Monday, September 20, 2010

Twelve Inches of Pure Pleasure!

Originally I was writing in this blog only when I was traveling, assuming no one would care about any of my day-to-day thoughts. But since no one is reading it even when I'm on the road, what difference does it make? So I'll write for my own bemusement.

Here we go.

The other night I was listening to records, yes, the black vinyl ones, on my marvelous audio system. It was late, midnight, at least, and I was groovin' to Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring...several versions of that monumental work, in fact.

And as I put on what was the very first recording of that masterpiece that I had purchased, way back in early 1970, I had some fantastic flashbacks, well, vivid memories, surrounded by ponderings and deep (!) thoughts. I bought that record, a three-disc set in fact, in Houston at the very beginning of my 10-year career in retail record stores...while still in high school. The box was a collection of Stravinsky's three most famous ballets: The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring, all conducted by Stravinsky himself. I remember that buying this set was a very big deal...THREE LPs! I think it retailed for about $14.99 and since I got the employee discount, it probably only set me back about ten bucks. But since I was making just $1.65 an hour, that constituted a full night of work—in those days I worked nights and Saturdays, twenty hours a week.

I remember listening to the records over and over, but with far more concentration on The Rite of Spring, because, honestly, it is a far better piece of music in my opinion—somehow I knew that even then. It is wild, crazy music that caused a small riot when it debuted in Paris in the early twentieth century. This fact, and of course, the music itself, really struck a chord with my young, rebellious soul. And, just like last week, I remember listening mostly late at night, after finishing my homework, an usually with the lights off. This was really moving stuff from the still-young Russian genius!

But I also recall listening with the lights on, reading over and over, the little booklet describing each of the works, largely in Stravinsky's own words. I did the exact same thing the other night. And as I did so, I was reminded again of a time long gone, when we all listened more seriously, or at least more intently, usually reading the album jacket repeatedly as the disc played for the third or fourth time, just home from the store, and fresh out of the shrink wrap. The twelve and a half-inch format of LP artwork just makes doing that more, well, doable, and so much more fun than squinting at the minuscule type on CD booklets. It just ain't the same. No way, no how.

I'm so happy that I was together enough as a kid to buy that Stravinsky box way back when, and that I played it only on good equipment...the discs are still in pretty much mint condition, more than forty years after the fact. Mint. Like minty.

And from that erupts a bit of musing about time.

I recall, when I was really getting into music and records, say about 1965, 1966, when my pop finally got his mom to let me explore the old Victrola in her house. In a little cubby behind one of its doors was a small collection of 78rpm discs, most of which belonged to my dad. I don't remember much about the titles, other than some bird call recordings, but they were pretty scratchy and a bit of a challenge to listen to on that machine. He explained that the records had been played with cactus needles during WWII because there was a shortage of steel to make the standard metal, but disposable needles. As a result, those discs had seem some wear and tear. My Grandmother promised that Victrola to me since my pop was its principal user and since she knew about my budding passion for music, but when she passed away, my aunt who lived with her and who was a bit confused about her mom's true wishes, granted it to one of my cousins. My mother told me to keep my mouth shut, which I have done since 1983........until NOW!!! The secret is out. That's my Victrola, Cousin Jimmy!

A Victrola Like My Grandmother's
But.

At that point—1966, let's say—these records and this Victrola were only about 30 years old!  But to me,  they seemed very much like pre-historic antiques! Delicate, kind of crappy sound, they seemed very, very old and out of date. But compared to today's memories of my Stravinsky box, not to mention my even older Beatles and Byrds records, they were still young! Now this strange perspective of time is very wild! Not only are my records older, in relative terms, but it seems like thanks to somewhat better technology over all, the music and the sound of these mid-60s classics hold up after all this time, yes, even the Beatles and Byrds and Spencer Davis Group LPs. Back in 1966, those Maurice Chevalier 78s, or whatever else my dad had around from the '30s,  sounded extremely dated, not just to me, I'm sure, but they surely even sounded odd to my dad, as familiar as the recordings were to him.

So what is that all about? Is time stretching? Is music getting better? Wait, I know THAT ain't true! It only gets worse year by year. So I guess time stretches somehow. Is it as we get older? Is it tied to climate change? Is everyone experiencing this, or is it just me?

Help! Someone tell me!

Ok, here's the finale, or, at least, you will be grateful, the cessation of this babbling. The first thing I did after getting my first record store job in January of my senior year in high school, 1970, was to drag the old man down to the local stereo shop so I could finally get the really good system I'd dreamed about for years! Until then I had been using 99-buck cheapo boxes from Sears, Penny's, wherever.  But we went to Home Entertainment, a shop on Kirby, not terribly far from our house and convinced him to co-sign on an installment note for a six-hundred dollar audio rig. By today's standards it would sound pretty bad, but to me, the Sansui receiver, the house-brand speakers and, above all, the classic AR turntable with its Shure M44 cartridge (fuck, how do I remember all that?) sounded like heaven in my bedroom.

The Original AR Turntable, A Classic!

Yes, somehow I knew that the manually operated AR turntable with nothing more than an on-and-off switch, was a far better choice than the snazzier automatic Duals and Garrards so popular back in the day--and, it cost much less to boot!  It is still a classic design, so simple, yet so elegant. People are always looking for them on eBay, so those AR guys must have been doing something right. It was all of eighty-nine bucks, new, in 1970.

Today, I am listening to much better audio equipment. But is no more complicated than that AR 'table. Less so, at least for my turntable which doesn't even have an on-and-off switch! It is a boutique-made Nottingham turntable from England designed by Tom Fletcher, a dixieland jazz player in England, probably in Nottingham! Ok, the tonearm is more complicated than the AR's, but not by much, and mostly in its ability to be a bit more finely tuned. But, still nothing automatic about it. It's a motor, a platter that spins on a bearing ( a finely engineered bearing though) and a nicely adjustable tonearm. I like the idea that the designer has a name, that he owned the company when I got the table (Tom got sick soon after I got mine and then sold the company), and that Mr. Fletcher himself insisted that his USA importer send me a sample table for review in JazzTimes in 2006. He never did that for other reviewers, but he said to his US reps, "This guy gets it. He knows it's about music, and he understands music." Or something to that effect. I was flattered. So I eventually had to buy the damn turntable because it totally changed my listening habits. No more CDs, LPs only.  I'm on my second Nottingham now, the first was fantastic, and more than adequat, but I decided to move up the line a tad to get even better sound.

Here's the Nottingham 294 Ace Space turntable I now own:

Nottingham 294 Ace Space Turnatable
The very first minute I cranked up that first Nottingham I was astonished with the realism of the sound, and I was instantly re-converted to the glories of LP sound. I rarely listen to CDs anymore. They don't sound so perfect after hearing the Nottingham. In fact, though I can still hear the music through the digital crud, they don't sound MUSICAL. Not like vinyl, and I have a $2500 CD player, not some circuit-city-sony-panasonic miracle box. LPs simply do sound better. Come over and I'll prove it. You WILL believe your ears! It's pretty cool!

Now, replacing that Sansui receiver and several other amps and preamps along the way, I now am the proud owner of a pair of handmade Shindo Corton-Charlamagne EL34 mono block amplifiers from Japan. As well, I have Mr. Shindo's Monbrison preamplifier which feeds the signal to the amps, which, in turn feed the music to my also handmade DeVore Fidelity Nine speakers which are made by my buddy John DeVore in his Brooklyn Navy Yard shop. Again, it's very satisfying knowing that my audio gear was thought up and made by individuals folks with whom I have some connection, and not some marketing committee in some tedious multinational electronics corporation. You know the ones, you own them, look at your television!
The Shindo Corton-Charlamagne EL34 Mono Block Amplifiers
My Shindo gear did not come off the rack in some warehouse, but instead, was built by Mr. Shindo and his son after I told the USA importer, Jonathan Halpern of Tone Imports, that I was craving some additional Shindo magic. A few weeks after I sent that monkey-on-my-back email, some boxes arrived on my front porch, directly from Mr. Shindo's enchanted cottage in Japan.

Did I mention that there are no transistors in Shindo's gear? No? Well, there is not a single one. Zip. Instead, he relies on the superior sound and musicality of old-fashioned vacuum tubes to cast his magical spells. Like the Nottingham, the designs are simple and time-proven. And they sound fucking amazing. Come over and I'll prove it to you! ( I really will!)

DeVore Fidelity Nines
John DeVore of DeVore Fidelity makes some of the very best loudspeakers in the USA, well, the world. No question. And they are not exorbitantly priced, but neither are they cheap. But for the money, they present such musical value that I can say that they possess few, if any, equals anywhere. No kidding. Again, simplicity. A box and three drivers...perfectly sized, positioned and implemented, all in a pretty little cherrywood box. John! I love you! Thanks for the endless hours of musical pleasure, you are a genius...just like Ken and Tom. How could I live without you three guys? You've made my life so much happier, so much better. It's just too bad not everyone gets to hear music the way I do.

But you could get close. Throw away the CDs. Get back to LPs. I promise you'll get so much closer to the performance of every disc you play.

(After I wrote this, I realized I forgot to mention that the record/music industry has, with each step forward in technology, made a giant stride away from the real, startling, hair-raising sound of the music, of the performance and of the performer. Thanks to Jonathan Halpern and John DeVore, I learned last year that those funky, old scratchy 78s, when played on decent equipment, trump the sound of even the best LPs. THAT was friggin' amazing.

And it's pretty well agreed that CDs do not capture the true essence of music the way LPs can. MP3s? Well, let's just say, sonically, they suck even more. Why are people satisfied with these decreases in quality of musical reproduction? Why do people like McDonald's? Ease and convenience, that's what I think.

For more on this idea of the sound of music getting worse with each "improvement" in technology, see this piece I penned for JazzTimes magazine a few years back: http://jazztimes.com/articles/17061-deep-listening.

Save your iPod for the gym, but leave it in your car when you get home. You won't be sorry if you have LPs spinning in YOUR livingroom...

Oh, here is my system in context. Pardon the mess!!!

The Audio System of Mike Quinn in Portland

2 comments:

David said...

As you know I've started listening to LPs again thanks to your constant bitching (thanks for that). Another side benefit of returning to LPs is that the sequence is often more in line with what the producer and artist had in mind. Plus 20 minutes is usually enough of one record at a time. If I want to continue with the same record, just turn it over. Otherwise I can move on to the next one.

David said...

Quinn, you old crank! I have that record. It IS still great.

And is that a turntable, or an UFO?