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No. 6435




No.6435  Overview  Starting Line  Arrival  Deconstruction   Beneath Decks  First Night's Spin

Listening to Plinths  Motor  System: The Tonearm  Tweaks  Articles  Bookshelf  Transit  ***




     From it's invention sometime over a century ago, the phonograph changed the way the world hears and thinks music. An explosive and brilliant intervening century put a museum's worth of recorded arts onto records. At this point in the 21st century, many think of records as antiquated and obsolete.  At the risk of doubting the corporate mindset that brought us dropped cellphone calls and acid rain, this project looks into records, and record-playing, as a superior alternative to digital.


This is for those who still have reservations about the digital era, especially regarding music.  In Analog Lp playback there is, primarily, the visceral, untroubled, coherent sound.  And there is something fundamental about the procedure itself -- the hands-on adjustment, the arm fluidly tracking the revolving groove, the warm initial burst of sound -- that is the opposite of menu-driven, multitasking, led-flashing, bleeping & beeping digital frenzy..... 


Just selecting records in a nice shop is now a kind of leisurely stroll into another era.  To some extent like visiting a new town or university...  when the old library is pointed out and you think, " you know, I bet that's worthwhile"...  Then, one day you finally walk into the library, and realize there's an enormous wealth of books, music, films, and visual arts on some slightly dusty shelves. After a few samples from the archives, you realize you're privy to the heart & soul of many a previous generation, all at your fingertips. 


Then, sitting down for a long evening's listen in the midst of this atmosphere, you realize that a lot of your own humanity is mirrored in the collections you've been sampling, that there are common chords being struck, that all the old voices, stories, and compositions carry a kind of DNA, which you recognize as being in sync with your own.

And you can sip a cognac as it all comes down. At it's best, it's something like that, not counting slight pops & crackles.


There are two sides, basically, to the way the phonograph renders music, two sides of the same coin.  Heads is the Famous Logo, the cover-photo,  Nipper the Dog and the Magic Talking Machine.  It's the wide array of color, and timbre, and  the full palette of harmonic structure created by the music.  Let's refer to that as "Tone". 


The Tails side however, is the Devil in the Details, the fine print, the deal-breaker without which you have, well, you have no coin at all. 

Let's call that one "Time". 


If you've only thought about turntables for the few seconds it takes to get from the lead-in groove to the music, it may not be apparent.  Once the music takes over, you're already on the Heads side, almost all the way.... providing, of course, the Tails side has been catered to.  Turntable designers have always had this two-sided quest, judging where best to expend their efforts and budget, and how to balance it.


At the outset of this project, I was determined to give the legendary gray Garrard 301 the best restoration I could, stopping short of the line where it became a questionable proposition.  The idea was to press for every glimmer of performance possible, but to go no further than warranted by the progress shown along the way.  The myth of these machines is that they offer an entirely different, and maybe more engaging rendering of what’s available on an Lp Record, having come from a time and place when that medium, the long-playing vinyl record, was new, vital, and well on the way to conquering the world. 


The story goes that we lost the way with our new-medium-every-few-years approach, and less-resolution-every-time-out dementia.  And that in fact we also lost a generation of sound and engineering technical minds that were trained in things as arcane as sound resolution and music recording, rather than market-shifts, demographics, and planned obsolescence.


Sadly both music and sound in our age of markets-as-prime-movers now tends to emphasize the ‘leading edge’ of everything involved.  It is now more evident than ever -- that it's about the sizzle and not the steak.  This means that a new flavor for music is always being evolved, but also that a new voice or style of music is generally dead after its first six months in the marketplace.  An artist or musical ensemble is generally a one-shot initial-splash proposition, unless they feverishly reinvent themselves in each new marketing cycle, ignoring all the inherent contradictions that may impose. 


The design of music playback systems is also front-loaded, first toward dubious “lifestyle” aspects, and thereafter toward the nonobjective first-listen in the showroom, often accompanied these days with special-effects laden production and subwoofering all out of context or control.  All first impressions are sacred, as they lead to the sacrosanct Point Of Sale.  Beyond that, it's old news anyway, and you’re on your own, pal.

The era that produced the Garrard Schedule One turntable was already rocketing along toward our Edge Era, but they still had the old hands on many of the controls.  Find a great older Lp, and forget for the moment any surface noise.  You may find, as I have, that an Lp record from this era, about ’55 through ’65, still sounds remarkably atmospheric and vivid, compared to our own culture of bleached-out downloaded bits.  If you think back, you may wonder how the hyper-real presence and dimensionality was produced, but --- that would be the wrong way to consider it.  The fact is that every subsequent commercial music playback system was worse and more impoverished in those terms. Clicks-and-pops-free became substance-free.  As smaller, lighter, more convenient and ergonomic systems were evolved to suit the marketplace, the music lost it’s heart, and it’s soul. 


However, as an Lp listener & enthusiast --even at this late date--I thought I’d go through the myth-architecture of record-playing from the ground floor up.  Here at the start of my project, the central part of our present audio system is a gleaming mid-90s piano-black beltdrive turntable, fitted with a 90s reference-standard tonearm.  But everything I was reading ---I’ll link to some articles at the end -- was pointing away from beltdrive, and toward idler drive. 


Not the pressed-tin rumble monster in grandfather’s console from the department store, but one of a very few legendary and heavy duty idler tables from the fifties / sixties. Idler drive Lp transport doesn’t leave speed consistency to the compliance of a length of  rubber belt;  on the big tables, idler drive utilizes a transport system much like open reel tape machines, which in fact are the source of Lp program material in the first place.  The myth is that this closely-coupled and direct-contact drive system, applied with engineering more appropriate to a battleship than an Ipod, suits the integrity of Lp playback like nothing available in our era.  Some examples of which, like the Garrard 301, were in use at the BBC round the clock, and managed to come through with reputations intact.  This project was meant to investigate the substance of the myths and to experience another era’s sound.  And soul.

James Donahue, 2006.