The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part XXV: Where It's At
"So what have you got against 'two turntables and a microphone,' anyway?" That's from an e-mail I received a few months ago from a PSF reader who chided me for a comment I made in "Needles and Pins," where I wrote of not really being interested in the DJ scene. As it turned out, it was his lone criticism, because he went on to talk about the wonders of analog, and how much more he enjoyed listening to LP's over CD's. But I've often thought about that comment, especially when I receive e-mail's requesting advice about such things as Technics turntables, mixing boards, and which cartridges handle "scratching" the best. (I shudder at the very thought of such abuse.)
But I really have nothing against the DJ scene. In fact, it has been suggested to me that I should be grateful for the TTAAM crowd, because they are keeping analog alive perhaps more than any other single source. This is confirmed whenever I browse in record stores that carry new vinyl. An easy 50% of the sealed albums on display are obviously geared for such entertainment. In fact, if I see a sticker saying "Techno Mix" slapped on the shrink wrap of an LP one more time, I'm gonna dive into e-bay and never come up for air.
I really can't say if this is a bad thing for real vinylphiles or not. As long as the rave crowd loves the medium, then analog is alive. But is this a compromise, taking the bad with the good? Critics of the Vinyl Renaissance say the market is artificially pumped up because of this. And if scratching vinyl is merely a trend (albeit, at this point, a fairly long-lived one), then the LP's days are truly numbered. So what's an anachronist to do? Roll with the punches, I suppose.
I should make myself clear, though. The Vinyl Renaissance has nothing to do with the DJ scene. When I speak of the warm, musical sound of analog, and its sonic superiority to CD's, manipulating an LP manually under a needle should not spring to mind. When I talk about buying a good turntable, one that easily sounds better than a compact disc player costing twice as much, I am not referring to Gemini or Vestax or Technics SL1200s or any other direct-drive monstrosity. In my mind, such turntables are part of the reason the public so readily embraced the compact disc nearly twenty years ago. And when I talk about phono cartridges, and how to set them up properly, it's so that they will sound better, not withstand "club abuse."
In fact, the only thoroughly negative e-mail I've received in conjunction with "The Vinyl Anachronist" was from some guy who attacked me for my comments about direct-drive turntables. In an abusive and somewhat sloppily constructed diatribe, he told me that I was full of shit, that direct-drive turntables out-performed belt-drive 'tables (he offered no supporting evidence, only his own opinion), and that his Technics SL1200 was the finest turntable ever made. I, of course, related the story of a friend of mine who runs a hi-fi store in South Florida. He sells Rega turntables. He sells a lot of them. And one of the most effective tools he uses to sell them is a Technics SL1200 he keeps at the store. You guessed it. Through a simple comparison test, he convincingly shows the sonic advantages of belt-drive turntables. The difference is so drastic that NOT ONE SINGLE PERSON has chosen the Technics over the Rega. Finest turntable ever indeed.
But in the context of the DJ scene, maybe the Technics SL1200 is the finest turntable ever. It is a workhorse. It withstands abuse. And after popping enough Ecstasy, it probably sounds fantastic! But I still don't want one. And it doesn't help that it's so ubiquitous. Whenever I hit a new record store, I like to peek behind the counter to see what they're using to spin LP's. More often than not, it's a Technics, or one of those chintzy $129 Pioneers or Sonys that can be found on Aisle 93 at the local Best Buy. You'd think that these vinyl lovers would wise up and buy a Music Hall or a Pro-Ject or a Rega Planar 2, all of which cost less than a new SL1200, and sound infinitely better. But it seems that Technics has done the greatest job of pulling the wool over the audio consumer's eyes since, well, Bose. Better sound through marketing.
Sometimes my mind wanders, and I think of opening a business, something laid-back and casual. It could be a record store, or a coffee house, or even a little bistro. And I'd put some decent music reproduction into the lives of my customers. It wouldn't be anything outlandishly expensive. Just a simple amplifier, some good bookshelf speakers, and a nice turntable. I'd play good music all day, the kind that would prompt my customers to come to the register and ask what we'd just played. I want to see the looks on their faces when they see that turntable spinning, instead of a CD player. Maybe we'd start selling Regas along with the caramel macchiatos.
My favorite restaurant in the world is the Occaquan Inn, in Occaquan, Virginia. During dinner they play old lacquer 78's on a vintage Victrola. I can't describe the sheer wonder and the good feelings I get from that. It's magical. By the same token, I recently went bowling in a 24-hour alley in Sacramento, where the place resembled a rave after midnight, with the thumping, monotonous beat of generic electronica, and bright flashing colored lights that made it all but impossible to pick up those pesky spares. I couldn't bowl over 120 in that place (I'm not a half-bad bowler), and I left with a migraine. I blame it all on the two Technics SL1200s that were perched next to the rental shoes.
After this circuituous route, we wind up back at "two turntables and a microphone." Like I said, I have nothing against the party crowd. Even though I'm getting a little long in the tooth, I have wandered into a rave or two, and for the most part it was a lot of fun. (I didn't understand the Vicks Vap-O-Rub part, though.) But it seems that the DJ scene is too much beat, and not enough music. Most of the music resides in the middle frequencies... important things like voices and guitars and pianos and such. When you artificially pump up the bass, and equalize the mids and the highs, you lose the life, the air, the presence of the music.
It's all about being faithful. Faithful to the artist, who heard the music a certain way in his head and is happy when he can put it down accurately in the studio. Faithful to the engineers and the record producers, who try to preserve as much of the music as they can for the listener. Faithful to the manufacturers of decent hi-fi gear, who know that accuracy is the name of the game. And faithful to the music lover, who wants to feel connected to the musician. I guess that's the problem I have with "two turntables and a microphone." I recognize the artistry of some of the best DJs, and I marvel at some of their pyrotechnics. But they have to leave the music in for me to remain interested. When it's just a beat, it's, well, just a beat. It's not necessarily music.
And that's why, for me at least, good analog reproduction is "where it's at."
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