I flew into Los Angeles a week early to be HI-FI '98's media mouth. I hung at the hotel as much as possible, but there were radio stations and record stores to visit. I'd decided not to schlep records with me from back east, instead relying on what I could find in the L.A. bins.
What luck! Rockaway was having another half-price sale on used vinyl. I got unplayed "steamboat''-label Reprise pressings of the Kinks' Kink Kontroversy and You Really Got Me, and a British Apple original of the Beatles' 196266, for 12 bucks apiece.
This quintessential American question is the hub of our capitalist society, and one that figures in two subjects that have recently been clogging my e-mail in-box. The first has to do with the Record Club of America's half-million-plus unplayed LPs, which I wrote about last fall ("Analog Corner," September 1997).
RCOA's much-delayed catalog (due out last October but not appearing until this May) has created quite a stir with many recipients, some of whom are outraged by what they see as absurdly high prices for many of the discs. You should hear them! Along with Dan Burton, they should have their mouths washed out with soap! I'll spare you those.
Most of the others are more bemused than angry. Like this guy: "Stop it, stop it. You've got to be kidding. I wonder if Mr. Fremer helped them price the classical issues, and probably [Fi's] Wayne Garcia priced the Jazz."
One of the fascinating things about watching your personal odometer piling on the miles is that, whatever your self-image, you're leaving an ever-lengthening trail that becomes more difficult to deny with every glance in the rearview mirror.
I can't escape it: I love old things. I drive an old car not because I can't replace it with a new one, but because the experience of driving it is irreplaceable. New cars don't look, feel, sound, or even smell like my old Saab: the roar of the throaty engine, the sound of the air being sucked into the carburetor, the visceral connection between the road and my hands on the non-power steering wheelnew cars can't provide these sensations. New cars hide their mechanical nature. Old cars celebrate it.
The Library of Congress Reading Room. All photos by Michael Fremer.
How was your month? Mine was analogo bizarro.
But before getting to this month's promised storymy visit to the Library of CongressI have to clear the deck: I received an e-mail from an individual, fairly well known in the grooved world, telling me that I "may not have had all the information" when I wrote in my February R2D4 that Alto Analogue's Ataulfo Argenta Edition (AA006) boxed set was mastered by Nick Webb at Abbey Road from the original analog master tapes.
I've got this friend Shirley. Married with two kids, she appears to be your typical suburban middle-aged housewifebut somehow her music genes got short-circuited. While most of her neighbors have become Yanni-fied (if they pay attention to music at all), Shirley is a Rolling Stones fanatic.
One of Mikey's best sounds at CES: the Hales Transcendence 5 speakers powered by Balanced Audio Technology amplification. All photos by John Atkinson
Call it a convention, call it a trade exhibition, call it CES, call it "Bernie''no matter how you laser-slice it, it's a show. And for a show to succeed, it needs an audience. For an audience to show up, it needs stars, it needs a good book, and it needs some decent tunes or compelling drama.
I don't know whether it was Mrs. Nachman or Mr. Nachman, but back in the late '80s one of them took a dump on Joe Grado's head, and it wasn't pretty. But it was expected, for the Nachmans were my pet birds, and that's what birds do when they perch on shiny domes.
The Nachmans have since gone to that great birdcage in the sky, and I bet if I'd asked Joe Grado back then where he thought the cartridge business would be in 1998, he'd have said in the same general neighborhoodalong with Betamax (still better, and I still use it), Elcaset, RCA Selectavision, and the rest.
But I didn't ask Joe Grado about the future back then because the present was about his $200 8MZ cartridge, which I'd reviewed and found to have a lump in the midbass. Joe came over to convince me it didn't, and that what I'd heard was due to my setup. After moving speakers and subwoofers around, and after Joe had been anointed by one of the Nachbirds, the lump remained. We called it a (messy) day.
Ever have one of those days from hell that starts before the sun comes up and doesn't end until you fall into bed exhausted and stressed, hours after your normal snooze time?
I had one a few weeks ago. I'll spare you the 6am phone call that started it, but by noon I'd learned that my furnace was cracked and a new one would cost me $3000. Three grand? What a waste. That almost buys a state-of-the-art phono cartridge or some good cables these days, and I have to divert it to heat?
"The killer cycles, the killer Hertz, / the passage of my life is measured out in shirts," as Brian Eno once sang. In 1997 I measure out the vitality of the analog revival by how long it takes my Dick to fill with new vinyl. It doesn't take more than a few weeks, and a Dick holds about 75 records. Dick, by the way, is a sturdy, inexpensive, attractively finished, LP-sized, wooden slatted crate sold at Ikea, the Swedish home furnishing giant. As at Linn, everything at Ikea has a weird, consonant-heavy name.
You always remember your first one. For me it was an Oracle Delphi turntable back in 1982. I'd gone to Christopher Hansen's in LA to buy a brand-new one, but as luck would have it, a barely used one had just been traded in by film director Roger Corman's son, and I was able to get the Delphi/Magnepan unipivot tonearm combo for a few hundred dollars less than the cost of a new 'table. My first exposure to a wobbly-armed unipivot gave me the creeps, but the deal was too good to pass up.
In the June "Analog Corner" I wrote written that "Baby You're A Rich Man" on the US release of the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour LP was originally issued in electronically reprocessed stereo because "Capitol back then didn't really give a shit." (MMT was first issued in the UK as a double 7" EP, Parlophone MMT/SMMT-1) Reader Preston Reese responded in a letter ("Letters," September '97 p.17) that while "the original 1967 US LP release [of MMT] was a combination of stereo mixes and mono mixes re-channeled for stereo," the master of "Baby You're a Rich Man" was a processed stereo version "provided to [Capitol] by the Beatles and their producer George Martin in 1967...It wasn't until four years later, in October 1971, that 'Baby You're a Rich Man' got around to its first stereo mix, created for the German LP release of Magical Mystery Tour."
Our intrepid reporter had no idea why 650,000 records were in a warehouse in York, or who owned them, but he took the bait nevertheless. Photos by Michael Fremer.
I heard this story from a manufacturer whose car broke down somewhere in a rundown Queens neighborhood one afternoon: He went into a bodega to make a phone call and struck up a conversation with the owner. Their talk led to audio, then to a trip to the basement of the former record store, where thousands of Living Stereos and other audiophile treasures had been sitting for decades, gathering dust and value. The manufacturer would visit each week and walk out with a few hundred unplayed gems, for which he'd pay a few bucks each.
True story? Audiophile wet dream? Who knows? Who cares? We love this stuff. So when I got a call from Rick Flynn (proprietor of Quality Vinyl, a mail-order, audiophile-oriented record dealer) about 650,000 recordsevery one of them stone-cold mintlocked in a warehouse in York, Pennsylvania since 1973, and would I like to have a look...I bit.
Larry Archibald presents Liza Austin with a K101-FM shopping-spree certificate at HI-FI '97. Ryan Seacrest makes an appearance. Photo by Natalie Brown-Baca.
I've been reading your column for about a year now and I've always thought you were full of shit!" an attendee cheerfully volunteered at the conclusion of the "Vinyl in the '90s" seminar I hosted at HI-FI '97. So it's that kind of gathering, I thought to myself, remembering how the hour had commenced with an audience member accusing panelist Steve Hoffman of messing with the master tape of Nat King Cole's Love is the Thing for DCC Compact Classics' superb-sounding vinyl and gold CD reissues.
"But at this Show I got to hear records for the first time," the young reader continued, "and you're right! Records do sound better than CDsmuch better! Now I have to get a turntable and start buying records! What should I buy?"
"Well, how much can you spend?," I asked.
"Cost is no object."
"Well then, call Andy Payor at Rockport Technologies and order yourself a Sirius III record player for $53,000."
"Cost is an object!" he shot back faster than you could say "second mortgage."
"Well then, you've got a hotel's worth of choices and a day and a half to make up your mind," I told him. "Check out the VPI TNT Mk.3, the Basis 2000 series, the Immedia RPM-2, the Oracle Delphi, and the others that are hereI can't tell you what to buy."
To paraphrase one of America's greatest living patriots: Extremism in the defense of vinyl is no sin. Okay, my hyperbole may have gotten the best of me when I wrote, in my March column, "The miracle there, of course, would be if the [Disc Doctor's CD cleaning] fluid could somehow make listening to CDs enjoyable''for which Robert Harley took me to task in his May "As We See It." According to Harley, this is "an extremist position that doesn't take into account the great strides CD sound has made in the last few years."
Well, when I wrote that CDs sounded awful, and that digital recording was a complete disaster back in 1984, "extremist" was one of the nicer things I was called by a bunch of money-hungry opportunists on whose checklists music came last. Why worry about sound and music when the new format meant there were new labels, magazines, and newsletters to start, new pressing plants to build, and a few million recordings to sell all over again? Only an "extremist" would swim against that tideespecially during the "go-go" '80s.
I remember, back then, reading a quote in Billboard from a very famous LA recording-studio owner endorsing Sony's newest digital multitrack recorder as being the best-sounding piece of audio gear he'd ever heard. It struck me as odd, as I'd never heard of a studio owner taking sides like thatespecially since there were so many brands of recorders in use back then, with most engineers having their own preferences. A few weeks later, that same studio owner was named the West Coast distributor of Sony digital recorders.
"Installing a cartridge is like cooking in a wokyou want to have all of the ingredients in front of you and well organized before you heat up the oil." Photo by Jan van der Crabben (Wikimedia Commons)
Here's a great garage-sale find: a series of 7" 331/3rpm records sent by a drug company to doctors during the late '50s. Knowing that many doctors back then were classical-music aficionados, the company would put a licensed excerpt from labels like Vanguard and Westminster on one side, and on the other a medical lecture extolling the virtues of the drug it was pushing. My favorite: John Philip Sousa's "The Thunderer" paired with "The Treatment of Some Gastro-Intestinal Disturbances."
Flash! The record biz's savior has been announced, and you're reading it here first. According to some statistics, the prerecorded music industry saw sales drop a precipitous 30% last year (Footnote 1). Why? Well, there are many reasons why CD and cassette sales dropped and why vinyl was the only format to show an increase, but the industry, noting the trends, has decided what needs to be done to increase sales this year.
And the winning solution? "Bring back the cassette!" I kid you not. A group within the record industry has decided that emphasizing expensive CDs and downplaying inexpensive cassettes have driven away a large portion of the market who cannot afford CDs. So a newly formed organization called the Audio Cassette Coalition has been formed to "revitalize" the cassette market.