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No 6435

System : The Tonearm



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

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


The Lp Analog Playback System

Something should be said about the confluence of Music Composition, Performance, Recording, and Playback that happened in the mid-twentieth century.....

Post-war optimism and economic boom (later in EU than US, but still) added to the real palpable presence of the 'Modern' (in all genres, but most certainly jazz), which produced a kind of bubble of musical creativity and fertility .. all geared toward a synthesis of styles. A half-century of Popular music was confronting the Classical canon ......... Delta Blues had come chugging up the underground railroad toward Chicago.....classical composers were 'quoting' elements of folk or popular..... 'Race Records' began to affect the mainstream..... Every pop genre was confronting every other--- bigband, swing, jump, blues, vaudeville, jungle, broadway, bebop----- were converging. 

Add a World-war to the mix, and things managed to get even smaller...... take American vaudeville, for example, and annex French chanson, British musichall, and German kabaret.   Add Hawaiian, Boogie-Woogie, Hillbilly, Neopolitan, Western, Yiddish, Hungarian, Polynesian, North African, Flamenco--- a million colors were brought into the new postwar blend.

It was often only an insistent rhythmic motif, a jingle or trill here or there, but it was all now in the mix. Andrews Sisters would knit a military 'reveille' into a swing tune. Django Reinhardt had taken swing and made French hot jazz out of it... Bing Crosby would whistle a cowboy lullabye in a negro-spiritual inspired vocal track.... Sam Cooke, Ray Charles and others would take Gospel music into a parallel universe and Soul would emerge.... Bebop, for one, in it's free-flight solos, felt free to "quote" any 8 or 16 bars of anything, for effect, association, comment, or irony, in the middle of a larger composition. Sonny Rollins would toss off a couple bars of 'Santa Claus Is Comin To Town' mid-solo, like he was daydreaming.....  And significantly, a cross-cultural whirlwind was being slowly fired up at the Sun Studios, in Memphis, Tennessee.  

On the recording side, electrical recording had been practiced since the twenties commercially, and really came into it's own with the institution of the Long-Play 33rpm twelve-inch microgroove. Records were routinely "cut" on-site by the resident mastering engineer, rather than being sent to an outside source, as is done today.  One track, one groove, one sound.  Mono was then the norm, you have to remember, not a "choice".  Before commercial stereo arrived in the mid-fifties, what we now call "mono" was originally referred to as "sound recording". Period.

Add to this the golden-era professional audio gear -- Neumann condenser mikes, Studer transports, RCA Ribbon-mikes, Ortofon Cutting Lathes, Telefunken tubes, etc etc etc........ And you've got a convergence that wouldn't really happen again till four or five beatles found that you could do surprising things with a four-track tape machine, and blow everybody's minds.....

Moving ahead in time to our topic here, and just to set the record straight, as regards the resurgence of Idler Drive tables...  The postwar era of course produced the Long-Play Microgroove record, and it initially was driven by idler-coupled motor.  The resurgence would happen quite a bit later, but is still with us now.



It happened sometime in the early eighties in Japan, and was notably imported to the west by the French 'ultra-fi' practitioners who were already in pursuit of transformer-coupled vacuum tube amplification by then, as were the Japanese.  A well-placed audio journalist named Jean Hiraga began to write about all of it, and it became a central part of their movement's "Sound". Along with twelve-inch arms, Spu cartridges, field-coil speakers, mono lp recordings, and other practices even by then (80s) considered very much anachronistic... 

Regrets to current self-appointed originators, and other present-day auteurs, but this is one of those Populist (albeit niche) Groundswell Movements that we're probably just not ever going to be able to 'credit' any one individual with.

It's one stop short of hilarious to credit anyone on the current scene with the innovation of renouncing compliant coupling for turntables, and installing heavy Idler Drives into high-mass stacked-ply plinths, utilizing the classic transcription arms and cartridges.  It was originally done long long ago, and probably better off having no exact provenance, which would only narrow down what might be deemed acceptable anyway. 


Tonearm Considerations
Too much Introduction, but, alright, here we go :
The Tonearm itself can be said to "triangulate" the dynamic elements of the full phonographic system :  The steady onward rush of musical wave ( groove modulations ) provided by the transport system -- meeting the sonic transducer of the cartridge-- a language translator, of sorts, and the successful interaction of all under the management of the arm's capabilties.
Getting this beast together took me nine months. The objective here was a 12" transcription arm to complement my gray Garrard 301 and to (eventually) be able to accomodate an Ortofon Spu head. I wanted something period-appropriate and not clinical sounding, and that put the current 12" Sme, Ikeda and others to the rear of the running. So it was really the Sme 3012, or the Ortofon 309, which wouldn't have been wrong, either. The beautifully made Fidelity Research I reluctantly ruled out as fiendishly expensive, some kind of uber-cult item at this point, though an extraordinary arm, designed by Ikeda-san before there was an Ikeda tonearm as such.

Much was researched amongst the Ortofon and Sme long arms.  A critical component turned out to be the vintage & materials-composition. The knife-edge bearing, of the Sme, for example, could be steel, nylon, or retro-fitted with a bronze knifedge available today.  The prevailing opinion from many sources was that, if you could get it, the Steel Knife-edge yeilded the most natural yet concise, broadband tone.  Also entering the fray was the armtube composition, with the Stainless Steel of the heavy Series One 3012 being the preferred edition.  So it narrowed to the Sme 3012/I or the classic Ortofon Rmg 309, the tonearm built for the Ortofon Spu cartridge. 

As I continued to weigh the variables, it eventually came to this:  I was looking for an arm to eventually mount an Spu, but didn't want to hinder the ability to mount other cartridges.  Both arms are heavy and meant for low compliance cartridges, so that sets up a slight limitation for starters. The SME was simply more adept at supporting other cartridges as well as the Spu, and had flexibility with the rider weight configuration for various and sundry carts, present and future.  So the Sme it was to be.  Series One and perfect condition, please.  Alright, they're thirty years old, very good condition.

What took forever was the search for the basic arm (found in N. California) and then the missing or inadequate parts. Ended up with rider weights manufactured by a guy in Holland, an early Series Two bias arm from Uk (can't be seen in photo), and a very nice, expensive, & appropriately mass-y Fidelity Research headshell also from northern California. 

The tricky thing here is that I really couldn't find much on the Series One arms (got manual from Vinyl Engine, though) and wasn't entirely sure if they would even be able to balance carts like my Benz L2 @ 9g., considering the enormous stock counterweight and rider-weight. This arm was from the era of giant war-of-the-worlds carts and heads like the Spu @ circa 40g., and I certainly wasn't about to start adding a 30 gram extra-weight to balance. 

The answer came together in the form of the circa 20 gram FR headshell FRS3, and oddly enough, from the fact that the 3012 arm I came up with had no rider weight at all. Lots of emaillage -- Thanks to Holger Trass and Brian Kearns-- got me more info on the whole Sme universe, but still no absolute solution. What I ended up with, though, was to go with a pair of Series Two Improved style riderweights, turned by the the Dutch guy for not-too-crazy a price, and I think it worked.

(One Series One single-weight would have been too much for my current cartridges, and the Sme Series Two "split" weight doesn't allow both riders to move independently. My unorthodox arrangement does, and with both onboard gets up to that Spu mass neighborhood.)

I've found a suitable ingot for a bias weight (under hexkey in photo), which I'll use till I stop seeing thirty-dollar prices for a dead weight on a string.... For what it's worth, the Series One wasn't originally designed with a bias weight system in the first place, though a mickey-mouse add-on arrangement was later brought out. At any rate, all I need is a length of monofilament and I'm in business.  I heard a rumor that the original bias line was a stainless filament...  but in this case a 2 lb weight mono line worked out.

Why The Twelve Inch Tonearm

It's not just 'slightly reduced distortion' at the peaks of the tracking arc...... although a twenty-eight percent reduction at the null points doesn't strike me as minor at all .....

It's an altogether more benign tracking curve which not only achieves Big Distortion Reduction at the peaks, but manages a much closer adherence to tracking fidelity throughout it's distincly flatter arc.

So in general terms, with distortion and tracking error always somewhere in the picture, you can at least dial it down.   If tracking an Lp can be like driving through a desert sand storm, not only is the sandstorm reduced with the longer arm as much as that 28-percent-down figure at the nulls, but the intensity of the storm is lowered along the whole drive.
A better, more civilized trip overall. Or something. Possible drawbacks, of course, are alignment accuracy, construction rigidity, and the higher effective mass isn't right for all cartridges. Consider this one, though :  A 12" arm puts your armbase three inches of solid plinth real-estate further from noise sources like spindlebearing and motor.  Another overall win in building a quiet, high-resolution system.


Twelve Inch Arm Sound Considerations

There's an undeniable ease and confidence in the sound of the Twelve-Inch Arm.
Having heard numerous inter-combinations of this gear by now --(koetsu black and benz L2 on sme 3012 arm, benz & koetsu on graham (9"), vice-versa, and now spu meister silver on sme.... )-- and considering I regard the Graham as a high-caliber no-slouch arm --- I'll say that it's the Geometry advantage of the 12" arm that really works for the "inevitability" or "confidence" aspects reliably heard in the sound. And that's no matter which of the cartridges is mounted.

Much as lp analog sound avoids a coarse glaze of 'fatigue' (vis--vis the same material on cd)---- so too does the 12 inch arm remove a bit of 'concern' in the sound and, certainly, the loss of inner or outer tracking distortion artifacts. Recall too, that --for idler-drives--- the arm-mount is that three inches further-from-motor than with a nine-inch...... the advantage is heard, although this lowered-concern factor is one of those don't-notice-it-till-it's-removed things. Once you go back again, the regular 9" rendition feels a little 'cramped' after the expansiveness you hear with the longer arm.

I think you want to differentiate between Arm Geometry producing better or worse alignment characteristics -- and 'User Set-Up Error' producing better or worse alignment charcacteristics.
That's where people get lost on this one, and it's easy to do. There are those (me, once--) that for some reason assume that it's extra difficult to set up and accurately align a 12" as compared to doing the same for a 9".

It is not.

Somebody, somewhere along the line, though, decided they could un-sell everybody on 12" arms (might this have been someone with a money-interest in 9" arms-- or, even more likely, in small tables that couldn't support a 12" arm anyway ?) ... by making the 'smaller-arm, smaller-error' claim.

What they were claiming was that a similar error in Set-Up would produce a small error in the nine-inch, but-- a large error in a twelve-inch. Which, by their analysis, would vitiate any Arm Geometry claim the 12" might have had in regard to lowered tracking error. All that is either misleading or outright wrong, though.

What needs to be known about 12" arms is that most turntables cannot support them. So they'll never really have a broad-based support group amongst the 'expertise' merchants that also, by the way, need to sell "most turntables" ....... The critical science is that vastly lower 28% Tracking Error Reduction is achieved by 12" arms as compared to the standard nine-inch.

The listening evidence is that you hear a more relaxed-while-resolved sonic with the 12" arm, complete with lesser listener-cramp at the off-nulls in the tracking path. More of a 'confident' sound, and ...  12" arms are, in fact, more tolerant of alignment errors than shorter arms--- start with the fact that the longer arm has a mathematically-provable reduction in error. You could actually misalign the cartridge, which would eat up some of that redux, and still come out ahead.
If you can accurately align a Tonearm, though, you can accurately align a 12" Tonearm.

So what it comes down to is the Ikeda, the Sme, the Ortofon or the Fidelity Research models.  (There are current reiterations of the the Twelve Inch design available, but they tend to be re-worked variations of the Ortofon.)


James Donahue, 2006.