Analog Corner #36

(Originally published in Stereophile, July 12th, 1998)

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 wheel—new cars can't provide these sensations. New cars hide their mechanical nature. Old cars celebrate it.

Okay, that's romanticizing it: Old cars are primitive and they belch pollution and they're smelly, noisy, and uncomfortable and if you get into a head-on there's no airbag and you go splat!

Last year at a garage sale I bought an old, really neat-looking chrome art deco Sunbeam toaster. I was going to get one of those retro-looking British-made models they sell at Williams-Sonoma for a couple of hundred dollars when the real deal came along for two.

While taking it apart for a thorough cleaning, I found the date of manufacture stamped inside: "January 16th 1951." I could have been wiping away pre-Eisenhower crumbs! After nuking the innards with EZ-Off oven cleaner and hosing it down, I blow-dried and reassembled the gleaming, now-pristine appliance and made some toast. I'm not sure the heavy-duty coils this toaster sports are even legal anymore—they're probably a fire hazard—but in what seemed like less than a minute, some of the most perfectly browned toast I'd ever seen slowly inched its way up from inside the toaster.

It turned out this wasn't a "pop up" toaster—it is one of the more sophisticated models that dramatically raises the toast slowly and gently to the surface. That old Sunbeam makes much better toast than the almost-new toaster oven now in the attic awaiting my garage sale.

You know what this is leading to, of course: enjoying watching a stylus course through a spinning black-vinyl biscuit. There's nothing like it. It's just esthetically and sonically right. I know it, you know it, the guys and gals who make movies and television commercials know it: that's why they always use records, not CDs, when they need to show a sound source. Needle in the groove beats laser in the pits every time!

Okay that's romanticizing it: Records are primitive and they belch audio pollution and they're noisy and unpleasant to use and if you mishandle one it goes splat and it's ruined.

I spent the past week listening to nothing but CDs. I had to, it's part of my music-reviewer job description. And today's better discs are really good. On a modern digital front-end, you can listen to and enjoy them, and that's a good thing since most new music is only out on CD. But after a week's worth of listening I got tense and twitchy. My wife said "Why don't you just go downstairs and forget about what you have to listen to, and play something you want to listen to?" So I did. I put on an original green-label "Warner-7Arts" pressing of Van Morrison's Astral Weeks and sank into the sound.

My musculature and central nervous system finally relaxed. I took a deep breath, exhaled a week's worth of crap, and let Van carry me away. I probably would have enjoyed the CD; in fact, the new 20-bit Polydor Van Morrison remasters (not including Astral Weeks, which I guess is controlled elsewhere) sound superb. But could the CD of Astral Weeks carry me into the mystic? I don't think so. The record does every time, however, and as I listened to one of Van's greatest recordings, and watched it spinning on the Simon Yorke 'table, I thought to myself: "This is what having a great sound system is all about!" Is it because I'm habituated to the old pre-Eisenhower–era crumbs? I don't know, and I don't care!

They still make records?
Here's a shocking statistic (it shocked me!): According to the April 11 issue of Billboard, 51 of the top 200 albums are available on vinyl! That's a full quarter, and some others that are on vinyl, like Dylan's Time Out of Mind are not included. Just thought you'd like to know.

Stylus cleaning fluids
I'm staring at four bottles of stylus cleaning fluid: Record Research Lab's "LP #9" (a takeoff on the old Lieber/Stoller Coasters' song "Love Potion #9"), distributed by Musical Surroundings; LAST "Stylus Cleaner"; ClearAudio "Diamond Cleaner (The Elixir of Sound)"; and Immedia's "Needle Nectar." Which one(s) do I recommend? If I wanted to do some serious, well-lubricated self-stroking, I'd talk about how each imparts a different and quite particular tonality to the music. I'd guide you toward a particular brand in an effort to impose my leadership upon you with a certainty designed to enhance my position and cauterize your audiophile neurosis.

Count me out of that kind of wanking. I'll do mine in private, thank you. If that's what you need, there are other writers you can read. What I did was to try figuring out a methodology by which I could determine if there were any sonic and/or cleaning differences among the brands.

I played a few records, including Paul Simon's Graceland, which I'm rediscovering after watching "The Making of Graceland"—a superb and highly recommended Rhino VHS video that contains interviews with Simon, engineer Roy Halee, and the South African musician/collaborators. Partway through a side I lifted the stylus and cleaned with one brand; then I played some more and cleaned with another brand; then another. I couldn't hear any differences.

How about this? Take a filthy, grimy garage-sale record, play it until the stylus on a $4000 cartridge is thoroughly gummed up, then clean with one brand and check with a magnifying glass. Play some more, gum up some more, and repeat three more times. Tell you what: You do that and tell me what you find, and I'll report your results!

What I can tell you is that "Needle Nectar," formulated by Gary Garfield (Footnote 1), is the only water-based fluid of the bunch, judging by its odor—or lack thereof. Does that make a difference? Do you have to worry about alcohol dissolving the cement that binds the stylus to the cantilever? If my experience is typical, I don't think so! Do you have to worry about the alcohol being deposited in the grooves where it can dry out the vinyl? I don't think so—I doubt there's enough to do any damage.

In any case, be sure to use one of these fluids (all of which appeared to be equally effective) with every side of a record you play. The stylus gets hot tracing the grooves, and any dirt adhering to it will bake on if you don't remove it. The baked-on schmutz will literally change the shape of the stylus, causing both record wear and distortion.

When you clean the stylus never engage the arm lock! Otherwise, if you slip and exert too much upward force as you clean, there's no way for the arm to move and relieve the pressure. By leaving the arm free to move vertically, you assure "no fault" stylus cleaning. And always brush back to front, never front to back or side to side. I like using the stiff carbon-fiber–type stylus brushes that come with LAST products, though others prefer the softer bristle brushes attached to the bottle caps of most stylus cleaning fluids. [And I still use the abrasive plastic strip recommended by Linn dealers.—Ed.]

Also, while I've used battery-powered ultrasonic stylus cleaners on and off over the past decade (no pun intended) without problems, I'm hearing from a few cartridge manufacturers/importers that it might not be a good idea to use this type of device because it imparts the ultrasonic vibrations upon the cantilever suspension system. The jury is still out on this, so proceed with caution—and at your own risk.

As for "StyLast," a lubricant that is supposed to decrease friction and heat and thus prolong stylus life, I use it every time, but judiciously, taking care not to slop it all over the cantilever, where it can "creep" up into the motor and gum up the works. I suggest dabbing a drop of StyLast onto a stiff-bristled stylus cleaning brush and using it to apply the fluid.

Speaking of Graceland, readers often ask me about the sound quality of the various overseas reissue labels whose products are available here (often not exactly legally due to copyright restrictions, which the labels don't bother enforcing because of the small numbers involved). While that's a subject more appropriate for The Tracking Angle magazine (shameless plug), I must say that the recent German WEA 180 gram pressing of Graceland is not really worth the money.

Original American pressings, mastered by Greg Calbi at Sterling Sound from the original master tape under the supervision of engineer Roy Halee, are cheap and plentiful and sound "snappier" and closer to the original source tape. The outstanding Japanese pressing from the same DMM (Direct Metal Master), cut and coupled with superior plating and pressing, is the best-sounding of all, in my opinion, though the ordinary American pressing is also superb.

There's no way German WEA got the original tape of Graceland or any of the other titles it has reissued. But if you are a virulent DMM hater, you might prefer the mellower German WEA cut. I prefer the plain-vanilla, dollar-at-a-garage sale Fleetwood Mac Rumors to either the German WEA pressing or the Nautilus digitally remastered LP, which for some reason still commands big bucks. If you want to hear the damage early digital did to analog, compare that toe-stopping version with an original American pressing. A few of the titles, like Ry Cooder's stunning but oh-so-short Paris, Texas, while better-sounding on original American vinyl, are difficult to find, and so are worth getting while you wait to get lucky at a garage sale.

Two labels out of England, "Simply Vinyl" and "Absolute Analogue," are literally flooding the market with outstanding American titles. Both series are very well pressed, but here's the scoop: The Absolute Analogue records sound analog—probably mastered from the second-generation tapes originally supplied to the British subsidiaries of the American labels. Some of the titles, like Kind of Blue, are far better served on domestic reissues cut from original tapes, but others, like Carol King's Tapestry and Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited, are quite good and currently not available as reissues here.

The Absolute Analogue Blood on the Tracks is disappointing compared to the readily available original. The one Simply Vinyl title I auditioned, The Byrds' Younger Than Yesterday, was simply awful compared to an original American "360 Sound" pressing: It sounded sourced from a mediocre CD transfer, and my e-mail to the company asking about source material went unanswered. I'm speculating about source, but not about the sound: glassy, flat, and distant.

My take on these reissues, especially the pop and rock titles is: If you can find an original pressing in good condition, it will usually sound better. Many of these are common and easy to find for a few dollars each, so save your money and visit a good used-record store before dropping the big bucks on the reissues.

Back to Washington, DC
I promised in the June column to conclude coverage of my visit to the Library of Congress' Recorded Archives, so here goes—and these aren't leftovers. Among the items on display was one of Emile Berliner's finest inventions: the flat-disc record player. Unlike Edison's cylinder, Berliner's invention could easily be mass-produced.

The German-born Berliner came to the United States in 1870 when he was 19. He invented the carbon microphone, which improved upon the device Bell used in his original telephone demonstration at the United States Centennial Exposition. He sold the patent to the then-fledgling Bell Telephone Company for $50,000 when he was 25.

Fortunately, instead of retiring, Berliner came up with the flat disc, later founding Deutsche Grammophon and the English Gramophone Co., Ltd. in order to market his invention in Europe. You know what else he came up with? The original painting and trademark that we all know and love, of a dog listening to "his master's voice," which the Victor Talking Machine (eventually Radio Corporation of America) licensed domestically. The rest, including Dynagroove and Dynaflex, is history.

According to a biography I found online back in 1919, Berliner also invented a helicopter that actually flew. He also "...commissioned what was likely the first radial aircraft engine. He formed a public health organization that helped safeguard the US milk supply. In 1911 he established the Esther Berliner (his mother) fellowship to give qualified women the opportunity to continue scientific research." I would have expected no less from a fellow who invented records, wouldn't you? While Berliner was definitely Jewish, it is mere speculation on my part that the inspiration for the flat record with a hole in it came from a bagel.

One more Berliner innovation: I was amazed when I inspected his phonograph to see a screw-on clamp atop the disc, much like you see on a VPI or Oracle turntable. You kind of wonder how that great idea got lost for the next 70 or so years. One question I've often been asked is, where did the 331/3, 45, and 78 rpm speeds come from? Good question! Did you ever think about it? I have to admit I never did, so when I got to Washington I asked Sam Brylawski, Head of the Library's Recorded Sound Section. His answer? 331/3 started with 16" discs, the combination of which was the fastest speed that would fit the audio contents of an entire reel of motion picture film for Warner Brothers' "Vitaphonic" talking pictures system without distortion. I never got an answer about 78, but 45 was easy: 78 minus 33 equals 45.

Finally, here's a quote from Gerald Gibson of the Audio and Moving-image Preservation Specialist Preservation Research and Testing Office: "One of the things the AES preservation standards group and sound archivists in general feel is that the present digital sampling rate and bit rate is not adequate for preservation purposes. [This is] because we're preserving not only what the average person can hear and understand and appreciate, but also trying to preserve the information, because if we don't preserve it, it's going to be lost forever."

The Audio Olympics
I was thinking about how either CES or the annual consumer HI-FI Show might be enlivened with some international inter-magazine competition. Following the lead given by Michael Gindi in the June 1997 issue of Fi magazine, I came up with the following ideas, in which teams of audio writers representing the top four or five magazines worldwide (by influence, circulation, percentage of bullshit contents, whatever) compete with one another for fabulous prizes.
• "Room Without a View": Each team is given an identical hotel room containing the same complete audio system in sealed cartons—amplifiers, preamp, turntable, cartridge, speakers, etc. The team has x hours to open the boxes and set up the system in the room however it sees fit, but by ear only (except for the cartridge installation, of course). A panel consisting of manufacturers whose gear is used in the system rate the sound quality (imaging, soundstaging, frequency balance, etc.) of each (unidentified) room. The room receiving the highest score wins.
• "Equalizer Toss": Each team is given a bad-sounding room (not too difficult to do at either CES or HI-FI) containing a system and a sophisticated graphic/parametric equalizer like the Cello Audio Palette. Using just music and their ears, the group attempts to obtain "flat" response from the system. The "flattest"-measuring system wins.
• "Name That Tweak": Blindfolded reviewers are lead into two rooms containing identical systems: one is connected using lamp cord and the cheapest Radio Shack RCA interconnects and AC cords money can buy. No cones, feet, pucks, cubes, discs etc. are used, and all equipment (except for the turntable) is placed on the hotel-room desk and dressers. In the other room the same gear is connected using the most-expensive speaker cables, interconnects, AC cords, Mpingo, bongo bongo, oingo boingo, come-back\go-away\whatever-discs, pucks, feet, cones, boards, racks, rocks, etc. Teams of reviewers have to identify which room is which.
To make the results "scientific," one of the variables would be to have a team visit the same room twice, the goal being to get them to claim that they heard no difference because they visited the same room twice. Note: Please do NOT write in explaining why this is not a valid scientific test—or why it violates the Hindenburg principle or whatever it's called. I am writing this for entertainment purposes only.

• "Amazing CD Tweak!": Reviewers are forced to submit to blindfold tests of tweaks and/or accessories they have raved about in print (digital cables, CD treatments or discs, power line conditioners, etc.), which they claim make "earthshattering" sonic differences. The same music is played with and without the tweak or accessory, and the reviewer must identify which is which. Anyone who actually identifies anything correctly above and beyond chance must wear an "I am a lucky coin" tee-shirt for the duration of the show and have dinner with Peter Aczel of The Audio Critic.
• "VTA Adjustment Humiliation": Blindfolded reviewers listen to a record and have to determine whether or not the VTA is being adjusted as the music plays. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't. Can he or she ("she" included for political correctness purposes only) reliably tell when?
• "In-phase\"Out-of-phase": The enormous sonic difference between "in-phase" and "out-of-phase" signals are put to the test, with reviewing teams having to tell which is which and when.
• "Live Mike Feed vs 16-bit/44k1-Sampled Digital": At the flick of a switch, blindfolded reviewers listen to either a live mike feed of a stand-up bass, piano, and drum trio, or a 16-bit, 44.1kHz real-time sampled version. Those who cannot hear which is which win a five-year reviewing contract with Consumer Reports!

Garfield's Musical Fidelity company (not the British one) made a very nice power-supply upgrade for Oracle turntables back in the '80s.

sgibson389's picture

Thanks for the Library visit and the mini history lesson.

Reading your comments about the suffering of a music reviewer and seeing  Stephen Mejias's payday album stash makes me wonder when there is time for you to really get to know and appreciate an album? Are your most memorable recordings from a certain time peroid in your life or more recent?

 I am not exposed to near the quanity a reviewer would see but am really finding it difficult to enjoy the good albums I come across before something else comes along. Maybe it's an age thing, I'm 59, and maybe it's just me. Just sign me overwhelmed.

Jim Tavegia's picture

I can see one coming.  lol

bendawney's picture

I myself have a large collection of such wonderful albums and I find it extremely difiicult to part with these collections.

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EdFrutella's picture

The exisiting memories of the recorded musical history remained unscathed because of the great souls who made it still visible to the mindsof the people. - Wesley Upchurch