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still, notably not including any computer technology, some of which can be admired for a brief period before it is superseded, and I enjoy helping that process along.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.
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.
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.
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.