I was looking forward to some much-needed R&R when I saw the “Private Number” message flash on my caller I.D. It could only have been one person: the Top Banana…Numero Uno…the Big Boss Man. (And, no, I’m not referring to the ’90s-era pro wrestler.)
I didn’t even say hello, and neither did The Chief.

“Where am I headed to?” I asked, as if completely disinterested.

“Suffolk County, Long Island, New York,” said The Chief calmly.

“And just what am I going to be investigating on my time off?” I asked, slipping in that last bit to see if the boss was paying attention.
“Digital multi-track recorders,” barked a voice back at me. “Time o–. Didn’t you just come back from vacation?”

I changed the subject. “Digital multi-track recorders? Don’t people use computer software now? Maybe you’re confused, Chief.”
“Stop it, Spy,” The Chief retorted. “Just for your information, software programs have not wiped out the competition. Plenty of people want a fully mobile, self-contained recording studio in one unit.”

“Thanks for enlightening me,” I rejoined. “Any further instructions?”


Click. Always a pleasure.

Of course, the boss was right. (Please just don’t tell him I said so.) Digital multi-track recorders tap 21st century technology, yet allow you to dabble in the “dark art” of sound recording engineering. Even those that you can fit in your back pocket are helpful tools for any self-sufficient musician who’s looking to retain a measure of creative input in an organic recording process. Before embarking on another journey, the question was “Would Suffolk County M.I. stores staff personable, knowledgeable salespeople with the business savvy and cojones to sell to this Spy?” I was gonna find out….

Eastport Music Scene
374 Montauk Hwy.
Eastport, NY 11941

Suffolk County: I dimly recalled it from my memory, having heard stories about the sprawling suburban regions outside NYC being some kind of M.I. Retail Wonderland. Luckily for the agency (and its slush fund), I was in The Hamptons slumming with a fellow agent posing as a rich, young widow. (Sometimes I love this job. Sometimes.)

I trekked down Montauk Highway in my agency-supplied SUV on my way to Eastport NY for my first stop: Eastport Music Scene. (The Chief thought I’d blend in with the “indigenous peoples” in this gas-guzzler.) As I drove further down the road—one lined with gnarly uprooted trees—I noticed several abandoned commercial buildings (too many to count) and was reminded of just how harsh and inhospitable this economy has been the last few years. Sure, the big music stores, such as Sam Ash and Guitar Center, are still alive and well, but what about the mom-and-pop shops? How do they make it through financial crises?

Further into my travel, I spied quaint antiques stores, garage sales, what looked like barns and, finally, a rarity in the New York Metro area: large tracts of underdeveloped land. (Hey, there are worse ways to spend a pretend working vacation.) Could this country-ish county really be a suburb of The City that Never Sleeps? No retail outpost would be located, let alone survive, in this semi-rural residential area, I thought. GPS must be wrong.

When I eventually came upon Eastport Music Scene, I pulled into a gravel driveway right alongside what appeared to be someone’s house. (Nice siding.) I jumped out of my own house (on wheels)—my SUV—opened up the store’s front screen door and caught a glimpse of someone’s head peeking over a high counter. The guy, who I later learned was the Owner, sprang up from his swivel chair and greeted me as I walked into the middle of the place. The ambient lighting and overall relaxed atmosphere made me feel as though I’d interrupted a man working in his living room. Given my surroundings, maybe I had.

I said I was looking for digital multi-track recorders, and the guy pointed to the only unit he carried, a Zoom R24, perched near the west window and close to a bank of guitar amps. Before I could quiz the Owner, he asked me several questions, such as why I wanted the product and what I was looking to do with it. I said I needed to be mobile, but still have multi-track flexibility. He seemed satisfied with my cover story and, in response, removed the R24 from its box.

The Owner told me that the unit was an eight-input, eight-track recording device with an SD card drive, a flash drive, drum pads (with an onboard drum machine), two built-in mics on either end of what looked like handles, onboard effects, a 1.5GB drum loops library with samples recorded by jazz great Peter Erskine, a CD burner, moveable faders, a USB port and a guitar amp modeler. It was even bundled with Cubase LE software. And, oh, “It goes for $500.”

Maybe he thought I was shocked by the price or something, but the Owner then presented me with his own personal handheld Zoom dual-microphone recording units, saying he didn’t carry them in the store, but knew where I could get them, if they better suited my needs. Where I could get them? Really? What storeowner directs you to someone else to seal the deal?

I continued to eye the R24 as I snatched a business card from the front desk. I told the man that I’d have to give it some thought and that maybe I’d stop by to see him again. With that, I waved good-bye to this rural retail retreat, got into my “mobile home,” pulled out of the gravel driveway into a quiet, empty street and headed west….

Family Melody Center
77 South Ocean Ave.
Patchogue, NY 11772

A drive on Montauk Highway on a brisk day is like a ride down Main Street, U.S.A. I saw signs for gas prices that were going up, up, up with each passing mile; most of the people on the street looked serious, pressed for time or, in a few cases, sort of dazed and confused.

My destination, Family Melody Center, was located close to the cultural center of town, the Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts, but not on the main drag. It was down a side street: one that made me uneasy while walking it. I don’t know, but I felt like a target in this semi-busy suburban town. Buck up, Spy, I thought. You have a job to do.

Having arrived, I walked through Family Melody’s double glass doors and, immediately, I was assaulted by drum sounds emanating from the basement. Lessons must be taught here, I thought. Expanded services are great for business, but I couldn’t hear myself think. As a result, I was momentarily more unnerved in the store than I had been on the street.

A young salesman, probably early 20s, asked if I needed any help, so I gave him my shpeel. He stopped me before I could finish and directed me to his associate at the front desk. I did an about face and turned to see a lanky guy with a skate-punk look, tattoos and an earring who was standing in the corner behind a glass cabinet displaying a number of items, including recording machines. For some reason, the array of units reminded me of overcrowded animal shelters. You know… seeing those young ones looking up at you in the hopes that you’ll give them a new home. Sorry, pups. Just here on business.

I give my shpeel to the second sales guy, who appeared equally as young as, if not younger than, the first kid. From behind the glass counter, this second kid slipped me an eight-track Roland Boss Micro BR BR-80 machine, which retails for $279. That’s when I noticed that the store also stocked an eight-track Roland Boss BR-900CD, which records two tracks simultaneously, and has a CD burner and a total of 64 virtual tracks. I asked about the $499 unit, just to see the kind of reaction I’d receive, but the skate kid coughed up only, “That’s for really heavy-duty multi-track recording.” Ah, OK.

The skinny grunge guy was steering me away from this machine, even though I was clearly interested in it. His loss, I thought, as I began to fuss over the BR-80. AA batteries were already in this unit, and the thing was ready to go. (Nearly all of the machines I encountered over the course of this assignment could be powered via battery or AC adapter cord.)

This digital multi-track recorder couldn’t have been more than six inches wide and was a lot lighter than my old four-track analog machine, with a lot more onboard functions and gadgets. (Spies do love their gadgets, after all.) Although some of the buttons were a bit small for my taste, the function wheel allowed me to smoothly choose different effects and digital guitar amp models. There’s also a backlit LCD screen, a USB port, a guitar (or microphone) input and a second input for another device.

I began talking up the machine when the grunge guy gently grabbed it back from me so that he could play with it. He toyed with a few of the unit’s buttons and then observed that the dual microphones may have picked up our conversation. Interestingly, it’s as though he’d discovered these functions for the first time. At least the guy appeared to be genuinely interested in the product he was selling. Actually, maybe a little too interested.

If I hadn’t been worried about leaving a paper trail, I might have taken my time lurking over Family Melody’s ample inventory. But, alas, duty called. I left Patchogue and headed further west, into an approaching storm.

Guitar Center
8 Garet Pl.
Commack, NY 11725
After turning off the I-495, the Long Island Expressway, I pulled into the heart of a chilly and very soggy Commack, home of Guitar Center. This strip mall was congested and there seemed to be only one entrance—and exit—for the parking spaces closest to the store.
Upon walking into this Guitar Center, I had heard someone who thought he was Slash attempting to play “Sweet Child O’ Mine.”

Another guy was convinced he was Steve Howe. (They were both wrong.) But this kind of nonmusical nonsense occurs in just about any and every major music store. It wasn’t a game changer for me, even if I was receiving flashbacks to so many mediocre retail outlets. This aside, I had to admit that there was something fundamentally customer friendly about the layout of the store. For one thing, overhead signs made it easy for me to find the pro audio department. When I got there, I was third in a line of customers waiting to be helped by the sales guy. It’s going to be one of those visits, I thought to myself.

The extra time afforded me the opportunity to peruse the inventory, which was locked behind a glass counter. When the blank-faced audio expert finally loosed himself free, I told him I was looking for digital multi-tracks and, without a word, he opened up the glass cabinet and slammed three machines onto the counter: a Zoom R8, which retails for $299 (a cousin of the R24); an eight-track TASCAM DP-008, going for $279; and a TASCAM DP-03, which burns CDs, has built-in microphones, an SD card drive, manual pan and reverb turn knobs, moveable faders, a small LCD read-out and a price tag of $399.

I gravitated toward the DP-008 and the DP-03, but I didn’t much like the size of the “EQ,” “Rew.” and “F Fwd.” buttons on the latter machine. The DP-008 had similar issues: the controls were a tad bit too small for my taste, and the face of the console looked crowded. “Yeah, but these are portable studios,” the sales guy reminded me. True.

With that, my smile-challenged audio salesman bolted, again, to tend to the needs of more prospective customers; I was left staring at inanimate and powerless recording devices. How exciting. Mr. Talkative returned a few minutes later, but said nothing. He just stared at me. Admittedly, this salesman wasn’t overeager, which I usually prefer, but he appeared to be mentally wiped and a tad bit impatient.

Maybe these were the symptoms of M.I. retail malaise? (A sad situation, but, thankfully, not incurable.) Still, would it have killed him to give me a pitch, no matter how simplistic or tired? Strangely, only after I demonstrated that I possessed some knowledge of how these machines operated did the venerable Dr. Giggles chime in with anything approaching wisdom. (Why was he holding back?) He referred me to YouTube to get educated on the recording units as he stealthily tucked away the TASCAMs and Zoom into the glass cabinet.

Gee, thanks for your time! Score one for online shopping! OK…maybe I took all of this the wrong way. Or, maybe, just maybe, I took it the way it was intended. Either way, I didn’t like where or how I was taking it.

I crossed off Guitar Center from my list as I headed north on 495 to reach my final stop: Sam Ash in Huntington Station.

Sam Ash
269 Old Walt Whitman Rd.
Huntington Station, NY 11746

Under a leaden sky, driving on Route 110, the sights and bombastic sounds of industry buzzed all around me. Roaring trucks shattered the atmosphere; black puffs of smoke eroded it. Clearly, I was miles away from where I began (i.e., the quiet, airy, semi-rural confines of Eastport).

I arrived in Huntington Station and caught a standalone Sam Ash out of the corner of my eye. The store was set back from the main drag, but, as compared with the parking lot maze of Guitar Center, I’d rather cross two massive lanes of traffic than deal with an overcrowded strip mall.

After entering the store and being greeted by a friendly drum salesman, I headed toward the pro audio/keyboard department. I spent several minutes alone looking at recording units, which were perched on hanging shelves, nailed to the wall. I couldn’t do much with the machines, but at least they were not behind a glass counter, shouting, “Hands off!” The things weren’t powered, and I was beginning to get bored and a bit lonely. It’s only when I wandered around the room that a bespectacled salesperson came in and asked how he could help me.

The salesperson gave me a rundown of the items in stock, which included a Zoom R24, which retailed for $499; a Zoom R16 ($399); a Zoom R8 ($299); a Roland Boss BR-80 ($299); and an eight-track Roland Boss BR-800 that could track four instruments simultaneously.

“Specs” seemed to have the right rap, but he clearly had personal preferences. I’m not sure what his motivation was for talking up some units and not others, but, at the least, my near-sighted (just guessing) new friend engaged me in conversation that was somewhat helpful.

I asked him for his business card, and he disappeared for a minute or two. When he materialized, he slipped me a slice of white with someone else’s name scratched out in black ink and his own scrawled near the bottom of the card. What was I saying about the big boys being immune to this sluggish economy? Things must be tough all over. If I needed anything else I should call, he said, as he grinned and walked away. Service with a smirk. An improvement. I’ll take it.

The Sale
I have mixed feelings on this one. There was no clear winner. Sam Ash’s inventory didn’t strike me as being overly exotic, but it was fairly deep. There were plenty of machines to choose from—even some I had not seen in the other stores I’d visited. Although I wasn’t thrilled about waiting as long as I did to be helped, the salesperson did eventually give me his undivided attention.

I expected more from Guitar Center, although I can’t fault a guy who’s saddled with juggling three (or more) customer requests at once. Nature of the beast, I suppose.

The plucky, if slightly oppressive, store in Patchogue is growing on me, even if their sales guys committed a few rookie missteps. Eastport might have been the most helpful, but his selection was lacking. Still, he had an obvious knowledge of his inventory; he uses similar devices himself; and he didn’t mind referring me to a competitor. So, let’s see…Sam Ash or Patchogue? Eastport or Guitar Center? Verdict? Eastport Music Scene. Props to the Owner for his honesty. That’s a rare trait in this homogenized commercial world, and a trait I would reward with another drive out into the country.

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