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Can Gear Lose Its Mojo?

Where did the magic go? Can you get it back if it goes away?

By Phil O'Keefe


Have you ever had an amp or instrument that needed to be repaired? Maybe you broke a headstock on a guitar or your amplifier fried and needed to be rebuilt. These are very common experiences for musicians. No matter how well they are built, things occasionally break or are accidentally damaged and require repair. Throw in the rigors of the nomadic musician's touring lifestyle, and it becomes a question of "when" - not "if"  - you're going to need something fixed.  

Another surprisingly common experience is for the instrument or electronic equipment to seem to be somehow "different" after it's fixed. It's not something you can really put your finger on but you sense that it's not quite the same; usually it's a perception that it's not quite as good as it was before the repair, although on rare occasions I've heard the opposite - that it became much better than it had ever been previously, in a way that couldn't be explained by the repair itself. I'm surprised by the amount of musicians I've run into over the years who've experienced this.

In another lifetime I was the manager of a musical equipment repair shop. One of the things I regularly did was to personally test each repaired piece of equipment before sending it out to the customer. I would check it electronically and make sure that it was all up to the manufacturer's specs, as well as play it for a while to make sure that it seemed to respond, function and sound as expected. While this did result in fewer returns and improved customer satisfaction with our repair services, it did not result in the total elimination of all customer complaints. I still occasionally heard from people who felt that their equipment was not quite the same after the repair; in other words it had somehow lost its mojo. So - where did the mojo go?

I always tried to investigate those remaining complaints - sometimes by having the customer bring in their rig and set up in the shop to see if we could identify the issue together, or even by going out to check their setups at a gig or at their home or studio. In some cases, such as the guy who returned a "faulty" and "poorly repaired" wah two or three times because he had it plugged in backwards, it turned out to be due to user error. Other cases came down to other readily-identifiable problems, like poor electrical wiring or ground loop issues, or a problem with another piece of equipment in the signal chain.

But I must confess, the cases that perplexed me the most were the ones where the customer said "well, yeah, it's fixed… the thing powers up again now and it all seems to work… it's just that it doesn't quite sound the same, ya know?" And the problem is, I do know. I can relate because I've had the experience myself.

Years ago I used  a two-amp setup with a Mesa Boogie Studio 22 for crunch and leads and a Fender Super Six for cleans. One day, a friend accidentally sent the Boogie flying off the top of that Fender where I usually had it perched, it crashed into the floor, and had to be sent up to Petaluma for repairs. Don't get me wrong - I have nothing but respect for the fine folks at Mesa Engineering and the quality of their repair work was first-rate, but somehow, as much as I wanted it to be, the amp was never the same. I remember a similar situation that happened with a friend's Risson solid-state head. That one was special to begin with (it sounded much better than his brother's supposedly identical amp), but it never sounded as good after it died and was resuscitated. And unfortunately this phenomena is not limited to just amps. Recently I read a post on the Harmony Central forums where a member was complaining about a guitar feeling inferior after being re-fretted by an assumedly competent tech. Somehow it had lost its mojo, or at least it seemed that way to him.

The question is - why does this happen? Can we identify the reason(s) for it? And can lost mojo be restored once it's lost? I've tried to figure out why, and I've identified a few possible culprits.

  • In some cases it could be due to poor workmanship on the part of the repair facility or tech. A bad mod or repair job can cause an item to perform worse than it once did, but that's usually easy to spot.

  • In other cases maybe some "mojo parts" were replaced with parts with less mojo (carbon comp vs. metal film resistors,  op amp substitutions, etc.).

  • Electronic tolerances are something that could also have an effect on the way a repaired amp or effect sounds, but usually the tolerances are pretty tight these days, and you don't find a lot of gear that uses +/-10% tolerance resistors anymore. But that certainly could add up and account for some audible variation if enough parts are replaced, and those replacement parts are at the far end of the tolerance limit while the original parts were at the other end of it.

  • It's all in your head, and the sound of the gear hasn't really changed… which is certainly possible, but if that's the case, then why is this phenomenon so prevalent?

I'll readily admit to believing that some things can't be fully measured with our current technology. I think it's possible to hear something that we might not be able to quantify with our electronic test instruments… but I'm not talking about not being able to back up such a claim. If you can really hear it, you should be able to identify when it's there or isn't there in a double-blind listening test a statistically significant percentage of the time. The problem is, there's no easy way to do those direct A/B comparisons after a piece of gear has been repaired. About the only way to do so is if you happen to have another identical item that hasn't been repaired and that also has that certain je ne sais quoi that we call "mojo" - and how often does that happen?  

So what do you think? Is there some kind of unexplained mojo - some indescribable essence that makes some individual pieces of equipment superior to similar pieces of gear made in the same way by the same company? Can that mojo be lost? It seems to me that it can, but I'd really like to hear what the music community thinks. Have you had the "missing mojo" experience? Have you ever managed to figure out the cause of lost or missing mojo and found a way to restore it? If you have any ideas or theories, or general comments on this subject please stop by this thread and tell us about them!




Phil O'Keefe is a multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer / producer and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has engineered, produced and performed on countless recording sessions in a diverse range of styles, with artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Jules Day, Voodoo Glow Skulls, John McGill, Michael Knott and Alexa's Wish. He is a former featured monthly columnist for EQ magazine, and his articles and product reviews have also appeared in Keyboard, Electronic Musician and Guitar Player magazines.  

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GreenAsJade  |  July 18, 2016 at 6:40 am
I think you'll find that this is largely psychological, and for quite a concrete reason.
The reason is that when you get your gear back... you are _listening_  to it.   It has your attention.
Before that, before it broke, it was just part of the whole sound you were making.
Listening, like seeing, is a very psychological thing.  Your brain even makes things up and fills gaps.   
After you get your gear back, your attention focusses on it, and you will start to hear things you simply filtered out before.
I had this just the other day purely from changing where I stand at rehearsal.  For some reason I went over and stood by the bass player.   It turns out the beam of my app was directed right there, and I thought, "whoa, I didn't know I was sounding like that".   Then I went back to where I usually stand, and suddenly I was noticing things about the sound I didn't like even right back there in the same spot, without changing anything.   All that changed was my attention...
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