I own too much stuff and have begun to hate my possessions. I love a few things still, notably not including any computer technology, some of which can be admired for a brief period before it is superseded, and I enjoy helping that process along. The things I love include a few pictures, some books, but mostly hand-made artifacts that produce music: chief among these would be my cello (although that relationship has become complex), my djembé, and my record player. I know it’s a “record player” because I bought it from the man at recordplayer.com; please follow that link before moving on.

You’re back? Good. The man is Simon Yorke, a courteous Englishman now resident in Spain who builds beautiful machines and answers email from strangers and from those who bought one of his products ten years ago.

I’ve had one of Simon’s Series 9 turntables since 2000 and while its dull-brushed-metal aesthetic is not something I’d normally take to, the way it makes irreplaceable vinyl discs sound has wholly won my heart. Well, and the purely minimal engineering poetry of its design.

10-year-old Simon Yorke Designs Series 9 record player

The recording is Heliodor 89 510, a collection of Chopin pieces captured at the 1960 International Chopin Competition in Warsaw, performed by the joint first-prize winners, Maurizio Pollini and Michel Block. It ain’t for sale on iTunes.

For the last year or so it hadn’t been sounding right. To the point that I’d pretty well stopped playing the several hundred records tucked into a handy niche in our living room.

Happy Day · I suspected cartridge misalignment, floor tilt, and any number of other things, none of which were turned out to be the problem that finally I found earlier today, an obvious-once-you-see-it antiskate-apparatus tangle.

Then the family was out for a while so I made a beeline for the vinyl stash and put on some dinner-cooking music; to wit Truth by the Jeff Beck Group notably featuring a ridiculously young Rod Stewart, half of Led Zeppelin, plus Ronnie Wood and Keith Moon. Truth told, my copy is kinda beat-up and scratchy but hey, It’s Only Rock and Roll, and those guys were working hard to sound beat-up and scratchy anyhow. Loud is good, louder better.

Since then I’ve listened to sides of a seventies Karajan/BPO Rite of Spring, the James Gang’s Rides Again (Ashes, the Rain, and I oh my), Keith Jarrett’s astounding 1975 Köln Concert, and the record illustrated below, which my parents bought on a guided tour through the Caucasus back when it was part of the USSR.

Mystery recording

The music is all-instrumental and indeed sounds like it comes from somewhere in the middle of Asia, but I can’t read cyrillic so I have no idea what it actually is. Can any readers help?

[Update (wow, that was fast) Ivan Sagalaev writes:] The Cyrillic LP in your piece on “System 9” says:

  • On the left: “Architecture memorials of Middle Asia”

  • On the right: “Samarkand. Madrasah Sher-Dor.”

More here: Registan.

The Soviet-Union-that-was, notorious for shoddy products that its citizens hated, was weirdly also famous among audiophiles for producing truly great vinyl LPs of wonderful orchestras at absurdly low prices on their Melodiya label; to the extent that Back In The Day, there were package tours for audiophiles that would take in concerts and feature a shopping expedition to the big state-owned record store; the assumption was that you’d come back with boxloads of Commie vinyl. No, I never went. Hmm, Мелодия seems still to be there, at a .su domain yet and with that nifty old-school logo.

Why Play Records In 2010? · Done right, they sound awfully good. On the other hand, so do the thousand CDs or so worth of music stored on the Mac Pro playing through the Benchmark DAC.

But only the ones that sound good; where the musicians make beautiful sounds and the producers get out of the way. There are a quite a few recordings, including many of my favorites, that don’t actually sound all that great. Good melody and rhythm and soul trump bad sound; but it’s nice when you get both in the same package. And when you do, in my experience analogue and digital both do about equivalently OK. Only OK; every serious audiophile in the world knows that there’s no system at any price that really sounds convincingly like a live orchestra in a good hall.

Having said all that, there is no doubt that, subjectively, I enjoy good sound more when it comes off the turntable. Here are some hypotheses as to why this might be:

  • The LP playback system introduces euphonious distortion that pleases the ear. This is a regular accusation from skeptics but I don’t think it’s well-supported by any evidence I’ve seen.

  • The steampunk charm of the apparatus casts a golden glow over the whole experience.

  • The extra ceremony that goes with cuing up the vinyl and dropping the needle creates a mental state of heightened expectation.

I have another theory; if you cast your eye over the tracks I talked about earlier, you’ll notice that they’re all 30 years old or more. I think that the quality of recorded sound has by and large gone downhill in the intervening decades. Commercial recordings these days almost universally involve huge mixing boards; each of the dozens and dozens of channels have multiple equalization and other sound-processing controls. It seems crazy to me to think that you can interpose this much gadgetry between the musician and my ears without damaging the sound.

There are exceptions, musicians who insist on a minimalist signal path. The best-known examples that come to my mind are the Cowboy Junkies and Neil Young. The Junkies in particular get ravishingly-beautiful sound on all their recordings, of which I own only digital versions.

Anyhow, I totally am not going to advance the silly claim you hear from some audiophiles that analogue is intrinsically superior. But nor can I dismiss the excellence of the experience I get from vinyl when it’s played back well.

Oh, and, having a decent record player means you can visit used-music stores and cruise by garage sales and regularly pick up ridiculously-good music for almost nothing.

Why The S9? · Mine is ten years old and I think the chances are it’ll be working well long after I’ve gone. The precision is uncanny; if the lights are at all dim it’s really hard to tell whether it’s actually running or not because there’s absolutely zero wobble or waver visible to the eye. You have to walk right up and lean over it to be sure.

Tone-arm mounting detail, Simon Yorke Designs Series 9

Photo from recordplayer.com

It wasn’t and isn’t cheap and if you think you might want to pick up this hobby, at an entry level I’d recommend one of the excellent Rega players that will get you 80% of the way there for a whole lot less. That’s what I did. But be warned; like me, you may become willing to pay a high price for the remaining 20%.

I do recommend the hobby. Now I’m going to stop writing and spin some more tunes.



Contributions

Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Alex Cruise (Mar 05 2010, at 23:01)

One of the best-produced (in the "get out of the way" sense) albums I'd heard in years before having kids and ceasing to pay any attention to music was the first Be Good Tanyas album.

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From: Jarek Piórkowski (Mar 05 2010, at 23:14)

The record cover says, on the left: "Architectural monuments of Central Asia" and on the right: "Samarkand: Sher Dor Madrasah". Google tells me Samarkand is a city in Uzbekistan, and the Madrasah there is a apparently a reasonably well known building, originally an academy.

In other words, it seems to be a description of the image on the cover, not the music itself. Is there any more text on the back?

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From: Russ Weeks (Mar 05 2010, at 23:26)

Samarkand Madrassa, is the best I can do. Also, "Architecture something something" on the left.

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From: Jason Kurczak (Mar 06 2010, at 00:46)

Hi Tim

Not sure if you've heard of the "Loudness War" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loudness_war) but this may be what's behind your older vinyl (and older music in general) sounding better.

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From: Alan Little (Mar 06 2010, at 01:07)

Of course, it helps that Melodiya had an astonishingly high proportion of the greatest musicians of the twentieth century available to record.

See also: Czech communist state label Supraphon. They too recording stunningly great musicians, astonishingly well. Pick any random 1960s Supraphon recording of the Smetana Quartet, and the chances are good that you just picked up one of the greatest chamber music recordings ever made.

I'm not an audiophile, ad I retired my turntable years ago. But even on the mp3s I just downloaded from emusic last week of Josef Chuchro and Jan Panenka (two thirds of the also legendary Suk Trio) playing the Beethoven cello sonatas, the Supraphon Sound is still perfectly audible.

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From: Gavin (Mar 06 2010, at 01:15)

Tim,

have you ever heard of the evergreen BBC Radio program(me) called "Desert Island Discs" - and it's sublime Sleepy Lagoon Theme tune - Which objects, books and records would you have castaway with you on your desert island?

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qnmr

Impressively large archive - here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/factual/desertislanddiscs_archive.shtml

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From: Jilles van Gurp (Mar 06 2010, at 01:41)

Great post. One comment on the sound quality. I'm not an expert listener by any means but I was impressed a few years ago when I hooked up winamp to a piece of software called Izotope Ozone: http://www.izotope.com/. My crappy 128kbit mp3s suddenly sounded a lot different than what I was used to. iZotope is one of the successful providers of software for digitally mastering sound. But they also provide some consumer oriented products that reintroduce pleasing audio distortions of old amplifiers and record players.

Basically it's like photoshop for sound. Tuning it for a particular album you love will change the way you listen to that music forever. Hook some good quality headphones up to your laptop and give it a try. You can spend thousands of dollars on hardware or do the whole thing in software.

Unfortunately the common use case for this tool is making music sound great for playback on cheap consumer hardware (e.g. crappy mp3 players). This is what mastering is all about. The techniques employed are very similar to what you do to make a model look good in a news paper advertisement (i.e. on cheap paper) or indeed why a photographer might prefer having raw images instead of iphone jpgs with ridiculous noise reduction, contrast & saturation boosting and dynamic range compression. The process is lossy too. The dac you use does the same things iZotope is doing in software. Except it is not very configurable and basically limited to some preset setting that works in most cases. Compare this to automatically boosting the clarity, as you blogged about recently. Technically you are trading some detail here for something that is probably pleasing in most cases. Especially with old recordings this can be counterproductive (amplify the noise, drown out the vocals).

Part of the reason old records sound so good is because the technology employed these days was simply not available in the analogue era and what was available was very different and involved intentionally distorting e.g. the amplified guitar sound. Would it have been available, the record producers would have used it. The disco sound from the eighties is arguably the record industry discovering new ways of messing with the sound and optimizing it for fm radios (i.e. loud and lots of lowest frequencies cut out (most cheap equipment doesn't handle bass very well) and higher bass frequencies boosted (i.e. compress dynamic range). It's exactly like using the curves tool in photoshop.

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From: JulesLt (Mar 06 2010, at 02:48)

Having owned the same material on vinyl, CD, and the great scam of the remastered CD, it's evident that some of it has less to do with how the record was recorded, or what you're using to play it back, than the stages inbetween - and even the stage after the producer has finished.

What strikes me with some early CD re-issues is that the sound is utterly different from the same vinyl - it's a lot tinnier. Now knowing about digital audio, and having good CDs to compare it with, I'm sure that was a deliberate choice (updating the sound to a contemporary aesthetic for 'brighter' recordings) - and we all know the stories about the loss of dynamic range in many modern recordings.

I think you're probably right about the element of ritual - when I, say, put on Joanna Newsom's 'Ys' on vinyl, I'm going to put some effort into listening to it. When I stick iTunes on shuffle, or music radio on, it's for background noise, so I'm paying less attention.

And again, I'm less sure it's got anything to do with the studio, per se - a lot of 60s acts made great use of multi-track recording, and I can think of great sounding music that's never existed live, but has an excellent sense of sonic 'space' (instruments that appear to have a position). It's something else - maybe it's the difference between using an airbrush to create, and an airbrush to remove flaws?

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From: shita (Mar 06 2010, at 02:58)

I still recommend you to try some cartridges from Ortofon Japan. http://www.ortofon.jp/english/product/hifi/index.html

I suppose Ortofon Japan can supply a lot.

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From: dr2chase (Mar 06 2010, at 05:23)

The loudness war sounds like a possibility to me; I had not heard it called that. I know that in the early 80s, there was a Blue Oyster Cult 12" single of Godzilla, that could be used for calibrating levels at the radio station where I sometimes DJ'd (which is how I can date it to early-to-mid-80s). The levels would go up in the intro, and then just stick wherever you set them. It was common practice (so the station engineer told me) for the big FM stations to apply that transformation to everything that they played.

This is also much easier to take seriously than all the hoo-hah with special copper cables and complaints about digitization chopping the sound into little bits. And tubes, don't get me started on tubes...

My most recent vinyl score, was PRO-A-2123, aka a 12" Laurie Anderson Promo, with an enhanced version of Sharkey's Night.

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From: Ged Carroll (Mar 06 2010, at 06:17)

Tim, my tastes are a world away from you in terms of musical styles but even electronic music from the early 90s on vinyl sounds better than the CD and iTunes reproductions with the unclipped low end being obvious on a good flat analogue amp and speakers.

I use a well set up Technics SL-1200 MkII turntable and a top of the range Shure cartridge. The turntable is flightcased and sits on a sorbithane bed to try and damp out any vibrations.

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From: John Hart (Mar 06 2010, at 12:21)

Being someone who owns 2 technics direct-drive turntables, I have a hard time understanding why audiophiles prefer the belt-driven models. That thin little connection between motor and platter, getting streched over time as the wood expands & contracts, just seems too flimsy.

Direct drive = no moving parts (other than the platter itself, whose bottom is a large circular magnet driven by an electromagnet in the base).

For the same reason that a $10 watch keeps better time than a mechanical Patek Phillipe, it would seem to me more likely that you'd get the correct RPM from a direct-drive system than a physical *motor* turning a knob that pulls against a belt that rotates the platter.

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From: Dave Walker (Mar 06 2010, at 13:54)

That's one very nice-looking turntable; glad you think it sounds at least as good :-).

I never had a serious vinyl collection, having come to love music only later in life; however, I second your view regarding Rega products, in that an audiophile friend of mine started out with a Planar 2, and it sounded really rather good when teamed with a mid-range Ortofon cartridge.

Also, the time was, you could get a good-condition Linn LP12 on places like eBay, for around 400 quid; I don't know if this is still the case, but my pal is very happy with the Valhalla he purchased this way.

Having perused his record collection, I agree that the recording path quality has varied with time and studio, along with the quality of vinyl and pressing; vinyl seems to have got lighter over the years, with the exception of a few specifically audiophile pressings. If you like their music (and hey, it's Dave Gilmour's birthday, today), and don't have a copy already, I suggest you seek out the vinyl edition of Pink Floyd's "Pulse" live album, which was recorded direct onto a valved reel-to-reel and pressed onto heavy-grade vinyl. It's the best vinyl rendering I've heard, in over a decade.

I'm a believer in digital, though, provided you can get hold of the appropriate little aluminium disks. In a straight shootout between an LP12 Lingo and a Meridian 800 (both feeding into a Meridian 861 and DSP7000s), which I has the serious privilege of experiencing some years ago, the 800 nailed it, hands down.

Just my experience, of course...

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From: dr2chase (Mar 06 2010, at 19:03)

In defense of belt drive (re John Hart), minor changes in the belt tension are not an issue; all that matters is the resonant frequency of the whole system, and whether motor noise gets transmitted through the belt or not. "Direct drive", I can imagine some ways that might go wrong, too, though fewer nowadays, with modern power electronics.

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From: Derek K. Miller (Mar 06 2010, at 19:41)

Ry Cooder is also one for minimal recording interference, sometimes going directly to big fat two-track magnetic tape with hardly anything else in the chain except a stereo microphone. On the other hand, he also found the iTunes Sound Enhancer so pleasing he mastered a whole album with it alone.

Whatever works.

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From: Alex (Mar 08 2010, at 02:19)

>the assumption was that you’d come back

>with boxloads of Commie vinyl

Ironically, the same was with the Soviet citizens who traveled abroad at that time. The people were crazy about original Western vinyl and it kept a large share on the black market.

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From: Mike S. (Mar 08 2010, at 06:49)

I know a guy (we went to the same high school) who owns a recording studio in LA. For his band's next release, they're going digital and vinyl only. No CDs. Apparently, if you know where to look, vinyl's making quite the comeback.

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From: len (Mar 08 2010, at 07:24)

"I totally am not going to advance the silly claim you hear from some audiophiles that analogue is intrinsically superior."

At the consumer level, feh. In the studio, analog is superior by orders of magnitude if one can afford all of the work required to analyze, setup and maintain it. There are tricks one can do with analog that aren't realistic in digital. For years the complaint was, "if we could just get the vinyl to sound as good as the master in the studio" and with CDs, that became close to the case.

That said, for the cost, convenience and getting the recording process itself out of the way so one can get to the recording, digital is better no contest. For editing and post production, there is no comparison. The power of digital is in the composition roles of the tools. The digital editors are becoming instruments in their own right. Like the results are not, autotuners and the like are cultural icons for styles.

OTOH, post is what is more between your ears and those golden vinyl tones when the RIAA curve kept commercial work coherent even as it p.o'd many a musician. The big boards have a lot of circuitry most of which can be turned off given a particular session or not.

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From: Adam Sloan (Mar 15 2010, at 10:32)

Yes, possessions are a burden.

Now when I am buying something, no matter how exciting it is, I think about it's future. How often am I likely to use it, where am I going to store it, will it end up in the garbage, recycling, Goodwill, or resold to recoup some of the cost?

This is a strong deterrent, I don't buy as much "stuff" any more. I have plenty of fun gadgets to play with already and posting something for sale on ebay takes effort, shipping more-so. But I guess it is human nature to want new things, constantly.

In the music synthesizer world I have been drooling over the Waldorf Blofeld http://www.waldorfmusic.de/en/products/blofeld/blofeld_sound_generation for a while. Being new it is depreciating fast, they are popping up on ebay already, but the features and sound and even look are crazy! This is where my "sell something before buying another thing" is useful, to avoid having 50 synths in the closet, I can't do that for a few reasons.

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From: Jeff Cutler-Stamm (Mar 15 2010, at 16:31)

Tim, great post. It's so nice to see others still spinning vinyl. While I long ago turned in my Audiophile badge since I found it hampered my enjoyment of music, I still love my record collection. I've been a longtime Rega enthusiast. Oh, and thanks for mentioning Jeff Beck. Going to head home tonight and put on my vinyl copy of "Wired" :-)

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March 04, 2010
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