23 September 2010

The Jams

It's been a while since I wrote an installment of my infrequent series "The Jams". Today, rather than concentrate on a single specific recording, I thought we might talk about the blessing/curse that is vinyl record collecting in general, and the large equipment needed to feed the vice. It's a subject that is dear to me, and one well worth approaching here.

I love music. For as long as I can remember, it's been an integral part of my life. It started with my fathers love of soul/r&b/dance music of the 1960s. Back in the day, he was quite the dancer, and when I was growing up, we always had some jam going in the house. True, much of it was simply the pop stuff that was on the radio when he was a young teenager, but it really meant something to him. That really stuck with me. When I was about 15, he gave me an old Masterworks British turntable that belonged to him when he was in college. It was a spindle player, the kind you could stack records on, sort of an analog precursor to the (now obsolete) multi-disc changer. It remains to this day one of the best gifts I ever received. That same year, I became stricken with a severe case of Beatlemania, which is a little weird, I guess, since I was 14 in 1990. As luck would have it, at the time there was a truly fantastic record store near my house called Disc Diggers. I managed over the course of a few years to collect a complete collection of Beatles first pressings, few of them costing me more that a few dollars. In the years that followed, I learned to play the drums, by listening to Beatles records on that very record player in the attic while I banged along. I've played in loads of bands, and was lucky enought to tour Europe once upon a time. These days life is much less Rock 'n Roll, but that doesn't change my love of music. That record player is long gone, and so is Disc Diggers, and I'm hardly likely to tour the small club circuit again, but the damage had been done.
One thing I will never lose is my habit of collecting music, and my absolute insistence of the vinyl record as the only real viable method of reproduction, preferably of course if the music was committed to magnetic tape using cardioid microphones in a big, open room. Here we see the current collection as it stands today. As with clothing, my tastes shift a bit now and then, and I try to pare things down occasionally. But there are plenty of records in there that I've owned for 20 years, that were already 30 years old when I discovered them.  I realize that for many people today, the idea of a music library taking up a big part of the house seems inconceivable, when all those songs plus ten times as many can fit into a device in your pocket. But for me there's more to it than that. This is an honest to God music library, a fine collection I have spent my entire life building, a living thing that continues to grow. I could never feel the same about an expanding collection of MP3s. It's simply not the same. Non-audiophiles don't get that, which I understand completely. But vinyl junkies feel this on a level that is inexplicable to outsiders. But that won't stop me from at least attempting to explain it.
That right there is what we call a stereo, or hi-fi, meaning it reproduces music in high fidelity, meaning the sounds that come out of that machine are as true to the sound of music in live performance as you can get. And it's true. Digital technology has progressed far enough to allow us a stunning breadth of sound quality, I'd never deny it. But what's missing is the feeling. Simply put, it's not physical, and all music is physical. It's inherent in the very process of it's creation. Records exist physically, which makes them more of an honest reproduction. Of course, I love old stuff, so my view is a bit biased. But bear with me...

This is my Pro-Ject turntable.In the last year that Mrs. G. and I could actually afford to buy nice gifts for each other for Christmas, I was stunned to receive this. That Christmas day, I spent two hours calibrating it, which of course I loved. In order to switch speeds from 33rpm to 45 rpm, you have to remove the platter and switch the drive belt to a larger wheel on the motor. Just my kind of pain-in-the-ass. The first record I played on it was "Ride This Train" by Johnny Cash, a record worthy someday of its own post. I won't lie, when I heard how beautiful my new machine made this old record sound, my eyes welled up. Really, they did. I told you, music has always been very meaningful to me.

The turntable runs through this 90s vintage solid state Marantz amp. One day I'll have a tube amp, but for now this is pretty  good. Also the gift of Mrs. G. (I love my wife), this amp was a birthday present, to replace my old Marantz amp from the 70s, which had died a while before. Basically, it's that same as the old one, only the old one was encased in wood,and looked a little better, and weighed a lot more.

Beside it on the floor sits a pair of KLH speakers. I picked these out, along with my old wooden Marantz, as my combined birthday/Christmas gift when I was 17.  We got them at a local shop that used to be called Used Sound. They were $90 for the pair, and I remember thinking how expensive they were. That was in the Winter of 1993, but these speakers were easily 25 years old already. These days, pushing 40, they only get better with age. Sure, I'm a Luddite, but there is nothing digital that lives and breaths this way. These days people tend to forget that the very wood these speakers are encased in has an awful lot to do with the warmth and beauty of the sounds that come out of them.
The old Model Six speakers were a masterpiece. Check that high frequency toggle switch at the back. Ipods would be so much better if they had toggle switches.
Out in the other room, we run a pair of late 70s vintage Jensens. These are actually a recent acquisition, picked up at a local thrift, $30 for the pair, less than a year ago. Convenience be damned, a stereo should be a collection of pieces of furniture. Think of how much space amps and  drum kit take up, not to mention an orchestra or a jazz outfit with an upright bass and a piano. There's no way you can boil all that down to an Ipod, not really.
I said earlier that music had a physical nature. Remember, I am a drummer. When people make music, it happens physically. Bang the drum, pound the piano, lay into the violin, or just milk the feedback out of those hot vacuum tubes. Thats where the guts in all this are. With records, there is a physical connection. You can actually touch the grooves, feel it with your hand. In order to play the songs, you have to take a big thing out of its cover, clean it, and lay the needle on it with a gentle touch. It's physical. It's true. It's real. Send that all out through some old wood, and the experience is second only to live performance. Ipods and MP3s will never even come close. The topic isn't really even open for discussion. I'm going to have to be hard*ss on this one. Analog recording, by way of vinyl, by way of wood, is incomparable. If you don't believe me or understand, find your way to a record player and listen to an old recording of the Budapest Quartet.

Feel free, of course, to voice your opinions. Just don't expect to budge me.

28 comments:

Anonymous said...

COULD NOT AGREE MORE. BEAUTIFUL RIG.

The Red Velvet Shoe said...

At first, I feared we were going to see you in your pajamas, then the coffee kicked in and I thought, "Oh, THOSE Jams!" Great set up~~I have a few treasured vinyls and love to hear the scratchy sound on my little vintage turntable...my husband thinks I'm deranged, but being 15 years my elder I just smile and tell him it's a good thing I like old stuff.

OldSchool said...

One more reason to be a devotee of this blog.

Eric said...

You couldn't be more right. I'm 27, and have collected records since I heard the Beatles at 8 years old. I have a bookshelf dedicated to my collection -- an entire wall in a one bedroom apartment. Theyve followed me from Florida to DC and theyre my most prized possessions. It's taken me 8 years to build my hi-fi, and I know it will never be done. But I consider this a hobby, and one that makes me proud and fills my heart.

You have a beautiful collection and system -- congrats.

Peter Wilborn said...

I'm with you 100%. I finally retired my old vinyl system and bought a new all-British turntable, amp, and speakers. Friends come over for dinner just to rummage through the collection and spin LPs. It is the only way I truly enjoy listening to music.

thekevlarbeard.com said...

I am an avid collector as well. I love the sound, I love that when I buy a 12" off a band's website, they get most of the money, I love the artwork in 12x12. It's just a great experience.

Anonymous said...

A man after my own heart! I admit, I am not a only vinyl person, my collection is comprised of vinyl (first album, Madonna), tapes (first tape, Heart0 and cds (first cd, AC/DC). I love my music. I keep the tapes and cds in a chest of drawers that belonged to my Great-Grandmother. The best Christmas present I ever revieved was 7th grade, a new stereo (complete with stand!) my mother bought off of lay-a-way at K-mart and Motley Crue's Girls, Girls, Girls album to play on it. Whenever I move the stereo and music are in the car with me, not the moving van. I read an article a couple weeks ago about the demise of the album and when was the last time anyone actually bought an album anyway? I had just purchased two albums that day. itunes can be convienent, but it is so not the same as a turnign on the stereo and opening a new album and listening to it from beginning to end while reading the liner notes.

Phil Asby said...

Nice rig - no question! Years ago (I have a couple years on you age wise) I saw the writing on the wall and doubted my delicate Harman Kardon ST8 linear tracking turntable would hold up long term with parts and repair abilities dissolving. It was a beautiful machine, but the design was inherently cantankerous. So I picked up a workhorse turntable, a manual belt drive Thorens TD280 MKII and loaded it up with another workhorse equal to the task - Shure V15 Type VMR cartridge. It has served me well and without question provides the best audio quality available. It is easy to wax eloquent about certain technologies or "ways of doing things" and their visceral appeal - wetshaving, writing with a fountain pen, making pasta from scratch, etc... An advantage of producing music on a real hi-fi system is that not only is the entire experience more satisfying, but the music unquestionably sounds better as well. Music is not of the ether as many would believe (and yes, my iPod is convenient when I am going for a run or lifting weights) - but as you've noted it is very much a physical experience and endeavor in all dimensions. X's and O's simply cannot capture that properly. The ritual and care the musicians placed into the music is mirrored in the ritual and care of cleaning that slab of vinyl and dropping the needle - a perfect harmonious circle.

pasquale said...

I have a stereo 6bq5 amplifier for you if you can drum up a pre-amp for the vinyl.

Nathan said...

I'm extremely jealous of your huge vinyl collection, G.

Great post!

notesandbeats said...

What cartridge are you running on the Pro-ject?

And one thought: get those speakers off of the floor and onto some stands. You'll get less boomy bass and be able to turn down that tweeter enhancement. I live in Roslindale. If you ever have any questions, just let me know.

Anonymous said...

Vinyl and the process and joy of finding a rare one in a stack at the local thrift store for a dollar or less, the examining for scratches and ink scribblings on record sleeves, taking it home and setting it aside until you have time to put it on the turn table, the examining of the artwork, and reading even the fine fine print at the bottom while listening to the A side, getting up and flipping it to the B side is all part of the hobby. It slows a person down. We need this.

Surly said...

Clean, well cared for records are not scratchy just as low ISO film is not grainy. But then, you know that.

Anonymous said...

I caught my 17 year old middle son listening to 'Sympathy for the Devil' just now; 'amazing track, dad', 'yes Harry, but you should hear the whole album'. This is my issue with Ipods, not the digital/analog thing, (warmer, more physical sound certainly, with irritating jumps and scratches, all part of the fun), but the missing out on a classic collection of songs that have been put together: Beggars Banquet, Blood on the Tracks, American Beauty, Court and Spark, Blonde on Blonde, Workingman's Dead, London Calling, Kind of Blue, Time Loves a Hero, etc., etc..

Outstanding stuff, Wardrobe.

Fatfriend.

Northmoon said...

I'm getting all nostalgic seeing those names from my long ago past - Marantz, Thorens(!). My husband and I had a good friend who worked in a highend store - he was always upgrading and we got some of his 'old' equipment. Ipods may be convenient but it's not the same experience. the next best thing to a live performance.

So glad to see there are still collectors out there who appreciate vinyl records

3button Max said...

great article- nice to hear Budapest string quartet mentioned a major influence on my life...

sean said...

Long time lurker, first time caller.

Great post.

Anonymous said...

If you havent seen "This Might Get Loud", you should rent it (it was on Netflix Instant View recently). To see Robert Plant and Jack White pull out their favorite LPs from their extensive LP collections was pretty cool.

Anonymous said...

Like you, I enjoy all things old and well made. However, technology is good for a lot of things and I think music is one of them. Every time I hear someone talking about vinyl, they mention "warm". But what does that mean? They also always fail to mention hiss, pops, 60 cycle hum. These things are pejorative of music and are much more pronounced when listening to analog media. Listen to Carry That Weight @ 0:25 at a moderate volume level. I'm almost certain that your setup will distort the regal sound of the brass. And due to the nature of vinyl, it get worse with every play. This will not happen on even a modest digital system.

Giuseppe said...

Anon.

Al that pop ad hiss that people tell me about when I get going on vinyl is something tha happens with badly cared-for records on cheap stereos.

As for warm...
It's an intangible quality, more of an emotion than a sound. I've tried in vain to explain to to others in the past, but I fail to find the words. I do, however, knowit when I feel it.

Sean said...

Have you considered a career change?

I often wondered how you can keep so robust a wardrobe as you boast, and now this record collection is even more impressive.

Sir- the field of marriage counseling needs expertise which you so clearly possess!

Giuseppe said...

Mrs. G. might beg to differ.

sonofstan said...

Love the look of those KLHs - speakers are the current weak point(s) in my two rigs: pairs of perfectly servicable, but not terribly exciting Goodmans. I like the fact that Pro-ject exist and make a great, relatively cheap TT. I recently retired mine though, because I picked up a Goldring Lenco GL 75 (tey were called something else in the States I think? Bodem?)Idler wheel driven, and lovely tight bass and drums - not better, necessarily, but different and interesting, the way the difference between two MP3 players will never be interesting.

David said...

I've always been a collector as well. It all started when my father gave me the Beatle's white album on vinyl when I was in the 5th grade. Somewhere down the line I discovered thrifting and well you know where it went from there. Every time I'm at the thrift I hunt down their vinyl section and have a dig through. My collection became really large however when my uncle passed away and, unknown to me, bequeathed me his entire collection knowing that I enjoyed vinyl so much. I now have hundreds of albums I haven't even had the chance to go through. It's a great hobby though, like one Anon said, it's something we need more of.

Nick said...

I weirdly have an almost identical sound system. Probably have a similar record collection too.

Oh, and to Mr. Anonymous: I intend to be listening to my pop and hiss plagued vinyl when everyone else is shouting "Huh?!" from years of in the ear headphones, noise cancellation, and "Make it louder!" digital compression.

I also have an iPod, but I try to only use it in the car.

Anonymous said...

I grew up listening to my parents' giant cabinet stereo (It also had an 8-track!) and still remember the day I got my own record player. Fond memories, but I also remember the first time I heard a CD. It was U2's "Joshua Tree" and I couldn't believe recorded music could sound like that.

Like religion, that "warm sound" is all in your head, but like religion, it's a great thing if it makes you feel good. Like religion, don't try acting all superior when your judgment is tainted by what you feel instead of what you know.

Giuseppe said...

Wood is warmer than plastic.

Polarbear79 said...

I just discovered your wonderfully brilliant blog and I must say I love it!
I never and I do mean never leave comments as 99.9% don't warrant a response. Yours sir, however, is unbelievable.
I was sold after viewing your impeccable talent of bringing everything old into something new and beautiful in the eye of the beholder with your keen eye of “Affordable Wardrobe” pieces.
I’m 49 and have lived in Detroit for most of my life and shopped some of the best vintage/thrift shops the area had to offer. But after 23 years of marriage and 8 kids, I just haven’t had the time to do much searching lately.
I must say that after reading further back into your articles and seeing this piece on "The Jams", I was left speechless. You just don't see record collection like yours anymore and I have to admit I was a bit jealous and a lot remorseful. You see, I used to DJ dance parties back in the day that were the precursors to what is now known worldwide as the Detroit Techno sound. Detroit being the birthplace to the Motown sound as well as Techno, and a dad who passed on his love of the hard bop era, afforded me the privilege of having a pretty extensive record collection. Everything from Cannonball Adderley to Monk to Coltrane to WasNotWas to Derrick May to Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson.
All that brings me back to the remorseful comment. After our 7th child was born and my collection was moved to the attic, my Mrs. W. thought for some odd reason that I didn't want my "old records" and had my sons place them out on the curb for large trash pick-up day! She called me at work that afternoon to tell me that the trash had been picked up and I got rid of “those” records. Over 500 LP’s and 12” vinyl gone. That was over 14 years ago and it still hurts thinking about it.
Please forgive my rant. It’s rare that anyone shares the same affections. You are to be commended sir. Keep up the great work and you have a fan forever.