Analog Corner

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Michael Fremer  |  Feb 21, 2013  |  16 comments
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 records—every one of them stone-cold mint—locked in a warehouse in York, Pennsylvania since 1973, and would I like to have a look...I bit.

Michael Fremer  |  Jul 22, 2013  |  5 comments
Every so often, when I get down (and I don't mean as in "get funky''), I wonder whether I'll run out of analog things to write about. After all, we're only a year from 2000, and this needle-in-the-groove invention is already more than 100 years old. What's left to say?

Or so I think when I get blue. But it doesn't last long, not with so many inspired correspondents writing and so many manufacturers creating new products—even though, as we all know, vinyl is dead.

And then there are the bizarre incidents.

Michael Fremer  |  Mar 11, 1996  |  0 comments
If you've seen Capitol's latest "limited edition" Beatles vinyl reissues, and you're wondering, don't bother! It doesn't say "digitally remastered" on the jackets, so I bought The Beatles (the "White Album'') to hear what gives. Slicing open the shrink wrap and opening the gatefold revealed a small box that read: "This album has been Direct Metal Mastered from a digitally re-mastered original tape to give the best possible sound quality."

Best possible sound quality? What planet are these people living on? Yer anus? DMM and digital: two guarantees of worst possible sound from vinyl. But you can't blame DMM for this sonic disaster, because although it says DMM, it ain't. Capitol has reproduced the artwork from the British vinyl reissues which probably were DMM. The American LPs were mastered by "Wally" (Traugott) at Capitol, and Capitol didn't have a DMM lathe last time I checked, which wasn't that long ago.

I compared my original British pressing of The Beatles (played a zillion times since 1968) with the new reissue, and if you want to hear music cut off at the knees—hard, grainy, two-dimensional, antiseptic, and generally annoying as hell—knock yourself out and buy these "limited edition" LPs. What's more, my 28-year-old pressings were quieter. Virgin vinyl? How about "nympho" vinyl? At least I only paid $18 for that two-LP privilege.

Michael Fremer  |  Jul 11, 1997  |  0 comments
"Installing a cartridge is like cooking in a wok—you 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.

Michael Fremer  |  Jun 25, 2013  |  8 comments
Have you noticed how the pace of things "going digital" has increased? There's no escaping it, and television's next. It'll take about 10 years, but then, like abandoned canals, the empty two-lane cement of Route 66, and overgrown railroad rights of way, the analog broadcast pathways will be discarded, handed back to the government for reuse in what will no doubt be a far less glamorous endeavor—garage-door opener or pocket-pager frequencies, perhaps.

Route 66 has made a tailfin'n'Elvis–based nostalgic comeback. So have steam trains, taking railroad buffs on daylong excursions over commuter rails. Last year I took one myself—and I enjoyed every soot-sprayed, purgatory-hot, steam-stinking, smoke-belching minute of it. (I hung out in one of the two open cars: standing room only, no glass in the windows.)

But analog television? Is anyone going to miss it? I doubt it—which is how most people felt about records with the introduction of the compact disc. Remember? People dumped their vinyl like carcinogens, and most haven't looked back with regret. Clearly, from our perspective, that's their loss.

Michael Fremer  |  Nov 22, 2013  |  1 comments
I know I keep repeating these LP/CD comparisons done by youngsters, but they're so much fun. Here's another.

My friend's son is in a band, and they'd cut some tunes that they wanted to hear back on my system. They brought the CD-R over, and, of course, they'd never heard their music sound so good—actually, the recording was quite accomplished. One of the kids looked around dumbfounded at my records and turntables and said, "Why would you have all of these?"

I told him they sounded better. "What do you like?" I asked.

"How about Green Day's Insomniac?" he replied.

Michael Fremer  |  Nov 11, 1995  |  0 comments
Three news items before we begin this column:

First, I am sad to report the murder of Ed Tobin, who I once referred to as the "Yoda" of record plating. Tobin, a veteran of more than 40 years of record manufacturing, was responsible for lacquer plating at Greg Lee Plating in Gardena, California, and oversaw the production of stampers for AudioQuest, Mobile Fidelity, Classic Records, Acoustic Sounds, Reference Recordings, DCC, and many, many other audiophile and non-audiophile labels. Arrested and charged with the crime was Tobin's stepson.

Second: VPI's "Easy Analog" turntable/built-in phono section combo, to be produced in conjunction with Clearaudio and Gold Aero, and mentioned in my Hi-Fi '95 Show report last August (p.82), turned out to be not so easy: the project has been scrapped. Also on the VPI front: the company has delayed plans to manufacture its new pickup arm with a variety of upgradeable options which would have priced it between $900 and $2300. Due to the high demand for the $2300 loaded version, that's all the company plans to produce for now. [See VPI's letter in this issue's "Manufacturers' Comment."—Ed.]

Third: Owners of VPI TNT III turntables (which include the flywheel and outboard motor) who are using the Bright Star Big Rock TNT isolation base absolutely need to get Bright Star's new Mini Rock F base for the outboard motor. It replaces the VPI-supplied metal shelf and, as reported by Steven Stone in this issue's Follow-Up, results in almost complete motor isolation. The sonic improvements (ie, lower noise floor) are not subtle.

Michael Fremer  |  Apr 11, 1997  |  0 comments
Audio legend Saul Marantz's obituary appeared in the New York Times the other day, respectfully written by Stereophile Guide to Home Theater's Lawrence B. Johnson. Once the initial shock had worn off, I remembered something I'd meant to pass on to you: I collect musician obituaries and insert them into the appropriate LP jackets without folding. Try that with your stupid jewel-boxed CDs! For instance, last Saturday I came upon Richard Berry's obit. Berry, of course, wrote "Louie, Louie" back in 1956. As is so often the case, he ended up getting screwed out of his publishing rights to the song. After his version of the song sold about 130,000 copies—a good number back then—he sold the publishing, but not the radio and television performance rights, to Flip Records' Max Feirtag for $750 so he'd have enough gelt to get married. Ah, yes! My people knew how to discover and record black people, but paying them fairly was another story! (Don't bother writing to tell me I'm a self-loathing Jew. I know it—just as I know I suffer from Short Man's Syndrome.)
Michael Fremer  |  May 07, 2013  |  5 comments
What's it worth to ya?"

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."

Michael Fremer  |  Nov 01, 2013  |  2 comments
After I saw my MP3 e-mail exchange with the editor of the "Circuits" section of the New York Times in the February Stereophile, I began to think that publishing it hadn't been such a great idea. If the exchange had burned my bridge to the Times, publishing it in this column had probably NATO-bombed it.

But eventually I made peace with my decision and forgot about it. Mikey vs the Times was a dead issue no matter what I did or didn't do, and at least Stereophile subscribers got to read what happened. Some of you thought it made the Times look bad, some of you thought it made me look like a hothead.

So, after all that, after explaining to the "Circuits" editor that, whatever benefits MP3 offers, "CD-quality" sound isn't among them, guess what appeared on the front page of the "Circuits" section of Thursday, June 17? An article titled "The Beat Goes on Line, and Sometimes It's Legal," by David Kushner, the lead sentence of which read "If there is a 'Phantom Menace' of the Internet, it's MP3, the compression software that enables CD-quality music to be sent on line. Like the film, MP3 comes with a considerable amount of hyperbole, promise and, alas, science fiction."

Michael Fremer  |  Jul 12, 1995  |  1 comments
It was big. It was ugly. It looked unfinished. It resembled some kind of industrial mistake, which is pretty much what it was: a prototype CD player rolled out by Sony at the 1982 AES Convention in Los Angeles. The inventors didn't care what it looked like, they just wanted you to hear it. Why, I don't know; it sounded awful.

I'd just spent a week's worth of tweak time optimizing my turntable using a Japanese pressing of Roxy Music's Avalon, squeezing every last cymbal rivet of musical detail from my Dynavector Ruby/Lustre GST-1 combo, and they're trying to pass off this flaccid noodle as Avalon? Oh, headless chickens!

Michael Fremer  |  Jan 11, 1997  |  1 comments
Allsop's Orbitrac 2

Before beginning my regularly scheduled column, let me respond to Charles Hansen's letter (November 1996, p.16), which JA kindly headlined "Fremer Was Wrong." [Hey, it did follow a letter headline "Fremer Was Right.''—Ed.] Hansen writes "...unless they've changed it since I purchased mine, the Shure...is virtually unusable for moving-coil cartridges. The main beam is made of a ferrous material—the powerful magnets in a moving-coil cartridge will clamp the gauge to the cartridge, flattening the cantilever in the process." (my italics)

I've been reviewing moving-coil cartridge after moving-coil cartridge in Stereophile and using my trusty Shure gauge to set tracking force on all of them. As I haven't noticed any flattened cantilevers, it appears Shure has changed the gauge's beam from a ferrous material to aluminum. Hansen could have picked up the phone and called Shure or, God forbid, me—then he wouldn't have confused and/or panicked readers. Get the Shure for $15 and rest aSHUREd you'll come within 0.1 gram of the true VTF compared to the dead-on accurate $649 Wind electronic unit you'll read about a few paragraphs down.

Michael Fremer  |  Apr 02, 2013  |  14 comments
I've got this friend Shirley. Married with two kids, she appears to be your typical suburban middle-aged housewife—but 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.
Michael Fremer  |  Sep 13, 2013  |  4 comments
I've been waiting for the right occasion to crack open a sealed-in-the-polyethylene-bag 1A pressing of The Byrds' Mr. Tambourine Man I'd bought a few years ago from a veteran Columbia Records publicist. Today was the day. Wiz reissue producer and Sundazed Records Prez Bob Irwin has just graced me with test lacquers of that album, which he'll release soon on 180gm vinyl, along with Turn! Turn! Turn!, Notorious Byrds Brothers, and Sweetheart of the Rodeo—with others to follow (I hope).

These Irwin-produced sets were issued three years ago to great acclaim on Columbia/Legacy CD (with some cuts, like "Mr. Tambourine Man," mixed analog in stereo for the first time), with lots of great bonus tracks, photos, studio chatter, etc. The new LPs, mastered all-analog using Irwin's custom-rebuilt Ampex ATR-100 playback deck, will contain the remixes, plus one bonus track per side, fitted in without compression. The plan is to issue the LPs with gatefold jackets to allow the inclusion of never-before-seen photos from the original sessions and other cool stuff.

Michael Fremer  |  Nov 11, 1996  |  0 comments
From vinyl biscuits to 180gm LPs: RTI's pressing plant hard at work.

I'm tired of reading hacks who predict the merging of audio, video, and computing. You know, the integrated "multimedia" living-room package—Dad sitting before the theater-size flat screen doing his taxes, Mom "surfing" the Internet for recipes, Junior downloading instructions for building pipe bombs—that sort of thing.

It ain't gonna happen, okay? Not when Dad can have a $1500 PC in the basement home office, not when Mom can have a $1000 PC in the kitchen (Dad's always has to be bigger—it's a "Family Values" clause in the Contract On America), and Junior can have one in his bedroom—and everyone can attend to his or her own business in private. Why would you want to tie the whole thing together in one place so that everyone but the person hogging the monitor can get ticked off waiting for screen time?

No, the family room is for family business, like watching television and movies. I have running water in my kitchen—does that mean I should rig up a toilet in the middle of the room?

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