The old State Bank building on Central Avenue has new tenants and new front doors. The tenants are Phil and Linda Von Wilmsman. Previous owners had stored and collected all manner of things in the building including doors. So, Phil has a collection of doors from the 10s, 40s, and 70s including old Continental Bank doors which now open into the new location for The Reel Pro Sound Guys.
Phil is hard at it getting the building ready for online store facilities on the main floor and living quarters upstairs. He has already repaired the once leaky roof and is making major strides to be able to do his online business locally by May 1.
Prior to moving up to Harlowton, Phil and Linda had lived in Big Timber for three years. They never quite settled after leaving Sacramento, CA, for Montana. “I wanted to find a building, reconstruct and have my business in it.” Phil had two locations to work with in Big Timber, but they both were pulled out from under him and improvements he had made in them because of lease changes.
So, he started looking around. Reed Point, Columbus, and Harlowton. And, Harlowton became the spot when he found the old bank building. “It is a dream come true - in more ways than one. I can be anywhere on the planet with my business because of the internet. The second part is having this building. I am going to rebuild it myself. I have the skills I need. I have honed them for 50 years.
“Then having this space to expand the business. Customers are asking for more features that we didn’t have the room for previously.
“Finding this building is really a dream come true.”
Von Wilmsman says, “I always did two jobs.” From age 17, he learned to be a tool and die machinist while doing roofing on the side. Working on the third shift as a machinist back in Milwaukee, Phil also went to school during the day to get an Associate’s and then a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science, then a Bachelor’s in Business Administration (University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee).
He worked for the Crane Company for a time, but was laid off as heavy industry jobs moved overseas. Then for a fertilizer plant and later made moldings for Excalibur Car Company. When that business closed, he gave up on the Midwest in 1982 and moved to California.
Phil first tried San Diego, but eventually moved up to Sacramento. “At first, it was nice. Like a Midwest town. Almost rural. But, there was the building boom and people pushing out from San Francisco. I got to hate the neighborhood, and going to the grocery store, and dealing with the traffic.
“But, we were building a business that could move anywhere. Linda and I have been involved with eBay since it began. Without eBay, we couldn’t do this business. Twenty-five to fifty percent of our business comes from international customers. I send out manuals that cost $29 and add $16 for shipping.”
Von Wilmsman started in the machinist trade in California, but “I couldn’t make a living.” So, he gravitated to sales work and eventually into sales of surplus electronics. Phil and Linda started a company called Electronic Access which sold Point of Sales electronics. They later became CEO (Computer Electronics & Office) Surplus and sold computer network cards, scanners and duplicators.
“But, people were building their own computers and the price of personal computers was decreasing a whole lot. In the early 90s, we bought out a store which had a huge inventory of sound equipment. Truckloads. So, we now finally have a one-of-a-kind business with good customers and we can do it through eBay from the middle of Montana.”
Phil and Linda have been The Reel Pro Sound Guys for the last three years since coming to Montana. “But, we’ve been making a living online since 1994.” Mrs. von Wilmsman resells books and markets her sculpted fairies via the internet as well. They have made thousands of sales via the net. Linda (originally from Indiana) built their reelprosoundguys.com website a few months after their move to Montana.
The Reel Pro Sound Guys have found a niche and have become quite popular. Audiophiles know where to look for them now. Their business is featured in David Simon’s book called Analog Recording.
But, not just audiophiles. “We have recording studios calling us and asking, ‘How do we go back to analog?’ There are new people as well as those who never let go of their reel-to-reel sound equipment.”
A pure analog system (as opposed to digital, like CDs) is very expensive these days. Sixty thousand dollars for a system. Only four companies make them - using old Slav tube technology which comes from Russia.
The Reel Pro Sound Guys fit in by refurbishing open reel-to-reel decks: Teac, Pioneer, Sony, Akai and Tascom. “We advertise those brands. They made 480 different models over the years.”
According to Phil, “Anybody can tell the difference. People listen and say, ‘This is great.’”
In the recent past, customers have taken their old systems to electronics shops for repairs and no one could help them. “They were told they couldn’t be fixed.”
But now, they can be. “With the move and renovation project, we have to turn people away. We’re too busy and that’s at $500 for basic refurbishing.”
People have had and will have a choice. “I talk to people by phone. I will train them over the phone and help them fix their machine. These decks will hold up for a hundred years. That’s the way they were built. Simple electronics.”
Reel Pro Sound Guys have three kinds of customers. Retail users who are largely Vietnam veterans or their children, 20 and 30-year-olds who are just getting into reel-to-reel, and pure audiophiles and collectors. But then, there are really more. Bands and recording studios along with churches and colleges and museums. Phil has even refurbed a deck for the world-famous Juilliard School of Music in New York City.
There are no new analog tape recorders on the market. Only amplifiers to go with them. “We just have the decks that have been preserved over the years.” And, vinyl records are making a comeback.
“Vinyl will be back. The latest Bet of the Beatles is out and was first released in vinyl for $285.”
While analog decks and tape may last up to 100 years, CDs will begin to deteriorate after 7 or 8 years because they use a foil spray on top of plastic which expands and contracts over time. “We are definitely tape advocates.”
Von Wilmsman explains that speaker technology hasn’t changed that much over the years. But, sound recording has - and not for the better. “Fifty years ago, we lived with analong in radio, records and the movies. Then came transistors and computer processing in digital format. CDs resulted (which are convenient and easy to work with), but we lost mid-range sound. The industry tried all sorts of things to emulate mid-range analog sound. But, they couldn’t do it.”
“We have to live with poor mid-range sound or go back to analog.”
Can John Doe hear the difference? Von Wilmsman says. “Yes,” emphatically and he is going to build a demonstration studio in his new shop to let people hear it. “We will also have a recording studio. We needed this space to have studio testing of the professional equipment we refurbish.
“We will be offering use of the studio to the schools and their music departments and to seniors so they can their stories.”
“We will also be transferring sound from one medium to another - like records to tape.”
“We expect to be needing help in a few months in the areas of shipping and parts, refurbishing and remanufacturing of parts.”
But “Sorry, we never sell tape decks.”