June 1, 2005"I Want to Keep the Lathes Running"
Every few weeks, I receive catalogs in the mail from several high-end audio dealers, all of them offering turntables ranging in price from about $300 to $5000. A few of those dealers also sell vinyl. In 1991, when I bought what I then thought was a serious audiophile turntable, a Denon DP59L, I assumed I was buying one of the last of a dying breed. If youd told me that, 15 years later, turntables would still be available, I would have said you were being too optimistic. Yet here we are in 2005 and you can still find a turntable to fit your budget. More surprising is the fact that some companies are still trying to find ways to improve this old technology. Even more unexpected, high-quality LPs -- new titles as well as reissues -- are being pressed right here in the US.
Still, LPs and the hardware to play them remain a specialty market. Most of the people who buy turntables are, Id guess, at least middle aged and already have large record collections. (Hip-hop DJs dont buy Rega turntables.) Most of our friends long ago dumped their vinyl off at Goodwill (our gain) and traded it for CDs. We vinyl lovers are a fringe group, and small changes in the industry can create anxiety among us.
Don Grossinger is a mastering engineer whose recent credits include an all-analog master for the vinyl release of Brian Wilsons Smile and the excellent vinyl reissues of the Rolling Stones ABKCO/London catalog. I asked him how he felt about the current state of vinyl in the marketplace. "Its not as healthy as I expected it to be," he told me. "If you had asked me six months ago, I would have given you a different answer. But Universal closed its pressing plant near Albany, New York, and plant closings are not a good sign."
I know how Grossinger feels. A vinyl paranoid who lives in fear of the day when no replacement styli or cartridges can be found, I had a similar reaction to the plants closing. But people have been hearing vinyls death rattle since the beginning of the CD era, even as turntable sales have remained constant and vinyl sales are at least as healthy as those of SACD or DVD-Audio discs. "People love the sound of vinyl," says Steve Hoffman, who, with Kevin Gray, remastered Creedence Clearwater Revivals recordings for vinyl reissue by Acoustic Sounds. "I dont know if the units sold on a given title is increasing. Since there are so many new titles being issued every month, its hard to say. Sales arent decreasing, though."
Classic Records president Michael Hobson agrees. "Well, Im pretty bullish on [vinyl]," he told me in a phone conversation. "There seems to be continued vigor. We came along at events like [the Consumer Electronics Show] with a lot of vinyl when everyone had CD players. But after people saw there was a market for vinyl, Basis and other companies came forward with more hardware. Im still astonished at the number of analog products available. Its not growing dramatically, but its not dropping dramatically, either."
Classic Records, Speakers Corner, Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab, Acoustic Sounds, and others help fuel the continued demand for vinyl by making LPs of exceptional quality. These new records are faithfully remastered by such respected craftsmen as Grossinger, Hoffman, Gray, Bernie Grundman, Stan Ricker, and Bob Irwin (whose Sundazed Records reissues great 1960s rock, both well-known and obscure). Grossingers Rolling Stones remasters gave many listeners the chance to hear the original London recordings in wonderfully detailed sound on vinyl at an affordable price. (Many of the Stones titles are sold out, but you can still find some of them at Red Trumpet Music, Music Direct, and Acoustic Sounds.) Hoffmans and Grays Creedence LPs sound better, to my ears, than any of CCRs currently available CDs, and they have an immediacy and drive that even the original Fantasy pressings lack.
Hoffmans name is on a number of CDs and LPs reissued by DCC, including Ray Charles ABC Records catalog. One of my cherished possessions is DCCs pressing of Elvis Is Back!, a prime example of Hoffmans ability to bring out the best in a recording and faithfully transfer it to vinyl. You might find an original RCA of Elvis Is Back! on eBay or in a record shop, but youll shell out plenty for a mint copy. In fact, youll pay a hefty price for DCCs pressing of that title now -- perhaps more than you would for an original -- because its out of print and it sounds terrific.
In most cases, however, while theyre in print, new pressings are an affordable way for vinyl fans to own pristine analog versions of recordings they love. Bernie Grundmans work on Classics pressing of Blue Notes Hank Mobley lets you hear the music in a manner faithful to the 1957 master tape for a little more than $30. An original fetches close to $2000 on eBay. As Hobson notes, "The level of authenticity we put into our pressings gives you the experience of those older records, which are often unobtainable."
Price is only part of the appeal of these and other audiophile records. Careful listeners welcome them because theyre painstakingly mastered and pressed. The whole concept of audiophile vinyl can probably be traced to Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (MFSL), whose high-quality pressings from the 1970s and 80s are still in demand among collectors. (The company went out of business in 1998 and returned in 2001.) When MFSL first began issuing records in the 70s, most LPs pressed in the US were made from recycled vinyl that was already noisy the first time you played the disc. MFSLs records were notable for their attentive mastering by Stan Ricker and the high quality of their LPs, which were pressed in Japan.
Those who began collecting LPs in the 1970s can vividly remember what they heard the first time their tonearms rode the outer groove of an MFSL record: silence. When I bought my first decent turntable in mid-70s, I was amazed at how the lower noise floor of a well-made LP brought out more of the musics detail -- makes sense, but hearing it for the first time was a revelation. Japanese, German, and even British LPs of music by my favorites nearly always sounded better on import pressings, even if the album had been recorded in the US.
That kind of quality has been matched or exceeded in records made by the companies named above. Todays LP buyers are usually audiophiles who want LPs that will meet the demands of good-sounding gear. Most vinyl collectors now use better turntables and cartridges than the average record buyer owned in the past. Record companies then were forced to master to a lower standard. "Theres a level of quality now that I believe was not possible 30 or 40 years ago," Mike Hobson says. "The cutting systems and the accommodations that had to be made to meet the limitations of the equipment of the time were just not a true reflection of the master tape." Don Grossinger agrees: "I think older mastering was dealing with limitations of the medium. Things these days can often be better."
Although the mastering engineers Ive mentioned all work in the digital realm, they continue to cut records and they remain passionate about the medium. After more than 40 years in the business, Stan Ricker is as enthusiastic about his work as ever. "I was/am extremely pleased to have cut the Pure Audiophile release of Ray Charles Genius Loves Company," he told me in an e-mail. "Besides Ray, the real genius is/are the engineering folks that generated astounding master tapes -- yes, analog, 30" per second, 1/2" two-track!! We elected to spread the program over four sides, thereby allowing plenty of room for a hefty level -- and some great kickdrums and bass!!!!!!" The exclamation points are Rickers.
Rickers zeal is typical of the dedication expressed by the manufacturers and engineers I contacted. Mike Hobson certainly wants to sell records, but he also wants to make sure theyre done right. Don Grossingers concerns about the closing of Universals vinyl plant stem, in part, from his advocacy of the LP. "I really love cutting vinyl. Theres an elegance to it. I want to keep the lathes running." When I asked Steve Hoffman to sum up what he likes about vinyl, he said, "Records are neat. They sound neat, they look neat, and its great to see all of that full-size artwork again."
Mike Hobson believes that middle-aged listeners, nostalgic for the LP experience, may be returning to it. But, he says, "Part of the viability for vinyl will be in new vinyl." Im sure there are readers of SoundStage! and GoodSound! who dont own turntables. Its those younger audiophiles, who may simply have never bothered to investigate how great this medium sounds, whom I want to encourage. Stan Ricker says they should check records out "Only if they love the music -- not just because its a licorice pizza!"
I have a number of the recent Bob Dylan hybrid SACDs. They sound great. Sundazeds mono pressings of Dylans recordings, up through John Wesley Harding, are just as sonically impressive -- Dylan is right there in the room with you on Freewheelin. If you havent heard Classics monos of Jimi Hendrixs Axis: Bold As Love or John Coltranes Blue Train, neither of which is available in mono on CD, youre missing a rich listening experience. Ive played Axis in stereo so many times that its part of my DNA, and I love the ca.-1967 panning and phasing of the music. But in the Classic mono the vocals are dead center, the kickdrum thumps harder, and the recording has, in many ways, more focus. Does it take the place of the stereo recording? Of course not. Its just another way to enjoy great music.
When I asked Stan Ricker if he thought vinyl would remain only as a special audiophile interest, he said, "I suppose so -- dammit!" He suggested a number of ways to educate people in the joys of the LP: "Encourage them to learn the real art of recording; an entire group, live to two [or three] track, everybody at the same time, in the same place, making real music together. Go to live concerts of anything unamplified and learn to listen." Steve Hoffman advises, "Play them a record. Let them fall in love with the ritual and then blast something good for them. They will be hooked (like my son is)."
I cant deny that LPs are more work than CDs. You have to clean them, and you have to flip them over at the end of the side. As Mike Hobson points out, "Theres a psychological element to listening to vinyl. You know you have to be there when the tonearm reaches the end of a side. You sit down to listen and it gives you a chance to pick up the cover and learn who produced the record, who mastered it." For me, the cleaning and other preparation of vinyl focuses my mind. Im going to be listening seriously to music.
Ill bet most of you young audiophiles who dont own turntables did buy SACD players. Enjoy the software you have, because record labels will probably soon abandon the format. Last year, sales of new LPs matched those of SACDs and DVD-As -- and there are thousands of old titles on vinyl out there on eBay and in collectors shops. For about $300 you can buy a very good entry-level turntable and begin to see whats so enjoyable about records. Or spend $50 on a used Yamaha belt-drive, put a Grado Black cartridge on it, pick up a couple of LPs, and see if you like what you hear. After that, you can save for a high-end turntable and cartridge. Then you can start tweaking. And turntables are endlessly tweakable . . .
I look forward to seeing you at yard sales, Goodwills, and on eBay, looking for great records. Later, over a couple of beers, we can debate the merits of original pressings vs. reissues.