company.
It makes me wonder where the next wave of electron- ics techs will come from. Will electronic service also be sent overseas? Or will we simply build more disposable electronics, filling garbage dumps with even more e-waste?
GOTTA ROLL WITH THE CHANGES
This also led me to think of how temporary some things are, including things that we DJs depend on. Many years ago, my friend and DJ extraordinaire, Tom Margellar (better known as“Tom Knight”) built an addition to his home just to house his vast music collection. It was the biggest collection I’d ever seen, and indeed, when he died, it generated the very first public music auction held by the prestigious Doyle Galleries of New York. When he had built his addition, he wanted a custom-built look, yet like all of us even today, wanted to save money wherever he could. So to shelve his massive CD collection, he used several off- the-shelf CD racks from Sauder Wood Products that you assemble yourself. They only cost around $20 a piece—barely more than a single CD! Showing me these, Tom said, “You’ll be able to buy these whenever you want as your collection grows.” Soon after, Tom would be gone, and similarly, Sauder Wood Products dis- continued that style of rack. Now, if I need more shelf space for my venerable CD collection, I’ll need someone to custom build a look-alike unit, which will no doubt cost much more.
PRODUCT CREEP (ME OUT)
The same thing happened back in the ‘80s when I was looking for a good way to store cassette tapes. There was a company called Pusher Products that made these cassette racks that were compact, yet when you wanted to access a tape, you’d push a button directly over the top and a simple mechanism pushed the tape out of its slot, a bit like the memory core scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey. I thought those were the coolest things I’d ever seen and bought several. I had shelves custom built around
that rack design and, as my tape collection grew, added more and more of the racks. So, naturally, Pusher Products went out of business. Unlike the Sauder shelves, I can’t find someone to “fudge” their unique rack design. They’ve all been replaced by the Napa racks that anyone in radio knows well. They’re made of wood and just about anyone could duplicate them.
Flash-forward to the late 1990s when I built my home studio. Most of the DJs I know like to be able to do everything from ripping CDs to MP3 or doing minor edits for language or content, on up to creating elaborate mashups and remixes or producing music and video for a “Love Story” or montage pre- sentations. Wanting to keep my options open with an eye toward the future, I had my studio computer built around Digidesign’s DIGI-001 sound card and breakout box, running their ProTools LE software. At the time it was nearly $1,000, but being a division of
boxes they came in. A DJ might invest more than $1200— sometimes a LOT more—in their laptop, hard drives and maybe an external controller, only to get a year or two of service out of them. If they don’t mind learning new software every few years, then they don’t really care about companies closing or products being discontinued. This may be a good strategy for having “the latest and greatest” at all times, but it keeps overhead high and cost-efficiency low. In short, it’s the other end of the extreme. It also puts a damper on long-term planning.
BUILT LIKE A BRICK…
Happily, history is rife with exceptions. I’ve had my Rane MP24 mixer for nearly 20 years, and it had been an industry standard long before I finally got mine. No longer manufactured, they’re prized by DJs and used ones frequently sell for $450 and up
Avid systems, it promised to be the industry standard. For a while, it was. It didn’t seem like very long, though, before they were introducing their DIGI-003. Avid announced that they would no longer support the 001. Users were cast to the four winds, their only option being to buy the new package, which would neces- sitate a new, more powerful computer.
I bring all of this up because of a promise made to DJs who purchased the Cortex HDC-1000 not all that long ago. Their USB media player, the first one of its kind that offered MP3 DJs a hard- ware-based alternative to laptops, had upgradeable firmware. At the product demo I attended, their spokesman emphasized that frequent free updates would mean that your player “would never become obsolete.” When I heard the word “never,” it should’ve set off alarm bells. As with all of the examples above, if you’re in the DJ game for the long term, then you know that nothing is forever.
True to their word, the manufacturer indeed offered frequent updates, maintained a dynamic website with quick online support and it looked as if their HDC-1000 would be the first and final word in USB media players. That is, until the updates stopped and e-mails
Today, younger DJs are used to frequent upgrades and changes, mostly due to the nature of computers and electronics, which tend to go obsolete before the trash col- lectors pick up the shipping
on Craig’s List and other outlets. The same holds true for the venerable Technics SL-1200 mkII turntable. Back in 1985, I bought a pair for $600—a steal at the time—and even got free cartridg- es. Because I’ve kept them in pristine condition, I could easily sell them for $1,000 today. I’m sure they’ll outlast me.
So what’s so different about these products? The first thing that comes to mind is that they’ve got nothing to do with software. Computers have yet to replace or improve on what they do. Secondly, they were built to last. If something does break down, they’re easy to service, by design, thus making them popular with users and techs and earning them the title of “industry standard.”
THE TEST OF TIME
In the realm of MP3/music playback today, there is no established industry standard. At the dawn of the digital revolution for DJs, the innovator and reigning “king” of DJ software was DJ Power. Yet today, there are so many software platforms and hardware con- trollers, only time will tell whether a true industry standard will
emerge. Whatever the case may be, when you’re considering new hardware or software, or putting together your studio or music room, beware whenever a salesman or spokesperson uses the words, “you’ll never…” The lesson of history insists, you WILL. Plan for it. Until next time, safe spinnin’!
Filed Under: Business, Issue #150, Sound, Video
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